Today I had the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do since we moved here to Northwest Indiana over a year ago. I went with a friend and co-worker, Noel Perry, to the city of Gary which is almost next door to the city where we both live. We went out to meet with Pastor Ray Dix, who launched a church plant less than a year ago, and to get an idea of what God is doing in the neighborhood.
The added benefit is that Noel is familiar with Gary because that’s where he spent part of his youth. He gave me the grand tour while he told me stories of when he was growing up in the city. Lots has changed since then and I need to get a quick history lesson on the rise and fall of Gary, Indiana. During its heyday, the population swelled to close to 180,000 people but now it’s closer to 80,000 due to a number of factors. Evidently the house where Michael Jackson grew up is still there but I’ll let Noel take me there when we head back again!
I have seen a lot of poverty both here in the US and around the world. Gary is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the US and the economic conditions are horrid – businesses shuttered, store windows boarded up or broken, homes burned down, large empty lots where homes once stood until urban decay arrived. There were times I felt like I was again driving through the 9th Ward in New Orleans right after Katrina hit. Maybe it’s because we’re in the middle of winter, but what stuck out in Gary is the sense of the bleak, dark despair of a ghost town.
Here’s a question: How would you define poverty? Of course there are economic answers that one can give. But there seems to be another kind of poverty that is more internal – maybe not knowing God, or having a very narrow understanding of what’s really real, or feeling isolated, or an empty heart, or unwilling to understand another person’s life. One of the deepest ironies in life is that one could be wealthy beyond all measure and still be in a state of poverty.
When Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount, blessed are the poor in spirit, he’s talking about an internal poverty, a poverty of the heart. It seems to me that this kind of poverty is an admission that one is at the end of their resources, inadequate to move forward in life and unable to make sense of life apart from God. This is very difficult for people in the West to reckon because of how we are trained to work hard and take care of ourselves. Yet, the good news is this: when we get to the end of us, God does amazing work. In fact, we might say that when we get to that place, that’s when God often does His best work in our lives! It took the upclose experience with economic poverty to remind me that apart from Him I can do nothing (John 15:5).