From the Editor: Moments of Truth

By Ray Waddle

Mathare Valley in Nairobi, Kenya, is considered one of the worst slums in Africa. What that means is 600,000 people are crowded into three square miles, including thousands of children orphaned by parents who died of HIV/ AIDS. It means the unemployment rate is 70 percent, people sleep on cardboard and dirt, and the stench of feces is unforgettable. It means no running water, no paved roads, no police protection.

Photographer Josh Hester of Springfield, IL, visited Mathare Valley last year, documenting the place for Bright Hope International, a Christian-based aid organization. Accompanying Hester was a small group of people from his own church, Hope Evangelical Free Church, which has a partnership with a Mathare Valley congregation.

Hester, 31, had never seen anything like this – the squalor, but also the love. During his six-day visit, he was invited to attend a home church service in a tiny tin shack. It turned out to be one of the great moments of his own spiritual life.

“The intensity of the worship I witnessed, the level of faith expressed, the testimonials, the extensive time spent praying for those who are sick, their love for each other – I didn’t know what faith really looked like until then,” he recalls.

“It was humbling to see. They have more faith than I have in anything in my life. I felt immature among them.”

After he returned to the U.S., Hester exhibited his photos to help raise money for the Mathare church, which heroically operates two schools and an orphanage. Some of his photos are featured in this Reflections issue.

Struck by the surreal extremes of the slum he saw in far-away Kenya, Hester came home convinced that such poverty can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant to our lives over here. Dismissals are an excuse and an illusion.

“We tend to see ourselves as separated from that world and say ‘Africa is far away, and they’re just not like us,’” he says. “But we underestimate the power we have as individuals. We are not helpless. There’s a lot we can do to improve conditions there. Suddenly Kenya isn’t so far away anymore.”

Images from his time there stay with him. He visited a woman dying of malaria. He witnessed a person hit and killed by a car.

“When I came back I was impatient. Our culture conditions us to devalue what’s really important – relationships, family – and to take for granted what we have, the food and shelter.”

Hester had come face to face with a human mystery. Poverty is an outrage and a calamity. It is also an enigmatic force. It can change the sojourner it confronts. Poverty forces an indelicate moment of truth that flowers with each encounter between rich and poor. It asks: Will I act? Will I, this time, admit this impoverished person is in fact a human being? Will I acknowledge my connection to this person’s dire condition? Can I honestly return to the old ways?

This theme is a stubborn gravitational force in the Bible. The story of the rich young man, the widow’s mite, the pearl of great price, the feeding of the 5,000, the blessings on the poor in the Beatitudes – so many situations clarify a paradoxical moment of revelation: I find my own humanity by somehow touching the untouchable.

Photographer Bethany Mahan, 39, senses this spiritual drama in the faces of young people she befriends on the streets of Spokane, WA, her hometown. Working at a downtown street ministry some years ago, she got to know their stories, and they came to trust her. She saw a spark of nobility in them even if society had written them off. She started taking their pictures in order to testify to that overlooked dignity.

“I was looking at people and seeing their beauty,” she says. “There is more to people than their poverty.” Our issue includes some of her images from Spokane as well as from her recent visit to Haiti. Her work was featured last year in a “Faces of Poverty” exhibition at Gonzaga University in Spokane.

“We have such prejudices against people we don’t understand,” she says. “We really need to look at our own poverty.”

A paradox lurks inside the rich world’s turbulent relationship to poverty: the indictment persists daily that the west’s glittering materialism and noisy sense of entitlement have made us spiritual paupers who have lost our way. Poet Tomas Tranströmer once wrote,

We made an effort, showing our homes.
The visitor thought: you live well.
The slum must be inside you.

Stirred by our century’s bold hope of eliminating poverty from human experience, the writers contributing to this Reflections identify many of the world’s encounters with the dynamic of poverty, and they share their moments of truth.