Jesus told us to care for the poor. This is as uncontroversial as theological statements get, but it still factors into myriad disputes within the Church. Some denominations will do almost anything in the name of caring for the poor. Others affirm the sentiment, but invariably direct maximal resources towards preaching and teaching scripture instead. I point this out not to take sides – your local church’s context isn’t something I can judge fairly from Northeast Illinois anyway – but to acknowledge the complexity that follows even such an anodyne imperative.
I also mention this because a recent issue of The Economist raises some fascinating questions about where the world’s poor do and will live (http://www.economist.com/node/21561878). According to recent research, the majority of those who live on less than $2/day live not in the poorest countries on earth, but rather in countries classified by the World Bank as Middle Income Countries (MIC). This is true for several reasons, but one key factor appears to be the size of many MICs; China and India, the two most populated countries are MICs, but so are enough other heavily populated countries – like Nigeria, Pakistan, and Indonesia – that they account for more than ½ the world’s population.
Scholars differ over where the bulk of the world’s poor will live in the future (the two options are the MICs or the Low Income Countries, which are primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa), but whatever else the future holds, permit me to make two guarantees. The first is that those countries that are classified as fragile (read: unstable) will fail to eliminate poverty in their midst. This means that the aforementioned densely populated countries of Nigeria and Pakistan – among others – will continue to have many poor people. Additionally, you can bet that India won’t be lifting many of its poor out of poverty in the next twenty years, for almost every reason imaginable except for instability.
So what? It seems likely that for most of the working lives of those who read my blog, huge numbers (and maybe the majority) of the world’s poorest people will live not in the poorest countries on earth, but rather in Middle Income Countries too dysfunctional to help the poor in their midst, and that’s even if we assume that China – despite anecdotal evidence of the total amorality of the wealthy there – decides to aid their poor. If we as Christians wish to help the desperately poor we need to at least know where they live, and we do and will find high concentrations of them in countries that are either entirely or partially Muslim. This is true both because of endemic instabilities in some Muslim countries (Hello Pakistan!) and because of the high birthrates throughout the Islamic world (topped only by Sub-Saharan Africa). Even India, a majority Hindu nation, has 156 million Muslims right now, and Nigeria, which is divided between Christians and Muslims, has 85 million followers of Muhammad (stats courtesy of the CIA World Factbook https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html).
Consequently, if Christians want to aid the poor wherever they are, we need new strategies to navigate the religious restrictions of Islamic societies. For many churches, efforts to aid the global poor are part of their larger missiological focus; evangelism and feeding the hungry go hand in hand, and both are done under the oversight of a missions board. Since Christian proselytism is usually prohibited in Muslim countries (and for the record isn’t always received well in the Hindu parts of India, either), however, this data suggests the future of church-based aid will require either a bifurcation of evangelism and social work in our outreach efforts, or some really creative thinking.
The bifurcation option has risks aplenty for the local church. Some Christian organizations already focus primarily on relief and development work, but these are undersized relative to the task, and are also almost all non-denominational agencies – which many denominations (and thus local churches) are hesitant to embrace formally. Another option is for denominations to accelerate non-evangelistic missions work, but this approach makes many mission boards uncomfortable since it was a key step on mainline Protestantism’s journey to theological liberalism. We could debate such fears, but the fact remains that for many evangelical denominations, international efforts must focus on evangelism rather than fighting global need.
Which leaves us with the Creative Thinking option. One idea that occurs to me would be for local churches to begin an adopt-a-mosque program. Your church could use its resources to provide aid for a mosque in Pakistan or Nigeria, for example – aid that would likely be accepted, since Muslims value charity as one of the five pillars of their faith. In turn, over time that aid could build relationships that permit your congregation to feed the recipients of your benevolence in ways that transcend the material. If this brought more stability to dangerous parts of the world (again, parts of Nigeria and Pakistan come to mind), so much the better. Implementing this idea would obviously be complicated, but it strikes me as a way to be obedient salt and light while also getting a foot in the door for deeper transformations.
It wouldn’t completely eliminate poverty, of course, and it would have to be modified in other places where traditional models don’t work – incorporating Hindu temples in India as well as mosques, for example – but the data suggests it may be time to consider such an approach, particularly if it can be done without undermining denominational missions efforts. We know where the poor are; what are we going to do about it?