Already as a teen I was consumed by the idea of fighting the extreme poverty, hunger, and injustice that were rampant during two decades of dictatorship in Brazil. I married a likeminded woman, and for forty years we have had the opportunity of serving in various contexts: slums, feeding people, encouraging underprivileged students, helping beggars find work, and developing blighted neighborhoods. Attuned to practices that don’t create dependency, we have been mindful to “empower” people, modeling microenterprises and urban agriculture, helping poor families manage their finances, making connections between rich and poor, and giving people opportunities to discover vocations and transform their lives. 

So why, after all this, have I given up serving the poor and stopped fighting poverty?

At key moments in my life, I have paused to ask myself this question most frequently: Does what I am doing make sense? Are my heart and work aligned with God’s will, or am I missing the point? More than once, this has led me to relocate and start all over just when I thought things were going well. And it has meant putting myself and my family in very insecure situations. Along the way, I have seen many sincere friends come and go. They start out excited about serving but soon get preoccupied with personal issues, doubting that God will take care of them, and eventually they burn out or move on. I have seen others paying someone else to fulfill God’s service, moved by real sincerity from a distance but without personal involvement.

I have also seen how much poverty takes over the lives of those who are financially poor, and how much it reveals their unfulfilled desire to own and consume. Their situation is reinforced by the same things that seduce and destroy the rich: individualism, selfishness, self-gratification, and ownership as a simulacrum of happiness. Rich and poor have the same conviction: that what they need is something the market, the government, or some other agency can offer. That they will be happy with ownership, a full stomach (some with bread and meat, others with croissants and caviar), and a constant flow of money, thought to be the one and only mediator that solves everything.

Favela da Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph by Donatas Dabravolskas.

There are well-intentioned people who extend a hand to include others in the lifestyle they have achieved, believing it to have been an act of mercy and calling this stretched-out hand from top down “service.” The very position of serving the poor, from a commitment to “liberate” them and give them access to consumption, is filled with a sense of superiority, usually not perceived. Giving others what I have assumes that what I have is what they need. This can be seen in the subtle arrogance of the politics of inclusion, always trying to fit more people inside the box that is the middle-class lifestyle called “the American way,” with no reflection on the planet’s limits.

To fight against poverty may be honorable, but it is missing the point. The world is not sick because of poverty; I am sure it suffers from a more dangerous disease: billionaires. Capitalism has led to the suffering of the Yanomami people in Brazil, the Congolese children mining rare minerals to be used in cell phones, the Bangladeshi women sewing for fast-fashion chains, while concentrating wealth in the hands of a few. For example, six individual Brazilians hold the same amount of resources as 50 percent of the country’s population, the 110 million poorest Brazilians.

Jesus didn’t bring good news to those who serve the poor from a secure position in life; he brought good news to the poor.

Instead of fighting extreme poverty, Christians ought to be fighting extreme wealth. With Jesus we must raise our voices to say: “But woe to you who are rich!” (Luke 6:24–25). Instead of endorsing an endless war on poverty, we should direct our “Woe” at greed, the cause of the poverty, climate change, and the destruction of populations and the environment.

To be clear, when I say I am no longer fighting poverty, I am not advocating a retreat to the side of the wealthy and the comfortable. I do not want to join those whose lives are separated from contact with the poor, the sick, the hungry, the naked, the ugly, the smelly. I do not want to join those who are not aware of the damage they are doing to creation, who feel money gives access to a secure and unconcerned life. What these wealthy and comfortable people call security, Jesus calls madness (Luke 12:16–34).

In the early 1990s I used to go into the streets with a bunch of teenagers seeking out the homeless. The motto we used was “meet Jesus in the poorest poor.” Feeding and clothing Jesus was our motivation: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these, you did for me” (Matt. 25:40). But we discovered that in these encounters with a camouflaged Jesus, we saw ourselves mirrored. We realized that we often use the same manipulation, excuses, and lies to get what we want that we saw in the desperate poor. We discovered that, in a deep sense, we were them. In the end, we discovered ourselves as pathetic, poor, and empty.

And we learned a hard truth: Jesus didn’t bring good news to those who serve the poor from a secure position in life; he brought good news to the poor. He has nothing to say to other saviors who compete with him for the position of Messiah. He brings a message for those who recognize themselves as poor, naked, hurt, tired, overburdened, needy, and hopeless. For the rest, he has little to offer.

The only way to remain with the poor is to discover that we too are miserable, to recognize ourselves, however well we are disguised, in the suffering neighbor before our eyes. When their misery reflects our own, when we realize our own neediness and desperate need to be healed and restored, then Jesus can help us. God is not manifest in our ability to heal, but in our need to be healed.

Encountering the poor and finding myself in them, rather than serving them from my privileged position, has also made me more aware of the misery that lurks in the well-structured lives of the rich. I understand better this Jesus who talks to lepers and religious leaders alike. Identifying with each person regardless of class or social status, he saw what perhaps no one else did: the universal misery and poverty of the human condition. As I reencounter my own poverty, I start to better see each situation of misery and get in touch with each person’s inner pain. From there, I pray for mercy, healing, restoration, freedom, and community – for myself and others.

From Jesus to Saint Francis, from Thomas Aquinas to Mother Teresa, we are taught that poverty is a gospel virtue. In the very first Beatitude, Jesus tells the poor to rejoice in being poor, because theirs is the possibility of having lives guided by God. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20; Matt. 5:3). Jesus is not calling us to empower the poor, but to become poor and powerless ourselves!

The way of Jesus is a way of kenosis, or emptying oneself. “He made himself nothing …” (Phil. 2:7). Jesus demonstrated this in his life, not only in his ultimate sacrifice but also in his daily interactions with lepers and beggars and with synagogue rulers and centurions. As Isaiah writes, “By his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). Jesus emptied himself of power to the point of dying, thus opening the door of resurrection for us. The power that Jesus uses to heal us does not reside in his access to universal power, but in becoming one of us, living a life of human frailty, and dying on a cross.

The power Christians bring to bear on the suffering around us is not the power of our capacities and resources, but a power that depends on our personal weakness (2 Cor. 12:9–10), which we have disguised with our possessions and stability. Whoever serves out of the sense of having something to offer, serves from the top. Jesus calls us to place ourselves under him as powerless dependents, to give up trusting our own capacity and let him meet our wounds and pain.

And so I invite as many as possible to experience this power that comes from being less and not more, which only comes when we stop serving the poor and acknowledge our own poverty. If there is still a fight to be fought, it is to renounce our own habits of consumption, to denounce the concentration of wealth, and to fight against the source of these problems in ourselves: the love of money and power.