This article is part of Mennonite Church USA’s Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative.
Stanley W. Green is currently the executive conference minister for the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. Prior to the current assignment, Stanley served for 27 years as president and executive director with the mission agencies (Mennonite Board of Missions and Mennonite Mission Network) of the “Old” Mennonite Church and the newly merged Mennonite Church USA. Earlier, he pastored churches in South Africa (where he was born), in California and in Jamaica, where he and his spouse Ursula served as mission-workers for 5 years. Green did post-graduate mission studies at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, and currently serves as the chair of the Mission Commission of Mennonite World Conference.
Poverty is devastating and costly. Having ministered among peasant laborers who worked on white-owned farms in South Africa, I observed up close the high price inflicted upon the poor by those who had power and resources. One example from those years, was the pain of seeing promising young people being taken out of school to work on the farms where their parents worked. Despite back-breaking labor, the farmworkers racked up debts to the farmers, who paid such meager wages that the farmworkers became perpetually indebted. They had to get supplies from the farm store when their money ran out, and there was no way to put food on the table. One way to pay off that debt was to force their children to become workers on the farm.
From these experiences, and a myriad of others, I have come to know the exorbitant price people experiencing poverty pay as the victims of greed and the immoral practices of those with power and wealth. Over the course of two visits to Sihanoukville, Cambodia — seven years apart — I got an even more sobering glimpse into the extent to which people experiencing poverty bear the brunt of changes that cater to the interests of those with wealth.
In 2007, I visited with a couple who worked in Cambodia under the auspices of Mennonite Mission Network. Their deployment allowed them to work in a variety of settings. The particular ministry that captivated and inspired me was the work they did in a community made up of fisherfolk near the Sihanoukville port. This fishing village was comprised of ramshackle dwellings without electricity, indoor plumbing or piped water. If the local government provided sanitation services or trash removal, it was not evident, as unsightly trash filled the watery channels between the houses. In this village, there was a high incidence of infant mortality, fueled, no doubt, by the unsanitary conditions that the local government cared little about. The people of the village, it seemed, were seen as disposable to the government as the garbage that polluted the channels between their homes. Experiencing poverty, and for all appearances, despised by the local government, their plight was ignored. Their influence with the local government was negligible or zero. In fact, the local government saw them as a problem, a nuisance, and, it was clear, the government saw them as disposable.
The local authorities provided no access to education for the children of this community. Uneducated and poverty-stricken young people found themselves falling into the trap of subsistence-level fishing that their parents and the generations before them had fallen into. These impoverished fisherfolk dredged a hard-earned living, fraught with many dangers, from the waters of the Bay of Kampong Som. It is here that the mission workers found an opportunity to make a difference in the desperate circumstances of the villagers they felt called to serve. The mission workers found a one-room space where they gathered the children of the village and provided them with a basic education. Perhaps, this could be a foundation for some of these children to escape the depressing reality of lives foreshortened by poor diets, limited access to basic healthcare and inadequate sanitation.
I returned to Sihanoukville in 2017. The city was almost unrecognizable. There was the appearance of progress everywhere — multistory buildings, gleaming facades and flashing lights. I presumed that there would be widespread celebration for these signs of progress. Instead, there was despair and struggle. Much of the “progress” was fueled by Chinese investments, intent on developing playgrounds for Chinese people with disposable incomes. Eighty-eight casinos were built, and 90% of the previously locally owned businesses in the town were taken over by Chinese owners.
To create space for the casinos and other businesses, many locally owned businesses were leveled, and locals were stripped of their land, all with the support of the Cambodian government.
Many families, who had been living in the fishing village and town and who were dependent on fishing to make a living, were told that they were living on the land illegally. The unique, though squalid, village that had been home to fisherfolk for several generations was being threatened by the port expansion that was designed to cater to the incoming Chinese tourists,
On every continent, people experiencing poverty live lives that have been diminished by contingency, exploitation and limited opportunity.
Without education, communities like this fishing village fall prey to exploitation and slip deeper into poverty. They are deprived of their dreams, and they are robbed of their futures, which become determined and foreclosed upon by the imposition of the interests and the power of those with wealth. Despite the fact that the villagers lived in places like this fishing village for many generations, when those with wealth discover alternate uses for the land where their poverty-stricken neighbors reside, the villagers have little or no recourse through the courts to prevent their homes from being bulldozed.
For those experiencing poverty, the losses are not only material; they are accompanied by a threat to their physical well-being. The absence of material resources, and in many places the lack of support from local governments, leads also to the loss of the power to dream and the loss of their power to act.
In one community I visited, I realized that the enormity of the loss is often greater than we account for. Among the Moquit Indigenous people in the Chaco region of Argentina, a team supported by Mennonite Mission Network helped people navigate the complex legal system for decades to contest the rights of land ownership. The provincial government sold a 46-hectare — almost 119 acres — parcel of land in the Argentine Chaco, referred to as El Tabacal, to a white colonist. The Moqoit community had been living off this land with their hunter-gatherer lifestyle for centuries before white settlers arrived on the continent.
This lot was small, compared to other lots that the government has been stealing from Indigenous communities since the 1940s. In this productive farming region of the Argentine Chaco, white settlers have benefited mightily from the policies of the provincial government. The colonizing of Indigenous land has caused major disruptions around the world, forcing once independent communities to become dependent on the settlers who now own the land from which the Indigenous peoples once made their livelihood.
When this dependency becomes too demeaning and too hard, people move away from their ancestral lands and sometimes even experience the painful loss of their language and the disappearance of their culture.
In the places they migrate to, in order to ensure their own or their family’s survival, they become highly visible and often discriminated against because of their otherness. Tragically, they also become invisible, being used to fill menial jobs that others will not do, and not taken into consideration when important decisions are made. Those who survive, who instill the capacity to dream in their children, who rediscover their voice and agency, are the true heroes in every place they go. They have survived the awful odds they have faced — nothing was guaranteed to them, except the hardships they overcame.
Mennonite Church USA encourages you and your congregation to participate in the Cost of Poverty: Learn, Pray, Join initiative as one way to learn more about the topic of poverty from theological and practical perspectives, as well as learn how to get involved.
Find upcoming webinars and ways to get involved at mennoniteusa.org/ministry/peacebuilding/learn-pray-join/cost-of-poverty/.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.