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We Are the Poor
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title: We Are the Poor

We are the poor - by Lieut-Colonel Bo Brekke*
(reproduced from 'The Officer' magazine - April 2001)

In our second year of officership, Birgitte and I were appointed to the Danish provincial town of Nykobing Mors. It was a wonderful small town with a small and not quite so wonderful Salvation Army corps. Our congregation consisted of five elderly ladies who all had their own very strong opinions on how the corps should operate, plus a few lovely children. The citadel was an old building where the plaster on the walls crumbled onto the floor every time we closed the doors.

It was a place badly in need of vision and a new start. I am not sure that we did much, which would be of lasting value for the people of Nykobing Mors. But I had a dream there, which has stayed vividly with me in all the years that have followed.
I dreamt I was on my way to a large congress hall. Salvationists met in great numbers for special meetings - and I was going to be the main speaker! Under my arm I was carrying scrolls of paper. They were my sermons: I was prepared. The thousands of people in the audience were not going to leave disappointed! On my way to the hall I crossed the town square. A young man was climbing the scaffolding on a building where renovation work was in progress. He was not a workman. He was about to commit suicide. He looked at me with a prayerful look of immense sorrow and despair. His eyes were saying - for he did not speak a single word - ‘If you will care for me, I need not do this.’ After all these years I can still see his face. It was a dream, but it was real. It was the suffering world, silently crying out, ‘Care for me in the name of Christ!’

I looked at the man. He jumped and hit the pavement. I looked again, shrugged my shoulders and hurried off to the waiting crowds with my gospel message under my arm.

In our core mission statement we say that The Salvation Army’s mission is ‘to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and meet human needs in his name without discrimination’.

That is a good statement and one that can hardly be improved on - but for the purposes of this article I will make one amendment, which hopefully will serve to underline what I want to say.

The Salvation Army’s mission is to ‘event’ the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our mission is to make the message of Jesus real to people. That has to happen in the context in which people live their lives. Jesus always met people where they were. He never said to anyone, ‘Please change the circumstances of your life and then I will come and have fellowship with you.’

Progress and problems

For the past five-and-a-half years, my wife and I have had the privilege of serving in Bangladesh, That, together with our more than six years in Sri Lanka, has enriched our lives beyond description. It has changed our views on almost all issues. South Asia has been a ‘learning ground’ for us. Here, we have been confronted with the harsh realities of life as faced by a majority of the world’s population - and we have been challenged in our understanding of poverty and what we should do about it.

Bangladesh has made remarkable progress during its short history. One may look at areas like food production, public health, family planning, education, infrastructure, social organization and even democracy-building: everywhere one will find that the country is far better off now than when it became a sovereign nation following a gruesome war of independence 30 years ago.

The people of Bangladesh have a remarkable capacity for adapting to seemingly impossible circumstances and they cope with difficulties in a way we have never seen anywhere else.

But there are darker realities that colour the same picture: half the population lives under the poverty line with a daily calorie intake that is appallingly low. Every year 250,000 children die before they reach the age of five. The maternal morality rate is amongst the world’s highest.

Economic challenge

The physical shape of the land is redefined annually by billions of tons of sediment carried by the flood waters of the mighty rivers of Jamuna, Padma and Ganges. This, by itself, poses a great environmental challenge, which is made almost incomprehensibly worse by the pressures of population growth. Already the country in the world with the highest non-urban population density (861 people per square kilometre), Bangladesh can look forward to a doubling of the present population figures by the year 2045. The experts calculate that the population will level out at approximately 250 million people - if the present successes in bringing down fertility rate and population growth rate can be sustained. This brings many challenges and not be sustained. This brings many challenges and not only to the environment.

There is the economic challenge. How do you develop an economy that will provide work and income for so many people? Traditionally, two-thirds of the population are engaged in agriculture, with others earning their living through small-scale industries. They work as traders, rickshaw drivers, casual labourers etc. Only in recent years has the country had some success with export-oriented industries, for example the textile industries which now employ 13 million people, mainly young women.

At the present rates of growth in per capita income and inflation, the ‘extreme poor’, that those living on less than Taka 215 per month (US $4.00) would have to wait 23 years or more to rise above the poverty line.

What about the social challenges? Can this male-dominated society cope with the changes now underway? Female garment workers can be seen on the streets of Dhaka in the thousands. Only a few years ago it was unthinkable for a woman to go out in public in this way! Even in rural areas, socio-economic progress brought about by micro-credit schemes is causing a quite social revolution. What else can you call it, when ladies of The Salvation Army’s ‘savings and loan’ groups in Andulia, who never handled money before, have started giving loans to their husbands?

There is the challenge of integrity. Can the country develop an open and trustworthy public administration, free of corruption? Will people be able to trust in honest institutions of state?

And there are the pressing challenges to the church. Does the gospel offer relevant responses to the poverty of Bangladesh? Has our mission a meaning in this part of the world?

Efficient mission

To answer these questions, we must start by putting right the fundamentals in our perception of the mission of The Salvation Army in Bangladesh. In seeking an efficient mission in a poor country, we must seek to rid our minds of our preconceived understanding of value and power systems. The ‘poor’ say to us: ’Do not judge my worth by my economic status. Do not pretend that you know my quality of life because you know my income level.’

We are challenged in our standing of ‘poverty’. Traditionally, our view of poverty has been:

  • Absence of things
  • Absence of ideas, knowledge
  • Absence of access (eg. to credit, health care, education

And the traditional response to poverty:
  • Provision of things
  • Provision of ideas, education
  • Provision of access

Poverty has far deeper causes. It is a complex issue and one which prompts sustained debate. But one thing is sure. Poverty cannot be eliminated by provision alone.

People are poor because they live in disempowering relationships. Dr Bryant Myers of World Vision International spoke on this issue at the International Leaders’ Conference in Melbourne in March of 1998. He concluded with references to a ‘poverty of being’ - marred identity - brought about by unjust relationships that cause people to regard poverty as normalcy.

The greatest thing we bring to mission in an economically poor country like Bangladesh is the liberating news that Jesus has come to give people back their true identity as Children of God. By transforming individuals, Jesus wants to transform their relationships and indeed the social structures of whole societies.

Here, our own understanding has undergone a complex change. It is not right to speak of a ‘mission to the socially disadvantaged’. We are not a church that identifies with the poor. We are not a movement for the poor. We are the poor. The Salvation Army in Bangladesh is a church made up of the poor.

It is true that we seek the social and economic uplift of poor people. It is true that we do not advocate poverty got its own sake. There is no romance in poverty. But on every poor Salvationist, on every poor Christian, is bestowed infinite dignity by the fact that she/he is accepted by God, we are unconditionally admitted to the fellowship of believers. No change in social status is needed. No minimum income is required. No one asks for possessions or health status: ‘Welcome to Jesus, who came to seek and save that which are lost.’

Infinite dignity

Peri Rasolandraibe, a priest from Madagascar and a professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the Lutheran Seminary, St Paul, Minnesota, who in 1989 became the Director of the Department of Development at the Lutheran World Federation, tells of an occasion when he was asked to visit a poor woman to administer the sacrament of Holy Communion. He entered the dwelling place of this woman: a broken-down shack only partly covered by a roof. There was no furniture, not even a straw mat on the dirt floor.

Peri Rasolandraibe was holding on to the cup and the bread. Where could he put it? On the dirty floor? In his mind he whispered, ‘O Lord, how could I possibly take you to a place like this? How poor can your people get?’ When they started celebrating the Eucharist, everyone wept. The woman wept for joy. Everyone else wept for sorrow. ‘I was sick to the innermost part of my soul, ‘the priest said and went on, ‘then I heard the Lord whisper to me. "You did not take me here. I took you here!" '

The gospel is the story of the Incarnation. Someone put it this way,’ God so loved the world that he took a closer look through the eyes of a poor carpenter’s son.’

Look at where the Incarnation took our Lord. His life began in a crowded stable, progressed through refugee camps and led to a life in tough circumstances. He worded for the downtrodden, defended women without rights, empowered the outcasts, cared for the sick and suffering, lived in poverty and died in pain.

God chose poverty and he never regretted that choice. He still is on the side of the poor! That fact gives every poor Salvationist in Bangladesh human dignity, They are our brothers and sisters in Christ and our soldiers whom God has given us as a fighting force to build His Kingdom in Bangladesh.

The gospel, therefore, is profoundly empowering. Without empowerment of individuals and whole communities, there can be no answer to the question of poverty.

The gospel speaks of social responsibility and social justice. No one has a better message to bring than the Christian. No message can deal more deeply with the fundamental causes of poverty which are rooted in human ignorance, greed, lust for power, selfishness-in evil itself.

The gospel message is the one thing that elevates the mission organisation from the ranks of development agencies and, in my view, positions as uniquely to deal with the problems of poverty.

But our mission cannot be to the soul and the spirit alone. We must respect the realities of people’s lives.

‘If a brother or sister is poorly clad and lacks his day’s nourishment, but one of you says to them: Go away in peace; get warmed and get fed,” without supplying them with their bodily needs, what is the use?’ (James 2; 15).


The gospel message is not only the message of the Incarnation. It is also the message of the Resurrection. That means: Christ lives and he lives on through his church. Wherever his followers live, there should be evident a creative life which manifests the deeds of Christ. We do not proclaim the memory of a dead cult leader. We honour and follow a living Lord.

Jesus’ life of love, his touch of health and healing, his work of deliverance and development must work through us to bring hope where there is no hope, to heal where there is disease, to bring justice where there is unrighteousness, to bring liberty where people are bound, to give food where people hunger.

We are proud that The Salvation Army in Bangladesh works in the slums of Dhaka! We see Jesus at work when a loan of Taka 6,000 (US$150) helps a man to establish a weaving business which now employs 20 people who in turn support more than 200 family members.

We see resurrection power at work when a village health worker in Jessore visits 300 families every month to monitor the growth of the children and to give advice on matters of nutrition, family planning and health.

We know that Jesus works through us when blind boys and sighted children receive education in the same classroom.

It is evident that Jesus has made a real difference in the life of the prostitute in Old Dhaka who now earns her money through working for Sally Ann International.

Resurrection power at work through the church is addressing the real problems of real people in hands-on, practical terms.

The cross

But if the gospel message is the message of the Incarnation and of resurrection power, it also is the message of the Cross.

‘And he who does not take his cross and follow after me, is not worthy of me.’ (Matthew 10:38)

The Lord sets the direction for his church: we are to walk by the way of the Cross. Living and working in Bangladesh we have come to understand that it cannot be any different. The Cross represents Christ’s obedience to God’s good will and his refusal to compromise his stand against all evil.

Obedience to principles of honesty and integrity must bring conflict in a land where corruption is a way of life.

Obedience to the call to proclaim Jesus as the only Way, Truth and Life-even if it is done ever so respectfully-must bring persecution in a land where 85% of the population have submitted to Islam.

Our mission with the socially disadvantaged will only be credible if we are willing to allow an element of protest and challenge to all the forces of evil, whatever face they may take on.

Global questions

There are other critical questions for the international Salvation Army to consider:

The statistics will tell us that the majority of Salvationists live in poverty. Yet, who sets the Army’s agenda? Is it not true that the rich countries ‘call the shots’? Is this the way it should be?

Is what Paul outlines as a possibility in 2 Corinthians 6:10 happening within our movement: ‘We are poor but make many rich’? Or are we guilty of restricting the influence of the so-called poor countries, and therefore failing to enrich the entire Army world?

If our mission is growing in the developing world, are we willing to adopt a truly global view and invest our money where our mission is? We fully recognise and gratefully honour the true Christian generosity of The Salvation Army in the Western world. Yet, both for their sake and out own, more should be done.

How can we encourage a broader world view amongst our members and leaders? With a deeper understanding of the situation of the disadvantaged, maybe the willingness would result in spending less on the unnecessary at home and more on the needful abroad.

In this age of globalisation - with its resulting widening gap between the rich and the poor - are we in The Salvation Army willing to speak out against the ever more powerful institutions that control and direct economic policies?

It was good to see the Army become part of the Jubilee 2000 movement. It was also very positive to read that we support the United Nations’ Decade for the Eradication of Poverty and also the Appeal of the Nobel Peace Price Laureates to the General Assembly of the UN to declare the first decade of the new millennium the Decade for a Culture of Non-Violence. Can we do more to maximise the effect of our involvement.

The Army is represented at the UN and also at the EU. This is good and we need to do all we can to influence the thinking of these policy-making bodies.

Alternative banking

Would there be a way in which The Salvation Army could consider within its worldwide system a system of ‘economics for the poor’? Maybe this could start with alternative banking arrangements. We already have our own bank. Could Reliance Bank Ltd be encouraged to study what at least one bank in Denmark has already done? Besides its commercial banking, it has established a system of giving interest-free loans to projects in the third world. It is all within existing banking laws and it is said to working well.

It has been very encouraging to learn of new desks at International Headquarters for literacy and ethical and moral issues. Could something similar be done to promote the idea of fair trade? In a small way we have worked with this concept. A main issue is to ensure markets for goods produced in our projects. Before Christmas we received a beautifully produced brochure from the UK Territory’s trading company. A good number of the wonderful gifts for sale through that catalogue must have been produced in South Asia. None were produced by The Salvation Army in Bangladesh. They all could have been produced by us. People in our projects would have benefited. We would have benefited. Maybe a concerted effort from IHQ is needed to open people’s eyes to the possibilities for mission through fair trade.

Mission is never more meaningful than when it happens in the context of the poor. The Lord wants us to be where he is. If we truly walk with him, we cannot walk on by the socially disadvantaged. If we do, it is proof that we are out of step with Jesus. Our mission with the socially disadvantaged is nothing more than our humble answer to his call: ‘Follow me’. We walk this way in the faith that the Lord of life is the Lord of all.

In September of 1988 I visited Los Angeles. With some friends I was invited to the home of a very well-t-do Christian gentlemen. He lived with his wife in a mansion on the top of a hill, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I complemented him on his wonderful home-truly one of the most magnificent houses I have ever entered. ‘We thank God who has bless us with this retirement home!’ he said, with genuine warmth in his voice.

The week after I returned to Bangladesh I flew by seaplane into the flood hit area of Rajapur. We travelled around the corps district by river boat. On an embankment we met two soldiers, husband and wife. They had lost everything they owned to the flood water: their little palm-tree house, their paddy field, all of the fish in their pond and all but two of their ducks. They were left with nothing-except a bank loan of Taka 30,000. No income. No money to pay the next instalment to the bank. Most likely, the bank would take their land. ‘How are you feeling?’ I asked. ‘We thank God for his blessing. He provided food rations through The Salvation Army!’ was the reply.

How does God bless the poor and the rich alike? With the reality of his presence in the reality of their lives.

*Bo Brekke, a Norwegian officer, is the Officer Commanding in the Bangladesh Command.

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