Where on Earth Are We Headed?

How do North American college students muster what it will take to enter the reality of the world's slum communities as God's agents of transformation?

Urbanization is a fairly recent human development. The fact that one million people live in a ditch outside of Nairobi, Kenya, huddled under corrugated-tin sheets is something new to the human experience. Humanity has existed on earth for thousands of years, yet we are just now beginning to experience a kind of community that has never before existed: the slum community. Most slum communities are less than fifty years old. They collectively hold one billion of the earth’s people.

They are marked by crowded conditions, makeshift housing, questionable sanitation, unbelievable unemployment rates, desperate poverty, and too often, despair. Despair is the most destructive force in slum communities and is essentially a spiritual issue. When slum dwellers lose all sense of hope, they stop caring about what happens to themselves, their families, and the people around them. Despair rules the slum. What’s scary is that corrugated communities of despair are on the rise at an alarming rate. The United Nations predicts that the population of the world’s slums will increase from one billion in 2003 to two billion in 2020.1 Here are the questions I keep asking myself: Has industrialization and urbanization made the majority of lives on our planet better? Has modernization really improved the quality of my life? Is the world better off than it was two hundred years ago? Perhaps the agrarian life isn’t all that bad.

Maybe the Amish are onto something. Maybe human beings were designed to coexist in communities of less than one hundred families, living off the land, never moving far from home, and looking out for the welfare of their neighbors. Every time someone undertakes a measurement of the gap between rich and poor, they find it larger than when it was last measured. If you are from North America and have had the privilege of attending college, you are on the rich side of the gap. It will be almost impossible for you to imagine a place where the rule of law has dissolved, where children work ten-hour days, and where seven family members compete for sleeping space in a scrap-metal hut. I believe beyond a doubt that God’s plan for humanity does not include certain aspects of slum communities: child prostitution, 30-percent unemployment rates, and collapsing, corrugated-tin homes. God’s original design did not include a world where a few of earth’s residents live in luxury, struggling to decide how many cars they should own, while so many millions live in abject poverty, struggling to decide whether to sell their daughters into the sex industry in order for the rest of the family to survive. But just how exactly do we change the course of the speeding freight train of global urban poverty?

Transformation Is Tricky

Slum communities are very complex social structures. If you pull what seems to be a loose thread at one end, things begin to unravel at the other end. For example, consider the garbage community in Cairo, Egypt, where my family and a group of students lived for a summer. First, imagine a city growing by hundreds of thousands of people a year. How do you find housing, jobs, and sanitation for such a yearly influx? The simple answer is that you don’t. Infrastructure essentially collapses. Industrious poor people take advantage of the infrastructure vacuum and begin to gather trash. Soon there is a thriving garbage village right inside the city limits (there are at least five in Cairo). Within that community there is a steady source of compostable waste with which to raise animals, so a farming community also grows within the garbage village.

The sights and smells of living among rubbish, animals, and people were quite shocking to us at first. Our immediate thought was, How can we work to get rid of this place? But after living there a while, we began to see how thorny the solutions become. The sanitation system is actually pretty efficient. Eighty percent of the trash in Cairo is recycled or reused because of this hands-on method of dealing with waste. In the West we bury 80 percent of our garbage. To hire a waste-management organization that would bring in heavy equipment and create massive landfills is not only worse for the environment but would also jeopardize the livelihoods of those who depend on the trash. Obviously, the living conditions of a garbage village are unacceptable. Humans should not suffer the kinds of sicknesses and hardships that exist in that place. But urban transformation is a tricky business. If you rescue children from working in a sweat shop, you plunge their families into even more desperate poverty. You might deliver a fifteen-year-old girl from the horrors of living in a brothel, but unless you deal with the physical, emotional, familial, and spiritual consequences of child prostitution, she will return to the community that can relate best to her situation: the brothel from which she came. After all, she can hardly go home to the family that sold her into that life in the first place.

So can we really facilitate the kind of global change necessary to eradicate the nasty aspects of slum communities? As Christians, is it even scriptural to focus on changing sociopolitical systems and addressing systemic evil? Why not simply focus on spiritual things like church-planting and evangelism? And finally, can spoiled, rich North Americans in their twenties and thirties make any difference at all in alleviating poverty?

Jesus and the Poor

When Jesus was anointed at Bethany with “expensive perfume made of pure nard,” there were those who thought that the money should have instead been given to the poor. Jesus chided them with the words, “The poor you will always have with you” (Mark 14:7). Some may take this to suggest that Christians should not be obsessed with lifting the poor out of their poverty. Wasn’t the Spirit of the sovereign Lord on Jesus “to preach good news to the poor,” not to feed or clothe or house them (Luke 4:18)? Jesus’ Great Commission to his followers was to go and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19), not to go and feed all nations. Why then should we as Christians care about the poor? Consider the following reasons.

  1. Jesus identified himself most closely with the poor and marginalized. It is true that Jesus does not want us to venerate the poor any more than he wants us to worship the rich. However, Jesus was united with the poor in an extraordinary way. He walked and taught among them, as one of them. When he sent out his disciples, he stripped them of their material possessions and made them poor (Mark 6:8–13). Even more disturbing than Jesus’ personal association with the social underbelly of first-century Palestine was his clear statement that our treatment of the poor was identical to our treatment of him. Jesus said something quite startling to those who disregard people with no food or safe drinking water, people who are sick or foreigners (or any discriminated underclass), people who are poorly clothed, homeless, or imprisoned. Jesus said in the parable of the sheep and the goats, “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45). More frightening still, Jesus connects salvation in this parable with our response to the destitute. Ron Sider understands this to suggest that our response to the marginalized is a window on our faith. “The reality of saving faith is exhibited in serving love.”2
  2. God will bring judgment to his children when they ignore the poor. “Why exactly did God destroy Sodom?” asks Ray Bakke in his book A Theology as Big as the City.3 According to Ezekiel it was partly because they did not help the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16:49–50). Throughout the Old Testament and particularly in the Minor Prophets, God brings judgment on his people for the two prominent sins of idolatry and callousness toward four kinds of people: the poor, the alien, the fatherless, and the widow. Idolatry is related to hard-heartedness. It is self-serving. A person obsessed with self will be deaf to the cry of the poor. The Book of Proverbs states this axiomatically as, “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (Proverbs 21:13). Judgment begins with the house of God, and God judges his people for hard-heartedness toward the poor.
  3. The ministry of Christ and his followers is a ministry of compassionate deliverance. When Jesus sent out the disciples, he gave them the following instructions, “As you go, preach this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven is near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give” (Matthew. 10:7–8). Evangelicals have been pretty good at preaching the message of salvation, but much of Jesus’ and the disciples’ activities were focused on the ministry of physical deliverance.

People who are poor, particularly the urban poor, face many types of oppression that require deliverance. Beyond the oppressive nature of drugs, alcohol, and prostitution, the urban poor often face systemic oppression such as unsympathetic bureaucracies, ethnic discrimination, and various forces keeping economic underclasses alive in order to serve upper classes. What’s more, the urban poor are often both victims and victimizers of all kinds of crime. If the church is to follow in her Master’s footsteps, she will be given over to the task of seeing Jesus rescue people from oppression, thereby ushering in the kingdom of heaven about which she preaches.

So why should Christians care about the poor? As Mother Teresa put it, “In the poor, we find Jesus in distressing disguise.”4 We care about the poor because God commands it and has promised judgment for those who disregard the cry of the poor. We care about the poor because Jesus cares about the poor and because we were commissioned by him to preach, heal, and deliver those in distress.

Spoiled Rich Kids

What about North American college students for whom this anthology is designed? Can spoiled rich kids muster what it will take to enter the reality of the slum community as agents of transformation?

History is rife with children of aristocracy who abandoned the opportunity, privilege, and wealth of their social status to tie themselves with the poor. Many of those who joined the medieval monastic orders were of this class, for example, St. Francis of Assisi. But even long before St. Francis left his life as a wealthy playboy, there was Brigid of Kildare.5 Brigid was a fifth-century convert of St. Patrick, and her father did not think much of his daughter’s new faith. It seems that Brigid embraced a love for the poor that reflected her Savior’s own passion for the neglected. Since Brigid had no wealth of her own to give to beggars, she began giving away her father’s possessions, provoking him to fits of rage. Since he was a man of some means (quickly diminishing due to his daughter’s charity), he purposed to get rid of the girl and cut his losses by selling her to the king of Leinster.

Tossing Brigid in the back of a carriage, her father rushed to the king to see what kind of price might be negotiated. While her father haggled with the king for a decent price, a leprous beggar approached Brigid. With the kindness for which she was to become famous, Brigid surrendered to the beggar the one item of value she could lay her hands on: the sword her father had left in the carriage. Returning to the carriage, the price now settled, Brigid’s father and the king soon discovered her act of charity. “Why do you steal your father’s property and give it away?” the king asked her. Brigid replied without the least hint of intimidation, “If I had the power, I would steal all your royal wealth and give it to Christ’s brothers and sisters.” Needless to say, the deal was off. Brigid remained a prisoner in her father’s house until her escape. She later became the abbess of a large monastery for both men and women.

The fact is that many of the monastic orders were essentially youth movements that gravitated toward ministry among the poor. Today, college-educated youth will hopefully play a critical role among urban slum dwellers. Some aspects of urban transformation require people who know something about global economies. Dealing with child prostitution and child labor draws on those who have been through the rigors of law school. Solving some of the sanitation and health issues that plague the urban poor will call for people with formal education in these areas. While some people want to offer remote-control solutions while sitting in comfortable offices, we need those willing to go and live among the slum dwellers to understand the intricacies of how change might affect those communities. Real solutions will likely require healthy, educated men and women without children, willing to take up residence in urban hovels. Ultimately, this kind of devotion is intensely spiritual. Without a sense of holy calling and commissioning, it is unlikely that educated young people from the West would last long in a slum community.

My book, The Quest for Hope in Slum Communities, is an attempt to gather into one place a portion of the diverse dialogue that exists in the area of urban transformation. Everything from housing to street children is addressed, albeit briefly, framed by articles outlining a theology of urban poverty. This material is designed to stimulate the imagination of those exploring the question of how to address with compassion and conviction the stark realities of urban poverty.


1. United Nations Human Settlements Program, The Challenge of Slums: Global Report on Human Settlements 2003 (London: Earthscan Publications, 2003). BACK
2. Ronald Sider, ed., Lifestyle in the Eighties: An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Lifestyle (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 19. BACK
3. Ray Bakke, A Theology as Big as the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 93.BACK
4. Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories, and Prayers (Novata, CA: New World Library, 1997), 67. BACK
5. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 172-176. BACK

Scott Bessenecker is Director of InterVarsity's Global Projects and author of The New Friars and The Quest for Hope in Slum Communities from which this article is excerpted

Excerpted from The Quest for Hope in Slum Communities, Scott Bessenecker, editor. Copyright 2004 World Vision Press in partnership with Authentic Media; ISBN 1932805-192. Reprinted with permission.


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