Confessions of a Poverty Pimp | Sojourners

Confessions of a Poverty Pimp

Image courtesy Linda Adams


Last week was the first time I have ever been called a “poverty pimp” in front God and everyone—in public.  It certainly got my attention!

As Director of International Child Care Ministries, I straddle two worlds—the America I call home and the 30 countries where our sponsored children live. I travel back and forth between these two worlds several times a year and experience the stark contrast between my world and theirs. 

Here in the U.S., part of my responsibility is to advocate for the children at conferences, churches, and other venues. Last week at an event I had my display set up, 20 kids’ faces looking out from their brochures, silently imploring conference attendees to choose them and become their sponsors.

My accuser was an eloquent professor of African American Studies. He is offended at groups like mine who apparently profit off Africa’s poverty and perpetuate an image of black helplessness. He is concerned that African American children who view pathetic images of hungry kids on TV internalize a sense of racial inferiority. And that’s not the half of it.

He also proposed that the American Church invests energy and resources in the missionary enterprise around the world, but seems to care nothing about the problems that plague our inner cities back here at home. Why, asked the professor, can’t the Church in the U.S. direct some of its compassion to the neighbor next door? Why do we care so much about black children who live across the ocean when we are so callous toward the ones who live across the tracks?

“Every time I come to a Christian conference like this, I have to walk past three tables of poverty pimps to get into the auditorium; it makes me sick!” Ouch!

I’ve been stewing in it for a week. Am I a poverty pimp? The term implies that I exploit the poor; that I would even perpetuate their poverty to sustain my organization and increase my personal profit. One of the older uses of the term I found this week in some passion-fueled research comes Thomas Sowell’s 1998 piece, “THE POVERTY PIMPS' POEM”:

Let us celebrate the poor,
Let us hawk them door to door.
There's a market for their pain,
Votes and glory and money to gain.
Let us celebrate the poor.
Their ills, their sins, their faulty diction
Flavor our songs and spice our fiction.
Their hopes and struggles and agonies
Get us grants and consulting fees.
Celebrate thugs and clowns,
Give their ignorance all renown.
Celebrate what holds them down,
In our academic gowns.
Let us celebrate the poor.

Copyright 1998 Creators’ Syndicate Inc.

Back home at my inner-city church in Indianapolis today, I wondered about the kids from my church who defaced my image on a poster on our bulletin board while I was traveling last month, giving me a devilish goatee. Do they resent my smiling White face in a sea of Ethiopian kids? Am I a poverty pimp to them, too?

I confess a terrible tension between caring about domestic poverty and violence and being called to witness to the much greater global reality of extreme poverty. I hate it that teenagers are routinely gunned down in the inner city of Indianapolis. I deplore The New Jim Crow reality--there’s plenty to fix at home. Our safety net here may have gaping holes, but at least there is one.

When I go to Haiti and hear from our school directors that kids faint on Monday mornings because they haven’t eaten since the meal we provided them on Friday, my heart breaks. I encounter the 48 percent of children in India who are stunted because they don’t consume enough calories to sustain their growing bodies and brains. I learn from our leaders in Thailand that 85 percent of the parents in a certain region have sold a child into slavery. I hear that one of our schools in Kenya has 350 kids on the waiting list because there are no government schools in their slum. And I have come to love church leaders around the world who live on $2 a day and sacrificially serve children who live on even less. 

In Richard Stearns’ book A Hole in our Gospel, he cites that American Christians give about 2 percent of our income to all charitable organizations, and of that, just about 2 percent goes for all causes outside the U.S.—which amounts to about .0005 percent of our income. 

Solidarity with the Body of Christ around the world compels me to advocate for the children being loved, reached, and served by Christians among the global poor with scant resources. I’ll do my best to keep our organization’s administrative overhead low—it’s 15 percent, very low by non-profit industry standards—and if the day comes when my global partners don’t need or want me to tell their stories back here in the U.S., I’ll gladly look for a new job. Meanwhile, I’ll live in that uncomfortable place of advocating for needs far away while needs here at home stare me in the face. 

Linda Adams is Director of International Child Care Ministries (ICCM), the child sponsorship program of the Free Methodist Church.  ICCM serves 20,000 children in 30 countries. She is also the proud mother of Sojourners’Communications Manager.