The Rich and Poor: My Interview With The Poor People of PNG

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I am a rich person. 

By the end of this article, you might conclude that you are a rich person too.

I’ve long since wondered what I should do with the awkwardness that I feel knowing that I am rich in the presence of those with whom I minister.

A little about my context:

My wife and I live in Alotau (city), Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea (country).  I live a double life.  To many of you, I’m the financial guy who blogs about the topic of money and the Bible.  However, what you don’t see is that I spend most of my day sitting with, talking to, studying with, and getting to know the world’s poor.  Most of my closest PNG friends make under $1,000 USD per year. 

There is a huge gulf.  I am a rich man in the midst of the poor.

100_1113   100_1115

These pictures are taken at the house of one of the people I interviewed.

What Do The Poor Have To Say About The Rich?

After church one Sunday, I asked some folks from church if they wouldn’t mind coming to my house to help me work on a project.  The instructions were blissfully unclear and everyone willingly agreed. 

They also don’t know that I live a double life.  Only a couple in the group had ever even heard of the Internet and none of them knew I was doing any writing on the topic of Bible and money.

I invited some fellow church members to my house for lunch.  John, Siggy, Ponifasio, Lorraine, Rizpha, Susan, and Joel are good representatives of the standard of living in and around Alotau.  I fed them some sandwiches so everyone would be in good spirits, and I told them what we were going to talk about – money.

I stated the obvious. “I know, and you know I’m rich”.  In terms of the world, you would be called ‘the world’s poor’.”  I pleaded with them to be completely honest with me – don’t sugar coat what you want to say – tell me what the world’s poor have to say about their lives, the rich, and the gospel.

Question #1: What must a person accumulate or have to be considered rich?

The folks in Milne Bay are shy people.  Furthermore, they aren’t given to asking or responding to direct questions.  My question stunned them into silence.  They knew we were about to step onto thin ice.  We were going to talk directly about the topic of wealth and poverty.  For a full 45 seconds everyone avoided eye contact and no one spoke.

I decided I needed to find a backdoor to get access to the information I was seeking.

I went around the room person by person and asked them the question, “Are you rich?”  All, understandably, said no – if I was speaking about material things.  But, there was still one person I didn’t ask the question to – myself.

Question #2: What about me?  Am I rich?

Almost instantaneously their faces were plastered with sly smirks.  The smirk said it all – of course you are rich.  Shortly thereafter, everyone verbally affirmed their non-verbal expression by saying yes, I am rich. 

Question #3: So what makes me rich?  What do I have that makes you think I am rich?

Interestingly, the first answer was my skin color – I am a Caucasian.  Then they gave some details about what you must possess or have to be categorized as rich:

  • A job
  • Car
  • Shop for food any time you want
  • House with lights, a house made of materials not taken from the bush
  • No worries about tomorrow’s needs
  • Have pride [with pride she meant confidence] and happiness
  • Have knowledge

Question #4: If you could choose to be rich or poor, which would you choose?

The answers were split 50/50.

Those who would rather be poor said that even if they had more they might not be satisfied.  They feel like life is easier without many items and they thought ultimately they would be happier with less. 

Those who would rather be rich said they wanted the freedom to move around as necessary, they wouldn’t need to worry about the future, they would have what they need for school fees.  Money would offer them security.

Question #5:  What does it take to be rich?  How does one become rich?

  • Time, effort, and hard work in the garden
  • A good family background so good lessons could be passed on from generation to generation
  • Education
  • Exposure to the rich – the opportunity to work with or for a rich person

Question #6: How do most people feel about rich New Guineans?

Jealous.  They don’t think they can do it (become rich) and they believe that person must know something that they do not know. 

Editor’s note:  In many third world countries, there is a type of thinking called “limited goods”.  Money would be viewed like a pie.  If you take too much money, (too big of a piece of pie) I won’t be able to get as much.  Compare that to the North American mindset that money is unlimited; my ability to earn and produce income does not necessarily take away from your ability to earn a living.

Questions #7: What are the advantages of being the world’s poor?

  • No fear of robbery
  • Freedom of time
  • No worrying about your property
  • You can live at peace
  • Don’t have to worry – you can rest good and you don’t have to think so much.  The rich have so much on their minds.

Question #8: What are the disadvantages of being the world’s poor?

  • Cannot travel – especially cannot see the other places in the world
  • Cannot get a good education
  • Lack of money for things like school fess and food
  • City life is hard because you don’t get paid enough to manage the needs of your family
  • Cannot meet needs – what to eat the next day and clothing
  • Poor health services

Question #9: How much of their income do most people spend on food?

  • Everything
  • All of it
  • 99.8%

Question #10: Earlier someone mentioned needs and luxury.  What things would you say are luxuries?

There was that smart little smirk again.  Everyone tried inconspicuously glancing around my house as if to say, “look around”.

  • TV
  • Vehicle
  • Stove
  • Fridge
  • Electricity
  • Clean water
  • watches
  • rings
  • expensive cell phones
  • Things in the house – toilet and running water
  • Good house (defined as having an iron roof)
  • Air conditioning in the office
  • House full of food
  • Cupboards
  • Tables
  • Kids’ education

Question #11: For a moment, think specifically about Milne Bay.  What are the best things the rich could be doing with their money to help the world’s poor?

  • Help with school fees
  • Build a university
  • Better school teaching and materials
  • Training and courses for vocational skills
  • Health services that includes training doctors
  • Programs to address social issues like drinking.  Rehabilitation. Sports programs. Counseling.  The poor think negatively about themselves and look down on themselves.
  • Sponsor a missionary

Question #12: How much should the rich give to the poor?

  • Enough
  • What their hearts are willing to give
  • Whatever they are satisfied to give.  As they know their giving makes a difference, they might be satisfied to give more. 

Question #13: If God blesses people who work hard, why are so many hard working people in PNG poor?

Because of the culture issue.  When someone works, all other family members feed off them.  The working class pays for everyone else and all income is drained by the poor. 

Lots of family members live in the same house.  People are expected to help family and so they cannot accumulate any savings.

—————-

With that question, I ended the interview. 

The next day several people told me how much they loved the interview.  They enjoyed exploring some of these topics and especially felt a sense of relief knowing that the dust was settled and it was all out in the open – I’m a rich person living in the midst of the poor.

Perhaps in the future I will share some of my responses and reflections, but for now I’m interested in knowing what you thought about these answers.  What answer stood out to you or challenged you the most?

Comments

  1. says

    Henri Nouwen made a similar discovery while living among in the poor in Peru. He write in his journal, “Can we truly live among the poor? Although I live with them and share their life to some extent, I am far from poor. Living here not only makes me aware that I have never been poor, but also that my whole way of thinking, feeling, and acting is molded by a culture radically different from the one I live in now. At this moment, I feel that a certain realism is necessary. I am not poor as my neighbors are. I will never be and will not ever be allowed to be by those who sent me here. I have to accept my own history and live out my vocation without denying that history. On the other hand, I realize that the way of Christ is self-emptying. What that precisely means in my own concrete life will probably remain a life-long question.” And that is the question we must explore no matter what our economic status or who are neighbors are. Thanks Craig!

    • Craig says

      Casandra,
      Thanks for stopping by. I’m a HUGE fan of Henri Nouwen. I’ve always like how his theology was born out of his identification with the ‘outsiders’. The quote added a lot of quality to this post.

  2. says

    What we have and what is considered rich is so different depending on the culture you live in, and where you come from. While you may not be rich in an North American point of view, you really are rich when compared to many of the world’s poor. We hardly ever stop to consider just how blessed we are, and just how much we’ve been given.

    The question is, just how do we best help the poor? From the answers you received it sounds like many of your friend would like to be helped through education, a way that they can better themselves and lift themselves up – which is great. So often so much aid is just given to so many, without thought for actually helping people to change their situation.

    I was reading elsewhere today just how there are dangers for Christian faith in both riches and in poverty. In riches we can fall prey to pride, and begin to think that we don’t need God because we can do things on our own. When we’re poor we can fall prey to the idea that God isn’t with us, and that we need to do things outside of his will to survive. In both cases we aren’t relying on Him, but on ourselves. We need to remember to keep the focus on Him and his kingdom, and our future with Him.
    .-= Bible Money Matters´s last blog ..Blueprint For How To Make Money With A Blog: Advice From Successful Bloggers =-.

    • Craig says

      Peter,
      The world really is a HUGE gulf between the rich and the poor.
      “How do we best help the poor?” While I hope to address this question fully in a future post all I can say it is a long, hard, uphill road. The suggestions offered are a good starting place but this issue is so much more complex.
      Thanks for your comment.

  3. Scott Ferguson says

    Thanks for sharing this. I was just having this discussion with someone regarding Haiti. They thought it was crazy that so many Americans were sending money (including our government) to Haiti when we have poverty issues of our own. I tried to discuss how poverty is different from culture to culture and how there are systems in place of some sort in each culture to deal with it. Our cultural system in N. America is via financial support. Other cultures (like PNG) have systems of family and neighbors but not financial systems (nongovernmental organizations, philanthropy, and government programs). Our poor are rich compared to much of the world. But in our culture, their poverty to them and to us is just as real as the person’s in PNG or in Haiti. We have an obligation to help both. And to keep our own wealth in perspective — leading to both gratitude for our blessings and to responsibility in how we steward it and share it to meet systemic needs and needs of individuals — both within our own countries and those across the world. This is a life-long struggle.

    And I can just see their faces when you brought this up! But wow! Thanks to you and them for the candor.

    • Craig says

      Scott,
      You are exactly right when you say that there are first ‘systems’ to overcome before we can really touch on the poverty issue.
      I like how you mentioned that this should lead us to both ‘gratitue’ and ‘responsibility’.

  4. says

    I loved hearing their perspectives. The response that stood out most to me was food as the primary defining factor of wealth — and I totally agree. As someone who for a while there lived on $10 per week for 2 people for food here in the US, that’s my defining factor too. I still marvel at just how much food is available in stores, etc — and that now I can afford to buy anything I want to eat. There are so many things people take for granted, and it’s much more enjoyable when we don’t.
    .-= Jackie´s last blog ..Stop Making Excuses =-.

    • Craig says

      Jackie,
      We have a lady who works at our house and my wife is often embarassed on grocery day. She makes 2-3 trips from the car to carry groceries and the lady who works for us buys a bag of rice and a small can of tin fish at the end of every day.
      Thanks for you comment.

  5. says

    It seems that a few themes are repeated in the responses. For example, education and health care, these seem to be universal concerns and therefore beyond the question of wealth.

    Another that I find even more striking is freedom. Look at the examples:

    Q3–shop for food, any time you want; no worries about tomorrows needs
    Q4–life would be easier with fewer items; freedom to move around
    Q7–freedom of time; rest good
    Q8–cannot travel

    All of these relate to freedom somehow and they seem to aspire to them.

    I believe this is true of all people. When we begin the quest for financial independence, we look for things that will set us free in some way–a career we enjoy, money in the bank, elimination of debt, things that will make life easier and free us up for other pursuits.

    But somewhere along the way it often morphs into a money chase. At that point we’re chasing a number that always moves higher, and the concept of freedom is lost.

    The people you’re interviewing would probably find that freedom at numbers that are only a fraction of what we consider to be a minimum. It seems we can learn a lot about money from people who don’t have any.

    This is an eye opening post Craig!
    .-= Kevin@OutOfYourRut´s last blog ..Buying vs Renting a Home – Its Not All About Money =-.

    • Craig says

      Kevin,
      You are exactly right about the importance of freedom. One day I hope to write a post about everything money affords to people who have it. One of the biggest things money offers is choice.

  6. says

    Awesome Post!! I’m currently doing a county-wide assessment with my church on the biggest needs in our area and this post just struck a chord with me!

    I’ve been wrestling with the question that Pete brought up, which is exactly HOW do we help the poor. I really like the answers your interviewees gave – education, life skills and job skills.

    Too often we look to provide “relief” to the poor rather than providing “development”. Corbett & Fikkert’s book “When Helping Hurts” provides more insight into this.

    I think often times we want to just give money because it’s less messy and we can check it off our list and feel good about ourselves, but what the poor is really looking for is someone to invest into their lives – help them with schooling and jobs and life.

    And when you think about – doesn’t it just make so much sense that the best way to “go and make disciples” is to invest into them, share life with them and through that share the gospel with them?

    Thanks for this post Craig!
    .-= Jason @ Redeeming Riches´s last blog ..5 Common Misconceptions About Life Insurance =-.

    • Craig says

      Jason,
      I love to hear about the results from your assessment.
      Helping does need to take two forms ‘reactive’ and ‘proactive’ or ‘helping today’ and ‘helping for tomorrow’.
      I enjoyed reading your comment.

  7. jarthurford says

    I was intrigued by answers to question 9. I think they might admit some hyperbole in the answers, yet it does point out just how paramount the need for food is, especially when you don’t have a lot. When something so basic is taking up such a large part of our thinking, it is difficult to move on to more significant topics.

    I assume that in the question about the rich, the idea of knowing some secret might relate more to help from spirits of ancestors, or a witch doctor than what we westerners might identify. If so, perhaps that could be fodder for a future post.

    • Craig says

      Jarthurford,
      I found #9 interesting too, but I didn’t really challenge them on it. They were all wearning clothes and that too money. I guess they were just trying to communicate that they felt like they only worked for on thing – food.
      I had expected there to be more discussion about the ‘secret’ associated with cargo cult, but honestly there really wasn’t much about it.
      Thanks for your comment.

  8. Garrett Knapp says

    Great interview! I’m not sure how or where I first got the idea that I–and nearly all Americans–am very rich, but I have had it for a long time. These days it seems so obvious to me that I am rich that I am surprised when others don’t think so. For example…

    I was in a small group study a few years ago where we read the story of the rich young ruler, leading to the famous saying about rich men entering heaven and camels going through needle eyes. Somebody in the group leaned over to a friend and said, “I don’t know why we are studying this…it’s not like any of *us* are rich.” I found myself dumbstruck.

    Going back to New testament times, what did it mean to be rich? Never being low on food, never lacking shelter, warmth, clothing, health care, etc. It’s so easy for people like that to think they don’t need God, which is where I think the difficulty comes from when entering the Kingdom. And aren’t 99.9% of Americans rich by that definition?

    Going further back, we all know that Solomon was exceedingly rich. I have heard people today lament that they wish God would give them so many riches. But let’s think about Solomon’s life…

    –no air conditioning (hey, that’s a big one for me!)
    –no ice for his drinks
    –no fruit out of season
    –travel was hot, tiring and slow
    –never got out of–or even saw pictures from out of–the middle East
    –unless standing next to somebody, all communication was extremely slow and unreliable. Friend in PNG? Hope your letter arrives in a few months… ;-)
    –no anesthetic, not even any Tylenol
    –no refrigeration, no convenient cooking appliances
    –etc. etc.

    Didn’t mean to rant for so long–it’s a pet subject. The part of your interview that struck me the most was where they listed what they considered luxuries. A few of them were obvious, but things like food, vehicles, good roof, clean and running water, electricity, stove, frig, education, tables… It’s pretty foreign for me to think of those as anything but the basic necessities of life.

    • Craig says

      @Garrett

      I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who is rich. I think admitting that we are rich is a huge step in the right direction.
      I was amazed at the things they listed as luxuries. Had that been with a group of middle class Americans each of those things would probably have been necessities.

  9. Scott Ferguson says

    Amazing that they never mentioned “shoes” as a luxury or a need. I guess in a world where most people hike through the jungles and the cities barefoot, they can’t fathom a world where everyone always wears shoes and that many people have 50 or more pairs.

    • Craig says

      Not only to many people have 50 pairs of shoes – sometimes when they travel they bring almost that many pairs of shoes. Seems like we had a visitor recently who had a bunch of pairs of shoes :). If only I could remember who that was.
      Thanks for another good comment!

  10. says

    Craig, I’m always a fan of your writing but this post touched my heart. Two of your questions/responses stood out for me.

    The first is #10. It’s hard to think of running water and food as luxuries. Westerners would define these as needs.

    The responses of the people to question #12 was so generous. Their expectation is that we only give what we can or the heart directs instead of a set amount or percentage.

    I consider my life rich thanks to God’s blessings, but now see I am also monetarily rich.
    .-= Bucksome´s last blog ..Do Baby Boomers Know How to Find A Job? =-.

  11. says

    Craig, what a great article! I starred this on my Google Reader so that I can refer back to it when I forget how blessed we are.

    I have always loved travelling to other parts of the world and learning about other people’s perspectives. It’s also sad to hear how some people think there is no way out of their poverty. Just like you heard people get afraid that they were taking too much from the pie, I have seen people in war torned Bosnia who are too scarred from war to be optimistic about their future. I know that Christ’s love can shine through people like you, though, and have a great impact.

    -Ryan

    • Craig says

      @Ryan
      It is important for us to be reminded of our blessings in Christ. I hope this post will give each of us a little perspective.
      I believe some of the greatest factors in poverty have to do with mindset and culture not lack of resources. There may be a solution, but the solution is often very illusive.

  12. says

    Craig, great post idea. This is very insightful – personally it encourages me all the more to make as much money as possible so I can have more to give to those in need. As Americans we need to become more familiar with Luke 12:48 – “…From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.”

    • Craig says

      @ChristianPF
      Thanks for your positive attitude and desire to bless others as you have been blessed. May God richly bless you.

  13. says

    Craig,

    Great post! I am realizing many of these things even more now that I am back from Haiti. Question #12 is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. Where do we, as Christians in America, draw the line between how much of our wealth we enjoy for ourselves as a blessing from God versus how much of it we give to the poor?
    .-= Paul Williams´s last blog ..Gone to Haiti – Be Back on January 28th =-.

    • Craig says

      @Paul
      You’re asking the right questions about self vs. others. I’ve been writing about that lately because I’ve been thinking about it too. I pray God will always give us the wisdom necessary to make these difficult choices.
      Welcome back to North America.

  14. jarthurford says

    Thank you for all of the comments on this topic. Your perspectives have been helpful

    From the comments, I think most of us can be a little more “theoretical” because of the distance between us and the poverty.

    I do question how much the solution to their problem depends on my gaining more wealth. I say that in light of the fact that it seems to emphasize God blessing me more than his blessing them. As well, I do tend to agree with Craig’s observations in earlier posts that giving money isn’t necessarily the answer, at least not the whole answer. At the same time I must admit that the answer alludes me.

  15. says

    I really enjoyed this interview and learning from your friends as well, Craig.

    My brief thoughts. Perhaps God is as interested in an open hand as he is an open mind. Generosity is as important as knowledge to God.
    .-= Nicole Whaley´s last blog ..Hello 2010 =-.

  16. Violet says

    Perhaps I should say I am “rich” a little less than you. Here in the Philippines, my week’s
    salary is not even enough to support a “prisoners’ rehab program”. But here I am in this prison ministry. And for myself, what’s left is not even more than 10% of the amount. And from that, I give an offering to Bible studies for the women in the neighborhood. Because of you have Crhist’s compassion, you cannot just ignore the needs of the poor and the oppressed. God Bless us!

  17. says

    Very interesting post. Egypt has the biggest Middle Class in the middle east but still an overwhelming amount of poor. When the poor are begging my skin colour immediately makes me richer when in fact I am way down the scale compared to many Middle Class Egyptians. It’s odd how colour is seen as immediately rich.

    I also like the answer to the last question. It’s funny because that is kind of the argument against socialism from many American’s!

    I often find the best thing to do for the poor in an immediate sense is buy them some food to take a meal worry away and give them your time for a chat…. I found giving money often get’s misused and have seen kids run off and buy coca cola rather then feeding themselves with more filling food…. I don’t blame them though, they are kids after all!

  18. Mahika Luthra says

    Thanks a lot 4 sharing this. I wanted to see such conversation for my school project and this has proved to be a great support for me. I think that people like you will definitely bring about a change in the social and economic order of this world.

    Sometimes i feel that it is more comfortable being poor rather than rich.
    This has awakened me.
    Thank you so much

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