by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

There are many different kinds of poverty, including emotional and spiritual poverty, which need our attention. However, most urgently, we need to be addressing the issue of physical poverty and hunger.

A report just released by Statistics South Africa reveals that more than half of the population of South Africa is living in extreme poverty. The number of people living below the poverty line of R441 (about US$ 33) per person per month in 2015, increased to 13.5 million people in 2015 compared to 11 million people in 2011. It is children who are most hard hit by the effects of poverty. They are less likely to go to school, and those who do go to school do not perform as well. Children going to school hungry are significantly impacted in their ability to learn. If they do not perform well at school there is very little chance that they will find employment, and so the tragic cycle of poverty is maintained.

Pope Francis has said that the key to ending extreme poverty and hunger is to recognise that behind every statistic, there is the face of a person who is suffering. “Poverty has a face! It has the face of a child; it has the face of a family; it has the face of people, young and old. It has the face of widespread unemployment and lack of opportunity.” He urges us to tackle poverty by “working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the needs of those we encounter.”

Part of our struggle, perhaps, is that we feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem. Another part of us does not want to know. Certainly I find it deeply challenging to face the fact that I have so much while others have so little. We may have compassion fatigue. Day after day we encounter people on the streets who are cold and hungry and who have no place to stay. Sometimes we want to place the responsibility solely on the shoulders of those in leadership, whose corruption has robbed the poor of what should rightfully be theirs.

As Christians we cannot step away from our own call to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. Some people are doing what they can. A woman I know, who runs her own business in the inner city, noticed a group of men who are living on the street opposite the building. Once or twice a week she makes and delivers hot soup to them. She discovered they needed ID documents and CV’s and slowly and steadily has helped each one. Perhaps the invitation is for each of us to find even one person living in extreme poverty and do what we can to make a difference.

We are reminded of Pope Francis’ words: “Today people are suffering from lack of poverty but also from lack of love.” As we begin to find ways to respond to people experiencing poverty, love may be rekindled and expressed in and through our actions.