Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Walking With the Poor – Bryant Myers [Feature Review]

Page 2 – Walking With the Poor – Bryant Myers

Myers explains his reason for the primacy of the transformed person: “The launching point for increasing human freedom and agency is changed people. All other transformational frontiers are now more easily breached in a more comprehensive way with a greater hope of being sustainable.” For Myers, poverty is most basically “a result of relationships that do not work. . . . the absence of shalom in all its meanings” As a result of diverse systems failures, poor people develop an inadequate worldview and a “marred identity”–a term borrowed from Jayakumar Christian. They live in situations which encourage them to believe they are valueless with nothing to contribute to the common good and with no hope of changing this situation. From this perspective, the individual person, particularly her beliefs, is the lever for grass roots social change. Yet I can’t help but question if this vision leads to the abundant world imagined by the word shalom.

Alongside the twin goals of development Myers tenaciously asserts the necessity of valuing the poor community’s stories, survival strategies, and knowledge. This is one of the highlights of the book. Communal ownership of the development process and empowered participation are guiding values of Myers’ proposed framework. Still, Myers roots these values in the efficient logic that participation changes people and “only changed people change history.”

Walking with the Poor is at its best in its final section, chapters eight through ten. Here Myers outlines the process and practices of development in Christian perspective. These three chapters, full of the nitty gritty details of better approaches to monitoring, evaluating, and reflecting and social analysis through Participatory Learning and Action and Appreciative Inquiry methods, forego the philosophical speculation of previous chapters. Instead, reflection on the process and practice of development command full attention, and through this attention to praxis, a slightly different theology of development begins to come into focus.

Back in chapter one, Myers sets the Christian development framework of Walking with the Poor up against the “modern worldview.” Drawing on Lesslie Newbingin’s observation of the West’s propensity to segregate the spiritual and material realms and Paul Hiebert’s reflection on the damaging effects of the excluded middle sphere of spiritual powers and low religion, Myers asserts that any Christian understanding of development must begin from a unified view in which the spiritual and the material co-exist and interpenetrate. Poverty possesses causes both material and spiritual; so must we understand development as both a material process and also a spiritual one.

This is first a conceptual shift–a new way of understanding. Throughout Walking with the Poor Myers enacts this re-unification as a conceptual act, adding on spiritual and “worldview” dimensions to other models of poverty and paradigms of development: not only do political causes of poverty need to be addressed but also beliefs that reinforce poverty, we must not forget the role of local churches in development programs, etc.

However, a world in which God’s Spirit is as present as immunizations, micro-businesses, and community organizers must also be a world in which we might learn our theology from our practices. The theological perspective Myers suggests in the final section of Walking with the Poor finds the practices of community life as the locus of God’s activity in development. The middle constructive section offers a “list of Christian elements of change,” a catalogue of characteristics that indicate whether we should speak of a development program as Christian. The final section offers, however, a handful of practices through which a development program might become Christian–practices that echo those of Jesus and his first followers that testified to the arrival of God’s reign.

Walking with the Poor concludes with a chapter on “Christian Witness and Transformational Development.” Witness has become a powerful word for me. Witness is how I bridge the slim yet powerful disconnect between love for God and love for neighbor. Myers concludes that witness in the context of development means “living and doing development in a way that evokes questions to which the gospel is the answer.” Myers clarifies that this will certainly include verbal proclamation, but it also encompasses actions, signs, attitudes, even life in community. For me, with my Evangelical birthright difficulty understanding how my actions participate in God’s love for the world, witness that extends to all my life is a significant step forward.

Walking with the Poor addresses itself to Christian development practitioners. It picks up on conversations already well underway for those in the right circles. But it is also a use text for the rest of us, particularly for college students, seminarians, and even lay leaders puzzling through what love for neighbor and social action look like from a distinctly Christian perspective. While Myers speak nearly exclusively about context across the globe, Walking with the Poor is also good to think with about how to love neighbors more local.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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