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Engaging the Poor with Christian Disciplines
The task or honor of teaching the Christian disciplines to those living in poverty is often avoided or met with cynicism. There is an underlying assumption that they are not capable of the higher order of thinking that is necessary to experience the profundity of these practices. It is, however, not only possible but also vital. Five topics for consideration—awareness of culture of the poor, relationship, appropriate language, story, and community—are discussed to assist in this endeavor.
Spiritual disciplines are exercises that usher one into God’s presence, where God then has the opportunity to transform our lives. Richard Foster brought these ancient practices back into popularity with his book Celebration of Discipline. In it he designates the internal disciplines of meditation, fasting, prayer, and study as well as the external disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission, and service.1 Through these practices, we make ourselves available to God’s shaping. A transformed life is a gift from God, not something we can accomplish by our own efforts.
My journey teaching the disciplines to those in poverty began in my work with a nonprofit employment readiness program. It began with an eye-opening conversation with the executive director. She sat across the breakfast table from me and talked about the struggle she was having with her volunteers. “They are well-meaning and loving, but they talk over the heads of the students as if they weren’t there. Or they treat them as children, even though some of them are twice their age. There is also a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ language. Can you help them change their perceptions to be less discriminatory?”
I offered several training sessions to the staff on working with the poor. Many of these volunteers had little experience with this socioeconomic population. They were surprised to realize that some of their interaction with the poor was discriminatory. The director also asked me to share a discipline with the students—the process of Examen—a practice taught by Ignatius of Loyola. Shortly after I began consulting with this nonprofit, I was sitting in a residency for an extension program on leading contemplative prayer groups and retreats. It was a time of rich learning and deep experience with God. Yet all was not right. Having been introduced to the population in the nonprofit, I looked around at the other participants. They all looked like me. There was some ethnic diversity, but we certainly were in the same tax bracket. The program cost $4,000, and although churches sponsored some of the individuals, I knew the cost was out of reach to many. I again was seeing a form of discrimination. Those from the poor population were excluded. How could we open this wonderful opportunity to those in the lower income bracket? I had the opportunity because I had the means, and yet the need for the transforming experience of the disciplines reached beyond economic barriers.
As the title suggests, this article will address engaging the poor in Christian spiritual disciplines. The literature on the coupling of poverty and the disciplines suggests that, although not difficult, the disciplines are advanced teaching—profound and targeted for those with a higher educational level. It focuses attention on teaching these disciplines to those ministering to the poor. The practice of the disciplines encourages workers to lean on God for strength in the midst of ministries that are demanding and can lead to discouragement and burnout. Thankfully, the gap is closing, as there is an increase in programming that offers spiritual formation to those in poverty. We are all in dire need of encouragement. Regardless of socioeconomic level, we need avenues to let go of our heavy burdens and lean into God’s loving embrace. The challenge lies not in the lack of receptivity, but in the perception of those who might teach as well as the manner in which they do so. In order, therefore, to consider teaching the Christian disciplines to those in poverty, I offer the following topics for consideration: the relevance of the disciplines for the poor, an awareness and respect for the culture of the poor, a focus on relationships, appropriate language, the role of story, and the importance of community.
Relevance of disciplines for the poor
It would appear that many do not think the poor capable of practicing Christian disciplines. As with the above-mentioned nonprofit staff, they are often relegated to a “less-than” status, viewed as childlike, incompetent, or uninterested. Teaching that is offered may be limited to the requirement of chapel attendance in order to receive a meal or regular attendance at a bible study or church service. But the in-depth experience of being in an intimate relationship with God is saved for those who are in a better financial situation.
The assumption that the poor are not capable of spiritual disciplines finds some support in the theory of Abraham Maslow. Maslow offers a hierarchy of needs that has had a significant influence on Western perception.2 The hierarchy suggests that until a person’s basic needs are met, they cannot rise to higher-order thinking—the abstract thinking necessary for spiritual thoughts and ideas. This would necessitate that a person must be clothed, sheltered, fed, and secure before they have the ability to be insightful and retrospective. Although beneficial in encouraging the addressing of needs, this theory has been used in a subtle way to encourage classism. There are many who do not fit this hierarchy; artists like Rembrandt or Van Gogh, or the many self-actualized in large poor countries like India. Those who have participated in a mission trip to a majority-world country have experience that confirms this critique. They have seen the hunger for a relationship with a personal Lord in many who have few earthly possessions. Unfortunately, this theory continues to influence those who work with the poor. The belief is that one needs first to lift them out of poverty, and then they can delve into the depths of spiritual life.
Jesus was not bound by this perception. There are many examples in the Gospels of Jesus offering deep teaching to those who had little in the way of material possessions. In Matthew 5-7, Jesus spends the day on the side of a mountain offering some of his most profound teaching to a poor population. He ends the day by feeding them—expressing concern that they might grow faint from lack of food. He did not wait until they were fed to address their spiritual needs. He offered spiritual sustenance that would carry them in and through their difficult physical lives.
Many have followed the example of Jesus in meeting the spiritual needs as well as the physical needs of those in poverty. William Creed, SJ, founded the Ignatian Spirituality Project in response to the need of the homeless for spiritual guidance.3 He began offering retreats to this population that combined the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola with the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program. They address both homelessness and issues of recovery by focusing attention on the third step of AA—placing one’s dependence on God. What he began in Chicago is now offered in many cities across the nation. People are being transformed as they learn to center their lives on God and his kingdom. The success of this project speaks to the spiritual need that it meets.
I have personal experience regarding the relevancy of the disciplines for the students in the above-mentioned employment readiness program. The program targets the unemployed and underemployed, many of whom come from generational poverty. For several years, I led each class in the process of Examen. Examen, or examination of consciousness, is a process taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola as a part of the spiritual exercises.4 This was offered in the first couple of weeks of each cohort and was quickly embraced by all the students. It gave them an opportunity to share their blessings and their struggles and pray for each other. Although most were living chaotic lives, they were able to let go of that in order to invite God into these struggles and to praise God for their blessings.
Awareness and respect for the culture of the poor
The second topic for consideration when teaching the disciplines to those in poverty is that, in general, there are differences between the values of the poor and those of the middle class. Recognizing this allows an attitude of respect for the strengths of each socioeconomic class. Ruby Payne, an educator in the inner city of Houston, brought national attention to this issue.5 She found that the pedagogy she was using was not as effective with children living in poverty as with those coming from middle-class homes. In order to address this problem, she looked at the differences in these contexts and articulated an understanding of the cultural differences of the socioeconomic levels. She stated that when one is in the midst of a culture (i.e., poverty, middle class, or wealth), there are values of the culture that are invisible to that individual. The cultural values must be made overt in order to recognize them.
Her intent was to assist educators in recognizing that their values may not be applicable to a poor student’s socioeconomically shaped culture. However, the student’s own values may still be worthy of respect. This is similar to the experience of being in a foreign culture. Perceptions vary in other cultures about food, money, relationships, possessions, and many other aspects of life. Yet, one can still have respect for them. Thus in working with the poor, a person from a middle class context can see characteristics of generational poverty as cultural differences and treat them as such. Without this insight, generalizations may be applied to all people in poverty rather than the few to whom they apply. Common generalizations are that those living in poverty are lazy, manipulative, or taking advantage of the system. Although Payne’s work is anecdotal in nature, her contribution is to spotlight the unrealized biases from which one may operate. Further research is necessary to substantiate her claims.
Respect also is important at the individual level. Often society—including those in the church—offers the poor the dregs. Holding a person in respect is manifest in the way they are treated. For example, the LaSalle Street Church in Chicago reaches out to the homeless through a ministry they call “Breaking Bread.”6 Through this ministry, they show value to the homeless through the way they treat them. They invite them as family to the table. Real plates and silverware are used and the church serves these guests to a sit-down meal. This is the entrée into the church, but it goes further in the depth and intimacy into which they invite the homeless. The church integrates them into the church life and expects them to fully participate.
The implication is that the poor have something to offer the body. And of course they do. They certainly do not have the material distractions that can get between them and God. I had the privilege of teaching a course on disciplines of Christian living at the Tennessee Prison for Women. It was a course with fifteen inmates and fifteen traditional undergraduate students. Some of the women inmates (or “inside students” as we called them) had a depth of faith and intimacy with God that was inspiring. They had nothing else to cling to, so they learned to cling to God.
Despite the rich depth of the Christian disciplines, they are in reality simple ways to connect with God. Along with the awareness and respect for the culture, a third topic of discussion is that one must have the ability to speak the language of the population. One would not use difficult foreign language or illustrations if in a different culture, and one should not use complex, specialized language with a group of people who typically are poorly educated or even illiterate.
We again turn to Jesus and his example of teaching deep theological concepts to the poor. He used their language and taught by referring to common everyday events. Lessons were taught by talking about a sower who went out to sow, a man on Jericho road, a rich man and his tenant, or a widow with a mite to offer at the temple. The people understood these situations and could relate to the lessons imbedded in them. This same method is applicable to working with the poor today. They certainly are not all uneducated, but the vast majority is, and it is important to make the teaching simple and relevant to their everyday experience.
John Hayes, director of InnerChange Ministries,7 uses curriculum that is present-oriented. He states that if they speak about the past, it is disregarded. If too much about the future, it can be dismissed or feed into the sense of hopelessness pervasive among those in poverty. They focus on Jesus and the Gospel writings. In addition, they have found that they must encourage action as well as reflection. The listeners invest in the teaching if they are encouraged to be introspective and incorporate what they hear into their lives.8
Another example of keeping language simple is to use common everyday expressions to explain many of the classic spiritual disciplines. One can talk of “listening prayer” or “listening to God” rather than use the language of contemplative prayer. Or when teaching the aforementioned Ignatian process of Examen, the teacher can speak of sharing the “highs and lows” of the day rather than the consolations and desolations. More complex language can gradually be introduced if there is a reason to do so, but it is more important that the words used to discuss a discipline do not discourage its use.
A focus on relationships
The fourth topic for consideration when teaching the Christian disciplines to those in poverty is that one must be attuned to the importance of being in relationship with students. Payne suggests those in poverty value relationships above everything else.9 A person living in poverty may think, “If the rent is due tomorrow and my sister needs money, I will give my rent money to her.” People are the highest priority. This behavior may appear to be irresponsible to someone from another socioeconomic class, but in reality, it is a variance in values.
Teachers must establish friendships in order to move into a teaching or sharing relationship. Furthermore, the friendship must be valued in its own right rather than as a means to teach. One should not view the person in poverty as a project to salve an uneasy conscience. Many churches like the idea of reaching out to the marginalized until it moves beyond theory. The question must be asked, “Can I open my circle of friends to include a person living in poverty?” The book Same Kind of Different as Me shares the relationship of Denver, a man who was homeless, and Ron, an international art dealer.10 Ron’s wife brought him into the relationship and he was unsure of what he was getting into. He soon developed a liking for Denver and wanted to pursue the friendship. At the beginning of their interaction, however, Denver asked Ron if he was in the relationship for the long haul or if it was just “catch and release.” He was not interested in investing his time or energy if Ron was going to walk away when he lost interest. When one has little else, the people in one’s life are highly valuable.
Being in relationship with another is inherent in the Ignatian Spirituality Project and their offerings. The staff spends time with participants in various venues. They select individuals to attend a daylong or overnight retreat and lead them through the spiritual exercises and the twelve steps. This is followed by an invitation to monthly groups that meet on an ongoing basis. They take pains to ensure that participants have every opportunity to attend. The staff offers rides, the day is scheduled on the same day every month, and contact information is updated at each meeting to keep up with the transitional life styles of those in poverty. The participants and staff form deep friendships.
The deep friendships come as a surprise to many who begin working with those in poverty. One quickly moves from a superior perspective to the recognition that they are gaining as much as or more than their students. Staff develop an appreciation for the richness of these individuals who were also made in God’s image. And as in other relationships, there can be disappointments. If one goes into a relationship with the expectation of gratitude or repayment of the gift of friendship, one may become disillusioned. The friendship does not negate the chaos and coping skills that have developed in the individual’s difficult life. One must enter the friendship with an open heart and give freely of oneself.
My husband, Randy, walked alongside a woman for many years. She was hardened, tough beyond her years, and looked much older than she was. He and some others set her up in an apartment and helped her get established. Yet, she was very difficult to be in relationship with. She would periodically disappear for months at a time and then call needing help out of a difficult situation. Those who befriended her learned to accept her as she was and offer their friendship without strings attached.
Significance of story
The fifth topic is that of the value of story telling. Oral tradition is important to those of lower socioeconomic status, again due to low levels of education and illiteracy. The ability to entertain others through one’s words is highly respected. After years of trial and error, InnerChange Ministries learned to recognize the value of story and developed a way to use it in working with those living on the streets. They use story intentionally at several levels. First, they start with the individual’s story. They listen, learn, and highlight aspects of the story that the storyteller may not see. This is similar to a counseling technique called Narrative Therapy. The therapist listens to a person as they explain their story through a problem-saturated lens. As a person outside the story, the therapist is able to hear and accent parts of the story that are positive. The client is so close to their situation and so discouraged that they cannot see the victories and the strengths inherent in their story. So it is with Hayes and his ministry team. They hear aspects of the person’s story that offer a much broader picture—both negative and positive. As people outside the person’s life, they can see through a different lens and, as believers, they can see how God has been working in the life of the individual.
Next, InnerChange Ministries’ approach invites the poor to see themselves as part of God’s story—as part of something bigger than themselves. The staff has a familiarity with the individual’s personal story, so they can make a connection to both the biblical narrative and especially that of the gospel. This necessitates the inclusion of the spiritual history of the community in the story. Focus can be given to both the overt spiritual history of local churches and Christians and to the manner in which God works through the goodness of community members. Including this history demonstrates how God has been working throughout the years and invites them into the effort. Not only does this offer the individual the opportunity to learn of their significance in the eyes of God, but it moves the story of God from that of institutional religion to a personal, relevant offering.
The final issue to address when teaching the disciplines to those in poverty is that of community. Community is similar to the topic of being in relationship but it does have unique characteristics worth mentioning.
In the employment readiness program mentioned at the beginning of the article, the students found in their cohort a healthy community. For some of them it was the first they had experienced. As graduation drew near each semester, the students from most cohorts expressed concern about losing this vital link to their new way of being. They feared that if they went back into their old communities, they would return to their former lifestyle. The director of the nonprofit worked very hard to offer them opportunities to stay connected with their new community.
This also comes into play when offering the disciplines to those who live in poverty. The communal nature of the teaching offers a support group for learning and an opportunity to wrestle with unfamiliar ideas and experiences. The Ignatian Spirituality Project views community as a key to their success. They keep their retreats small, limiting them to twelve to allow for transparency and intimacy. The members hold each other accountable, taking each other to task when they are not honest. They also offer each other a forum for confessing their spiritual struggles and for working through the exercises.
Steven Hebbard is another who has found community to be central in teaching the poor.11 He founded the Karpophoreō Project, a communal garden, in Austin, Texas. The Greek word comes from Colossians 1:6 and means “bearing fruit in every good work.” The project brings ministry staff alongside those from the neighborhood to raise the garden. People in the neighborhood soon realize that Steven and the others are worthy of their trust. The staff uses the gardening to teach spiritual lessons and invites the participants to worship with them. They offer an example of bearing both literal and spiritual fruit through communal experience.
Grace Episcopal Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, chose to stay in the inner city as their neighborhood declined, while many of the other area churches fled to the suburbs.12 All but a few of the members drive past other churches on their way in to worship and fellowship. They work in collaboration with the residents of the neighborhood to provide a food closet, AIDS service center, GED classes, and other services. They know they are needed, so they are committed to staying. The neighbors are open to participating in the liturgy of the worship because of the church’s social action. The two depend on one another, and none of it would be possible without the culture of solidarity that has grown up in their unusual community.
Teaching the disciplines to the poor is a task worthy of our efforts. We approach this opportunity with recognition that those in poverty have a deep hunger to be in relationship with God. We use appropriate language and understand that we may see the world through a different socioeconomic lens. And we offer relationship and community to those we are teaching. This is more than a casual message; it is about sharing in the kingdom together. Teachers soon discovers that they are receiving much more than they are offering. The experience is richer for the mutual learning.
Jackie L. Halstead, PhD, LMFT, is the Director of Programming for the Institute for Christian Spirituality and an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. She teaches courses in spiritual formation, Christian disciplines, and the life of the minister. Jackie’s doctorate is in Marriage and Family Therapy. She specializes in working with clergy and their families. Jackie speaks on the national and international levels on topics of spiritual formation, relationships, and mental health. She can be reached at.
aha! Process Inc. .
Byassee, Jason. “The Church Downtown: Strategies for Urban Ministry.” Christian Century 125, no. 5 (March 2008): 22-27, 29.
Carnes, Tony. “Back to the Garden: Row by Row, Urban Christians Learn to Bear Literal and Spiritual Fruit.” Christianity Today 55, no. 7 (July 2011): 56-58.
Foster, Richard J. Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. 3rd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1998.
Hall, Ron, Denver Moore, and Lynn Vincent. Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006.
IgnatianSpirituality.com. “The Daily Examen.” Ignatian Prayer. .
Ignatian Spirituality Project. “Welcome to the Ignatian Spirituality Project.” .
InnerCHANGE: A Christian Order Among the Poor. “About InnerCHANGE.” Explore. .
Malloy, Patrick L. “Grace in the City: Urban Ministry in the New Normal.” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 4 (September 2010): 769-76.
McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Maslow. Humanism. Perspectives. SimplyPsychology. .
Payne, Ruby K. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. 4th ed. Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2005.
St. Milletus College. “Panel 3: Urban Spirituality and Discipleship.” Seek the Welfare of the City. .
1 Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998).
2 Saul McLeod, “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs,” SimplyPsychology, .
3 “Welcome to the Ignatian Spirituality Project,” Ignatian Spirituality Project, .
4 “The Daily Examen,” Ignatian Prayer, IgnatianSpirituality.com, .
5 For further information on her work, see Payne’s website at .
6 Jason Byassee, “The Church Downtown: Strategies for Urban Ministry,” Christian Century 125, no. 5 (March 2008): 24.
7 InnerCHANGE: A Christian Order Among the Poor, “About InnerCHANGE,” Explore, .
8 See Hayes’s part in the panel discussion “Panel 3: Urban Spirituality and Discipleship,” Seek the Welfare of the City, St. Milletus College, .
9 Ruby K. Payne, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 4th ed. (Highlands, TX: aha! Process, Inc., 2005), 42.
10 Ron Hall, Denver Moore, and Lynn Vincent, Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).
11 Tony Carnes, “Back to the Garden: Row by Row, Urban Christians Learn to Bear Literal and Spiritual Fruit,” Christianity Today 55, no. 7 (July 2011): 58.
12 Patrick L. Malloy, “Grace in the City: Urban Ministry in the New Normal,” Anglican Theological Review 92, no. 4 (September 2010): 770.