Alina Baraza was a wealthy woman. She owned a whole city bus line of her own in the city of La Paz, Bolivia. She was also the treasurer of the Methodist Church of Bolivia, and spent a good amount of her time in its offices, besides running her transit system. She gave in secret to many needy people, and was not at all impressed with her wealth; she viewed it as money she was steward of before the Lord. One day there was an attempt at a coup. The president of Bolivia was being threatened by communist elements. These communists had gotten their start when Fidel Castro’s lieutenant, Che Guevara, had come to Bolivia right after the takeover of Batista in Cuba. The Colombian military captured and executed Guevara, but not before he had established a guerilla group. These fomented revolution among the poor people of the country, especially among workers in La Paz. They marched on the presidential palace in the capital city, La Paz. They wanted to start a communist government.
There was gunfire in the streets. The Bolivian military had no pity, and murdered large numbers of the protesters, ending the attempted coup. The downtown area was pockmarked from machine gun bullets. The streets were covered with the dead. There were military police everywhere, and no one was allowed to touch the bodies. Many of these people killed were dupes, desperate for some kind of way to make a living, and had hitched their wagon to the wrong star; now they were dead and the organizers had left them.
Alina Baraza showed no fear. She commandeered her buses. She personally confronted the military when they tried to stop her. She ignored them and their machine guns and loaded her buses with the wounded first; and later, with the dead. She did what she could to care for those who were still alive. She could care less about the politics of the dead and wounded. I admire her for this, and for another reason. When my wife and I ran out of money, having spent all our savings, she sent us a small stipend by the hands of our district superintendent, Milton Robinson, so we didn’t have to leave the country. She enabled us to stay on. I will never forget her generosity.
The poor often don’t know what they want. They are easily led, and easily misled, because the truly poor are desperate. Many of them become self-centered and greedy. It requires a lot of patience and compassion to keep your respect for people willing to trick you into giving them what they want.
Sometimes what the poor want, you have no way to give them right then. In Santa Marta, Colombia, for example, one of my converts was walking with me as he and I walked down a dark alley on the way to visit some people. I noticed his tennis shoes and complimented him on how nice they looked. He told me that they were his sister’s shoes, loaned to him so he could walk with me. He said, “I don’t have any nice shoes like you have. All I have are plastic flip-flops.” Then, “Give me your shoes, you’re rich!” Of course he thought I was rich; by his standards, I was indeed rich. I pointed out to him that my feet were much bigger than his, and he would soon trip and fall in my size 12’s. He saw my point immediately, and happily went on without a second thought.
What I should have done was sit on the side of the alley and take off my shoes and give them to him! Then he would have seen me limping along in the muddy, rock-filled alley. He would have seen himself walking in shoes too big for him. He couldn’t give me his shoes in exchange, because they belonged to his sister; and besides, they wouldn’t fit me! He would have to give me my shoes back. I just didn’t think of calling his bluff. I wish I had!
In Santa Marta, Colombia, there are many street urchins. For a multitude of reasons, they have no parents or guardians. They run wild in packs, sleeping on the shores of the Caribbean Sea on the edge of town. Some are orphans; some have run away; some have perhaps a drunken father or mother at home who cannot or will not take care of them. They hang around the ice cream parlors, begging from handsome young men with their beautiful dates. They are given money just to get rid of them. They hang out in front of grocery stores or other shops, looking for people who might give them money.
They are barefoot, or only have the very cheapest of plastic sandals on their feet. They wear all kinds of different clothing, depending on how successful they are at begging. Some of them make as much as taxi drivers! You can’t just assume that because they are begging, they have nothing. They also learn to steal in this street culture. In a town like Santa Marta, where 20% of the male population is unemployed, a lot of youth learn to steal at an early age. This is why most houses are surrounded by high adobe walls with concrete on top, in which bits of broken bottles are stuck with sharp ends sticking up. It is why anyone with any money puts iron bars on every window, and has a front door made of wrought iron with several locks.
How do you deal with such people? You need the Holy Spirit to guide you. One day, a street urchin approached me and asked for “Pan, por favor” – bread, please. The Lord inspired me to say, “Fine, let’s go to the grocery store on the corner and I’ll buy you some bread.” He replied, translating: “Oh, no, mister – just give me a dollar! Give me 50 cents!” I said, “Well, if you don’t really want bread, I don’t have any money to give you.” This 10-year old was too bright, too cunning, and too well-dressed to have been in true need. He might have had a drunken father who sent him out to beg money for liquor. Or he might have planned to buy who knows what. One thing was for sure: he wasn’t hungry. You have to watch for the signs of genuine need, because you don’t want to mistreat someone truly worthy of help.
Some friends were laughing about a thief on a bicycle. They said there was a pretty young girl walking down the street where there was a wall and no curb. He came up behind her. On his right hand’s ring finger, he had a ring with a razor blade welded on. He caught hold of her necklace, sliced through the delicate chain links, and as he rode off picking up speed, he called over his shoulder, “Lo siento, mi amor,” “I’m sorry, my love!”
Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Perhaps our biggest danger as Christians is to avoid them and not love them.