What Has Poverty to Do with Me? An interview with Hazel Wong, Consultant to CEDAR Fund

[ “SHARE” Jul-Aug 2012 – What Has Poverty to Do with Me? ] FOCUS: INTERVIEW

Interviewer> Lam Wai Shan

The World Bank’s latest data shows that 1.29 billion people in the world live below the poverty line[1];

Human behaviours lead to frequent natural disasters;

Human dignity is constantly being trampled on….

We cannot help but ask, ‘Where are You, Lord?’

And what can we do?

God gave this vision to Hazel, a veteran in poverty relief and development, ‘It was as if I was a little girl when I saw an adult carrying some water; I offered to help and he accepted. Thrilled at being able to be of use, I then realised that it was the man himself had been carrying the weight all along.’ And God was this man.

This mental breakthrough came during a highly significant trip. Hazel was visiting the rubbish dump in Manila called Smokey Mountain and its squatter community (later moved to the outskirts of Manila). The place was filled with smoke and stench from decomposing garbage. Yet men and women, young and old, scrambled up the landfill barefooted, trying to pick through the rubbish. During the trip Hazel poignantly heard the sad news that someone from a community organisation bargaining for a higher refuse collection fee for the scavengers was killed.

Hazel remembers clearly that after returning to the commercial district of Makati, whilst attending a church meeting in a comfortable hall, she recalled the moments at Smokey Mountain and she wept out of great sadness. ‘I felt that God was very unfair. Why were the people in Makatinot oppressed and exploited, instead they could come to church in comfort, whereas the Smokey Mountain people struggled to survive, oppressed and barely had any dignity?’

Stop and hear

The Lord calmed Hazel down and then said to her, ‘Indeed you are sad and pained now, but these feelings will subside with time, but My pain, which is greater than yours, will never diminish. Where was I? I was the Word become flesh and was among the pains of the people, and I have resurrected, I have overcome all…’ This spiritual experience further confirmed the goal and direction of Hazel’s ministry, and she now no longer asks why we have human suffering, ‘All along God has been living among those who are suffering, and bringing changes to poverty and injustice, He is also inviting us to co-work with Him and strive alongside the poor, especially with those who are oppressed and exploited.’

Hazel encourages villagers to show through drawings their resources

How should we walk with the poor?

Hazel admits that application is not easy and yet she strongly believes, ‘It has to do with interpersonal contact, communication and relationship building. We cannot merely treat the poor and exploited as victims.’ Therefore, to truly walk with them, we must lay aside all preconceptions and presumptions about the poor and humbly listen to them and get to know them. ‘The poor can participate in discussions and use different ways to express their experiences, thoughts, feelings, expectations and actions, including their suppressed potentials and their efforts at surviving adversity. Only when such spaces are created can there be real participation and empowerment.’

Through this activity Africans appreciate themselves and others consolidating unity

Stop and think

Ultimately, caring for the poor is not launching a project, but an attitude to life, lived out consistently. What then are we actually trying to construct or preserve? Do our actions actually alleviate or aggravate the pain of the poor and oppressed? Hazel challenges as to biblically consider those questions: –

Saving or sharing our wealth? Why do we constantly save our wealth? Are we storing up what others have lost or been robbed of? Why are people who lack materially more willing to share?

Better and more successful than the poor? Do we often feel morally, intellectually and culturally superior to the poor? Do we only focus on reforming them that we fail to respect and listen to them?

Does poverty have anything to do with me? Have we considered that we ourselves are also a cause of poverty? Have we ever intentionally or unknowingly fostered any unrighteous dealing or system? When we choose not to respond to a problem, can poverty ever be alleviated?

Is money the answer to everything? Poverty is not a problem just about money, it also involves the dignity, security, fair participation and autonomy of the person. Can merely increasing income overcome poverty by a “top-down” distribution?

Only a medium for evangelism? What is the relationship between gospel work and community care? The gospel message includes justice and mercy but what do justice and mercy mean for the exploited poor, communities and the system?

Hazel often checks herself for a sense of superiority towards villagers

Combine living with action

Apart from self-examination, it is also very important for more Christians to care for their neighbours. Hazel believes that this caring need not be about doing extraordinary things. We can start with paying attention to and caring about the people and things around us. Through sharing and talking about our faith and poverty Hazel encourages brothers and sisters to actively participate. ‘Search the Scriptures to understand what “integral gospel” means, and dispel one by one the myths about poverty and the poor. Further, pray that God will open our eyes to examine other people’s daily situations which we might have once dismissed, and then step out of our comfort zone, bravely choosing to do what is good. Believers can also talk about matters relating to poverty, explore its causes, and amass power to do what needs to be done.’

When asked if there have been times of frustration during her many years of ministry, Hazel replied firmly, ‘Frustration is often there, but I remind myself that God has a strong hold on me, He never changes and He is always with those who suffer. I also remind myself not to be self-righteous but to do the best I can trusting God will Himself bring about deliverance and transformation to individuals, groups and the system.’

When Hazel saw the picture of the child and adult carrying water together she responded to God’s calling without hesitation. Twenty years have flown by and she has persisted along this path. In her daily life she is constantly learning to overcome her own pride and limitations, doing her best to put her belief into practice. God invites not only Hazel, but you also, to co-work with Him who is victorious, to build a world of righteousness and loving kindness. Poverty definitely concerns you!

Extended action

If you have practical ways to care for the poor, log in to CEDAR’s site to share your views.

Hazel Wong has been involved in poverty relief and development for over twenty years. Experienced in frontline implementation of development projects, training and research, she has particular interest in gender issue and is devoted in integrating faith with justice and social development after obtaining her Master in Christian Studies at China Graduate School of Theology, (CGST). Hazel has been a consultant to CEDAR since 2010.

[1] http://econ.worldbank.org/povcalnet 

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