“I Stumble and I Fall” – the Poverty Challenge

For a long time I have wanted Cecily Thew Patterson to write a guest post for me. I first met Cecily when I returned to Pakistan with my husband and we were working at the boarding school I attended through high school. At the time Cecily was a pretty, outgoing girl who already had the marks of a strong woman. Cecily is now a beautiful and strong woman.  I hesitated asking her for a post because I know she has several writing projects going on, as well as many other hats to wear. But today I get to introduce you to Cecily and her writing as she takes us into a struggle many of us have – the poverty challenge. She shares personally and poignantly from the perspective of someone raised in Pakistan.

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Like Marilyn, I grew up in Pakistan. Like Marilyn, I also went to boarding school in the Himalayan mountains. And I’m guessing that I was like Marilyn in the way that all junior high kids resemble each other. We all have to work out who we are by facing challenges. Some will make us grow and fly and others will make us stumble and fall.

Clothes were the challenge that made me stumble and fall.

While none of us were wealthy, some people in our school did better than others in the clothes department. I felt like I always had trouble trying to look nice. There weren’t any western clothes shops in Pakistan, I didn’t have a lot of things sent out from Australia, so whatever I could get that was a bit fashionable was really precious to me. I couldn’t just replace a ripped shirt or update old shorts. I had to take care of my stuff. I really wanted to look nice and fit in so I tried hard.

The reason I was at boarding school was because my parents lived in the Sindh desert in a tiny village. There were no local schools for me to go to so my brothers and I went away to study. Even though our school was not in a well-to-do area of Pakistan, and there was plenty of poverty around us, it was still always a big shock when we went home to the village for our three-month winter holiday every year.

Pakistani Family (courtesy of Tim Irwin)

The poverty in rural Sindh is confronting. People are extremely poor, many living in traditional mud huts. There’s no power and no piped water and not much transport. Everything is done by hand. Some people my parents knew were so poor they couldn’t afford to eat more than twice a day. They didn’t even have any sugar for their tea.

Most people had two sets of clothes; one for every day and one for weddings. And because the weather was extremely hot for nine months of the year, many people didn’t have any clothes that would keep them warm in the winter.

It was a hard place to live. And I had a soft heart. I really wanted to help. It broke my heart to see people struggling so much when I had everything I needed and wanted. I really wanted to make a difference.

An opportunity came when we went out to a town called Mithi to visit some friends. This family had brought in a big load of second-hand jumpers and jackets and were going to give them out to a few specific villages that were really poor.

I was excited to be invited to join in. This was going to be my first real hands-on experience of helping people in dire need and I was feeling nervous but also a bit righteous at the same time.

Out we went one evening in the landrover to the villages. We gave out all the jumpers and sweaters. But then we realised there weren’t enough for everyone. Some people had to miss out.

And then someone tugged at my sleeve and pointed to my jumper. I didn’t speak her language but I knew what she was saying. “Can I have that jumper?” she asked with her expression and her body language.

I was shocked. I was wearing a turquoise sweatshirt that I loved. It had come from Australia, it was my favourite colour and it went with heaps of things. I only had six sweaters and this was my best one.

But the woman tugging at my sleeve was asking if she could have it. She had no sweatshirts and there were more people in her village who had none as well.

What would you have done? Would you have given her the jumper? Or would you have kept it?

Throughout junior high school I met a lot of challenges and many of them were opportunities for me to grow and fly. This woman, tugging at my sleeve, was the challenge that made me stumble and fall. Flat on my face.

I said no.

I gathered myself up and I moved into the landrover where she couldn’t reach me. I talked to myself and told myself that it was ok, that I couldn’t be expected to give up my own sweater, that if I had given it to her my mother would have been cross because she couldn’t have replaced it, that I needed it for school, and besides, it wouldn’t be good if I didn’t look after my own things. I told myself that the woman would be okay, that she was probably just a ‘taker’ and that she shouldn’t have asked.

I still wish, 25 years later, that I had taken off my turquoise sweatshirt and given it to the hungry, thin woman who asked me for it.

And I’m still struggling to know how to respond when I come face to face with real people who have bigger needs than I do. I wish I was more generous, but I’m scared of what might happen if I am. Pray for me.

How do you respond to poverty? How have you responded? It’s a hard but necessary conversation so join in through the comments.

Author Bio: Cecily Paterson is trying to live an uncluttered life, although she feels like she’s behind the eight-ball to begin with in having four children and a recalcitrant dog to feed and keep happy. Cecily is an author, most recently of Love, Tears & Autism, a memoir of the five years following her son’s diagnosis with autism. She’s a fan of honesty and candour and always tries to tell the truth. While she grew up in Pakistan, she’s very happy now to live in small town Australia and would prefer not to move for a long time. Cecily blogs at Cecily.Mostly. Check it out!

41 thoughts on ““I Stumble and I Fall” – the Poverty Challenge

  1. This reminds me of one of the last posts I made on my own blog before i stopped writing. I faced a similar situation and made excuses for not giving only to regret it forever afterwards. It did teach me to give when I have to though and somehow I am sure it has taught Cecily the same and she probably ended up giving much more to others as a result of that one experience.
    http://weavingtapestries.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/a-missed-opportunity/

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      1. Well Cecily, let the past go and just remember that if you have something that someone needs and you can probably spare it, then don’t hold on it to, it give it. God probably gave it to you for that very reason, that is the only reason why you and the other person, their need and the thing would all 4 be in one place at one time. .

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  2. I love how this conversation has meandered round all these profound and meaningful themes, and ended up on a stuffed toy dog!

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    1. hahaha!! So true and so funny. And Cecily forgot all about it……! What’s interesting to me in that scenario is the impact of kindness on us, while the person who is giving doesn’t always realize just how big an impact they are having. So this gives new meaning to stuffed toy dogs.

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  3. It’s humbling and challenging to read Cecily’s post and your comments. As i write I am looking out the window onto a street in Pakistan’s capital. God has given us the opportunity to serve His people here again, but also to reflect, repent, renew our commitment and marvel at what He is doing amongst a new generation of keen young PakistanI Christians. They have picked up the baton, and it’s such a joy.
    Pam Tow

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    1. I loved this comment Pam – After growing up in Pakistan, My husband and I lived in Islamabad for 2 years and this comment gave me a picture of incredible hope for Pakistan. Thank you.

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  4. I’ve been thinking of this post all morning and wondering what my comment would be. When I came back to the UK from Pakistan I found I could hardly bear to see homeless people living on the street when I had a place to live. Somehow it seemed all the more obscene that in a country that was so wealthy with its social security system and handouts there would still be people who had nothing and grubbed around for food. Again, living in Fiji, I was confronted by the dilemma of how to live responsibly with money and how to live generously, a giving life. I found that many people I came across felt that they had a right to handouts of the money we were stewarding, although the more so because we were Christians and they were living by ‘faith’. Not everyone, but certain people. Others expected us to give them ‘loans’ that were very reluctantly and slowly paid back, because we were Christian. Still others would strike up ‘friendly conversations’ with us which we then realized had a money motive behind them.

    If I went went with my gut instinct, I would be like your roommate Marilyn, who felt guilty, gave away all her money and consequently had nothing for rent.

    Perhaps both situations are the extremes and we need to find a balance between being good stewards, providing for ourselves and our families and living the radically generous lifestyle that we long to live. I find coming from a missionary family background. the guilt associated with enjoying anything or having possessions of any value or worth is overwhelming and I resent that a bit. I don’t believe that God wants us to live a miserable life or give under duress but rather live abundantly, joyfully, being that constantly flowing river of blessing coming in and flowing out of our house, radical giving, radical abundant living, free from the desire to hoard.

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    1. Great perspective to add. And you bring up a good point – depending on where we live, we will be confronted at different levels. It’s easy to think of people as not living in poverty here because the poorest still has running water and a toilet. The reality is that is not helpful in honestly addressing the situation. It’s a steep learning curve for me and just as I think I’m two steps forward I fall a step back. I love what Marty says about not living by legalism but by grace. Thanks for joining in.

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    2. Unfortunately, Sophie, I wouldn’t even take on the roommate who wouldn’t have saved enough to pay her rent! I’m the complete opposite and tend to hoard rather than give. I know what you mean about feeling guilty for having anything of value. However, I am also realising that I don’t actually want the things I used to think I wanted now. Maybe it’s age…

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      1. That’s true actually. I think that the older you get the more you realize that material things are not what is most enjoyable, that relationships and experiencing the friendship and love of God are the things that are more precious than anything else.

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  5. This post is so challenging. New Zealand has a social welfare system and there is no poverty as there is in Pakistan, but relative poverty exists … along with child abuse and neglect. Something like 25% of all children live below the poverty line as defined here. Children go to school hungry and some have been beaten or worse. Most of this is through poor parenting but it’s hard to stomach and even harder to put right. I asked a friend who teaches 5 and 6 year olds in a decile one school (public schools in the poorest areas – they get additional government funding) how she deals with the hunger and the abuse. She said that all she can do is provide a safe environment for the time they are in her classroom.

    It’s so difficult to do anything to affect the big picture, I am moved by these stories of what has been done at a personal level. Thank you for the dialogue

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    1. Denny – I’m so pleased to have you join in! I’ve missed your voice on this blog! I just said something similar to Sophie above. I appreciate your friend’s perspective – recognizing her limitations but being able to live effectively within those limits. And to believe that a big picture is made out of various detailed parts.

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  6. I have appreciated not only the post but also the dialogue. I think we can face this in differing ways when we are living in more affluent societies. Even in those environments we need to ask ourselves if we purposely avoid low income and impoverished areas so we do not have to engage with others. Sometimes it can be easier to give of wealth yet not of self. I recall a time when I must say I had the bigger joy in giving and it was something simple, my winter gloves. I was working with refugees from Burundi and it was cold and snowy. When driving some of these folks home after English class I noticed a young mom with no gloves and ice cold hands. It seemed natural to put my knitted gloves on her hands. But I think I had the greater privilege. There are many more times, where I was the one who probably did some avoiding because I feared I just could not give anymore, or just plan was self-focused. I also had an opportunity to be on the receiving end when visiting a small village in Guatemala, and the people served our group things that they would not have even done for themselves, sacrificially gave much to us. It was humbling. And Polly was so right, there are more needs: physical, emotional, spiritual that we cannot meet, but we know the One who can. And just maybe we can give by allowing even those we deem as having less or “nothing” to give to us in ways they can as this communicate value beyond things.

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  7. Cecily and Marilyn, this post brings back some of the hardest situations I faced in our years of living in Pakistan. It was the times of realizing the enormity of the need and our total inability to make any significant difference at all. So many similar memories swept over me as I read your moving account that I sat weeping for several minutes. Then one particular memory came back, and it happened in Murree. A gypsy lady came selling berries and I bought some. I didn’t know her language and tried to chat a bit in Urdu which she knew only a bit of. I noticed that she had a dirty rag around her foot in a rubber sandal so I asked her about it. She unwrapped it to reveal a bad cut that looked infected. I sat her on a chair and went and got a basin and water to wash her foot, then putted some antibiotic ointment on it, wrapped it in a bandage and clean cloth and finally a sock to hold it all together. Suddenly it became a spiritual moment for me – the whole washing someone’s feet thing, and I felt it was for her, too. She said something I couldn’t understand, but for just that time there was an amazing connection. I hugged her, she went on her way and I went inside and cried. There but for the grace of God… but why? Why should I have so much and so many others have so little? I’m 83 and I still have no answers. But I have learned that God doesn’t intend us to carry the burden of all the pain in this poor suffering world of people. It’s one of the reasons Jesus came to die so we can give him the burdens too heavy for us to carry.
    I remember your parents well, Cecily. Don’t know if they would remember us, Ralph and Polly Brown, but give them my love.

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    1. Thanks Polly for that wonderful comment. It is too hard to carry – the ‘whys’ are always there. I will pass on your greetings to my parents who are just on the brink of retirement. Who knows – they might even head back to Pak for a while…

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  8. Thank you all for your comments. It occurred to me that the only reason I don’t still face these things every day is because we live in a wealthy part of the world now. But when I turn on the TV people are still asking for my ‘sweater’, whatever that means now. Thinking through what I give and how is needed on a daily basis.
    And Annelies, Im so glad you loved the dog – but this just proves that when we do give we dont miss out because I have almost no recollection of the dog! (:

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  9. Having grown up surrounded by abject poverty and indigence in a neighbouring country, I’ve occasionally experienced the same dilemma. For our family though, I think there was always a strict boundary between what we got for ourselves, and what we got to give away. I mean, when we were on home-assignment/furlough, that’s when we restocked on clothes.Not on new ones – but used ones – from cousins and family friends. After just double checking with my mom, I also conclude that had I given my sweater in a similar situation, my mother (who is a lovely person) would have been furious as it would have given the wrong impression about us. I guess it boils down situations where we are helping individuals in a concrete way and the difference to the more “normal” life we live there where we aim to help people help themselves through education and health-care and other services. I do regret how I really could have acted differently in many similar situations, but in retrospect, I see it couldn’t have really been another way. What’s more, I hope I can give my life to helping people there and though that involves giving my “stuff” away, it also includes much more. That’s what God put us on this earth for! Thanks for the fantastic discourse and interesting conversation!

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    1. I love hearing this perspective. I will never forget a situation I had with a roommate one time. She worked during a summer break in college and at the end of the summer felt guilty that she had so much money. So she gave it all away. When it came time for our rent to be paid, she had no money. And I hadn’t worked. I had gone to Pakistan and volunteered for the summer, plus visited my parents. It was so hard for both of us. I was so angry and put up the money for her, an almost impossibility. So….I tell that story because I think it represents the complexity of the issue.

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      1. I did some research on different cultures this year for some brochures I was writing. The one about generalized ‘African’ culture or mindset did my head in. Here we think that planning ahead is the moral thing to do. There, it’s to use what you have for the immediate need. Holding on to money for tomorrow if you could use it today for someone’s need is seen as selfish. So complicated!

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    2. I had a friend who went off to Africa on a short term mission. I knew that he would face this kind of situation with no previous experience, so I gave him some money “to give away” telling him that there would be lots of requests.

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  10. wow, thanks for those thoughts. I too have had my experiences with the Poverty Challenge – but always there’s the questions that come up in my mind… what about the dependency thing? The very real fact that some will use whatever I give to worsten their situation? and on and on. Could I -possibly- just be afraid to reach out? Afraid of what it might cost me?

    I appreciate the remark made about walking by faith rather than legalism. So true.

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    1. The other day we had someone come through our town asking for money. But it came in the same way as we’ve had a lot of times before – a big story about how this and that happened and they can’t go here and they’re on their way to wherever, and then the kicker… “and we have kids in the car”. (The kids were playing their electronic games, keeping busy.) needless to say we only gave them a very little bit of money. In our society, there are a lot of options for sorting yourself out financially. I live in Australia and we have a pretty reasonable social security system. In the US I believe things are a lot harder. So here I would give less ‘crisis’ help but invest more in charities that help people manage stuff and learn good life skills. It’s very difficult. As the saying goes, I’d rather teach someone to fish than give them dinner every night. But I have so far to go in this whole area… I really don’t know!

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  11. We’ve all been there at some time or another. The poor and needy are with us always. The very least I can do is to acknowledge them as fellow human beings, made in the image of God. Whether I am able to help or not, I try to make eye contact, touching if possible, and trusting that God’s love and compassion will reach out to both of us. Admittedly, this is a feeble response.

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    1. I like how you bring up touch. Sometimes it’s as simple as acknowledging someone as human. I don’t know that it is a feeble response – I would love to hear more of your stories of dealing with this on a daily level in Pakistan.

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      1. However, sometimes the ‘fatal’ mistakes stay with us and keep us remembering what we need to do in the future. If I hadn’t made my mistake, perhaps I would have never thought about it again? I don’t know.

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  12. I had a similar experience…only not in Jr High but just last year. We ran a benevolence ministry in the Appalachian Mountains of TN. At an outreach where we were giving away clothing a woman asked if we had a warm coat for her. She had to walk several blocks to the grocery store. I had a warm coat that my husband had just bought for me at JC Penney’s just a few weeks before. It popped into my mind to give it to her…and then I pushed it back. I did have a VERY warm coat back at home that did not fit me properly and would be a better choice. I tried to bring it back to her several times but I was never able to find her again. This act still bothers me. I too work at being generous…not with just things but with giving of myself. I hold back too often in fear of being hurt or rejected. I think all of us are self focused and we spend a life time trying to think of others as more important than ourselves.

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  13. Cecily (and Marilyn), what a beautiful and confronting post. I know this is no consolation, but if you would have given the woman the sweater, this post would not have been written. And I wouldn’t have been confronted by it in relation to my own lifestyle. Thanks for confronting me.

    I remember your turquoise sweater. Just as I remember (and still have) a sweet stuffed dog with some clothes that you made and you loved. You gave it to me when I left boarding and went home. I knew how much you loved that dog and how proud you were of its clothes and yet you gave them to me. That’s an act of generosity I’ll never forget.

    Annelies xxx

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