3 Easy Ways to Empathize With the Poor

“Here are some hands-on ways to make biblical principles real without the cost and effort of an international trip.”

My wife, Reneé, was once asked to speak to a group on the topic of clean water. She felt she needed a little firsthand experience of what it was like to lack access to clean water. So she spent a whole day without turning on the faucets in our house—going without a shower, not brushing her teeth and forsaking her morning coffee (it was a tough day). She carried it a bit further by setting off with a Rubbermaid bucket to a lake two miles away, dipped it into the water, and headed back with perhaps three or four gallons in her bucket.

By the time Reneé arrived home, she was exhausted and had less than a gallon of water left, as much of it had sloshed out along the way. To make her misery worse, a neighbor driving by saw her schlepping the bucket and asked if she had started a cleaning business! As challenging as that day was, afterward Reneé was able to speak to her audience with the passion that only comes from experience.

There’s something about experiential learning that makes a concept really stick. That’s why we send out short-term mission teams from our churches. It isn’t always a tremendous benefit for a community in Mexico to have a group of teenagers paint some houses (if I go by the quality of my own kids’ work at that age), but it makes a significant impression on the young people.

By immersing themselves in a poverty experience, rather than just reading about it or donating a few dollars from their allowance, they develop a special sensitivity for the plight of the poor, perhaps for the rest of their lives. And having been on many trips with World Vision supporters over the years, I know that it works on adults, too.

Now, I’ve gone on record that I don’t think short-term mission trips are the best way to change the world, but I appreciate their value in changing hearts. If you’re looking for hands-on ways to make biblical principles real to your congregations without the cost and effort of an international trip, here are some experiential learning activities groups can do right in your own communities that boost compassion.

1. Fine China vs. Humble Rice Bowls

Did you know that obesity has become a bigger problem globally than hunger? That tells you that something is seriously out of whack in our world. “Hunger meals,” also called “poverty dinners” or “hunger banquets,” illuminate the inequality of food consumption in rich and poor countries.

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Participants are assigned to groups that receive meals corresponding to varying economic levels—so the privileged few eat a lavish dinner while many others get just rice and water. Imagine trying to enjoy an excellent meal while others nearby subsist on next to nothing—or the reverse, sitting among the “have nots,” seeing and smelling what you’re missing at the next table. Either way, it’s a memorable experience. Find good instructions for this activity from the Lutherans or Oxfam.

2. Walk 3.7 Miles in Their Shoes

Water scarcity is a scourge in developing countries, where nearly 1,000 children under age 5 die of diarrhea due to contaminated water and poor hygiene. As Reneé learned in her own experiment, people (usually women and children) must go to great lengths to get a meager supply of water—the average distance is 6 kilometers, or about 3.7 miles.

Understanding just what that distance feels like is the inspiration behind World Vision’s Global 6K for Water, which invites groups and individuals to walk or run 6K and raise money for clean water for communities that don’t have it. We’ve found that people who never thought they could manage a similar walkathon or “fun run” will stretch themselves for the opportunity to join in solidarity with the world’s poor. It’s a powerful expression of 2 John 1:6: “As you have heard from the beginning, [the Father’s] command is that you walk in love.” Check out a webinar about hosting a Global 6K event.

3. “Great Outdoors”—Without the Gear

When I drive around downtown Seattle, not far from where I live, I see tents, tarps and cardboard boxes tucked under highway overpasses: signs of homelessness that afflicts all our major cities. More than 500,000 people sleep outside across the U.S. on any given night. This is worlds away from the “glamping” we read about in travel magazines—camping with all the comforts of home—and it’s not an experience most of us would ever seek out.

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But homeless advocates and charities, such as Covenant House, encourage doing a “sleep out,” spending one night on the streets in a cardboard box instead of all the state-of-the-art REI gear. It takes only one night to understand why just a pair of warm socks is a such a valuable donation to homeless shelters.

These activities probably won’t completely change your life. But it’s always a worthy exercise to seek to comprehend, not just with our brains but with our bodies, what those who are less privileged than us are facing.

After all, we serve a God of empathy who sent his own Son to understand what it’s like to be human. Jesus suffered in all the ways we suffer. When we carry each other’s burdens, as Galatians 6:2 says, we “fulfill the law of Christ” and we honor God’s game-changing, unselfish love.

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Rich Stearns (@richstearns) is the president of World Vision U.S. and the author of four books, including The Hole in Our Gospel and Unfinished.