Poverty is Complex

In my last post I mentioned that there were two things I want everyone to remember from Poverty 101. The first is that “It’s all about relationships.” The second is that “Poverty is Complex.”

Everyone who has lived in poverty, everyone who studies poverty, everyone who works with those in poverty understands that poverty is about a lot more than money and that there are no simple definitions. And my experience is that attempting to describe it is a little like a blind man trying to describe an elephant from the experience of touching the side of the animal. There will be so much that we miss in our description and in our understanding.

No matter what your source of news, it is likely that you will someday hear a pundit, regardless of their political persuasion, talking about poverty. And they will likely say something like this, “Poverty is caused by…” And they will complete that sentence by articulating only one cause. I always tell people that if they ever hear that, they can stop listening to everything that person has to say, because that “expert” doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

And a fully fleshed out understanding of the issue of poverty is so important. Because as the authors of When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert point out, our definition of poverty will determine how we attempt to address it. Or as they put it, the “Diagnosis Shapes the Prescription.”

If we are going to make of difference in the lives of those living in the cycle of generational poverty we have to humbly approach the subject. We have to study, we have to read, we have to dig deep. We have to seek God’s wisdom. And we have to listen to the voices of the poor, because it is from those children of the King that we will learn the most.


As a long-term missionary, serving with her husband and children in Zambia and the Ukraine, Donna Alexander witnessed the complexities and consequences of deep poverty in her day-to-day ministry.

Yet, when she arrived at Shepherd Community Center in 2018 to serve as director of volunteers, Alexander began to see poverty in a new light.

“I felt like I knew a lot about it,” she says, as we talk in the training kitchen at Shepherd. “But when I came here, I soon learned that poverty is completely different. In countries like Zambia, poverty is expected. Here, it’s more a of mindset.”

Alexander works to coordinate Shepherd’s army of volunteers – from churches, businesses, community organizations – and helps them to understand more about the people they meet at the center and in the surrounding neighborhoods.

It’s not only about serving food or handing out clothing. Even more important, it’s about helping volunteers to connect on a person-to-person level with “our neighbors,” as Alexander describes the people who turn to Shepherd for help.

“God put a call in the heart of volunteers to serve,” she says. “I’ve learned that can be as powerful as with our staff.”

Recent volunteer opportunities have included home renovation projects, including painting, building fences, and constructing wheelchair ramps. During the holiday season, volunteers help serve meals and distribute toys, clothing, and food baskets. Many volunteers also serve at a Saturday morning food pantry, where families can stock up on necessities.

One major need, Alexander says, is for volunteers to read to Shepherd Academy students and listen as the students practice reading skills.

During the holidays, the volunteer season hits a new level with the distribution of 300 Baskets of Hope (donated this year by Indian Creek Christian Church), the annual Mozel Sanders Dinner on Thanksgiving Day, the annual Christmas Festival, and the Christmas Store (where volunteers help parents pick out gifts for their children).

“It’s a very festive time,” Alexander says.

One of Shepherd’s strengths is the depth of its volunteer corps. They come from small groups, Sunday School classes, congregations, and community organizations. They also come from the workplace. Companies such as Eli Lilly send teams of volunteers to meet a variety of needs on the Near Eastside.

Alexander says the annual Christmas Store, Shepherd’s largest event of the year, is a prime opportunity to serve. The first crews of volunteers, who fill 75-minute shifts, start working at 8 a.m. and the final teams wrap up the day at 6 p.m.

Last year, Shepherd served more than 300 families and distributed about 1,000 gifts at the Christmas Store. “It’s a very special event,” Alexander says.

For those who want to go deeper, Shepherd offers training to explore the complexities of the issue in Indianapolis and beyond.

“Poverty is about much more money,” Alexander says.

From volunteer to principal: “God always takes me out of my comfort zone”

Diana Reed had a decision to make.

She was serving as a volunteer in a kindergarten class at Shepherd Academy when the organization’s executive director, Jay Height, approached her with a question. Would she take a job as a preschool teacher?

I can’t be a teacher, Reed told Height, I have only a high school degree.

Well, why not go to college, Height asked?

Why not? Reed had two young children who needed her time and energy. She had bills to pay. She also had doubts about her own ability.

But Diana Reed took a step of faith. She went back to school, earned an associate’s degree, and became a preschool teacher at Shepherd.

“It was a hard road,” Reed says today. “I had to juggle school, family and work.”

Yet, as she traveled that challenging road, she was learning about faith and trust, and about answering God’s call.

“I had to trust God,” Reed says today. “He would always take me out of my comfort zone.”

A second opportunity to grow out of her comfort zone came a few years later. Jay Height approached her again, this time to ask if she’d become the preschool director.

I can’t be the director, Reed told him, I have only an associate’s degree?

Then why not go back to school, Height asked?

So, Reed took another giant step of faith, and earned a bachelor’s in early childhood education.

Even then, God wasn’t done yet.

Height came to her a third time, to ask if she would become an administrator at Shepherd Academy.

By now you know Reed’s answer. She returned to school, graduating with a master’s in education.

Now, 16 years after stepping forward to serve as a volunteer, Diana Reed is in her first year as principal of Shepherd Academy. More than 150 children, dozens of families, and a school full of teachers and staff count on her leadership, wisdom, and faith.

“Jay and others at Shepherd always see the potential,” Reed says. “They push me to the limit because they know I am capable of doing it. I’ve learned that I am capable. I’ve learned that I am intelligent and I have gifts to share.”

What did Height see in a classroom volunteer that convinced him she was ready for much more?

“It’s all about the heart,” Height says. “What she demonstrates is her heart for others. The skill can be taught. The heart is a blessing from God.”

For Reed, sharing her heart is a core part of the job. That includes those times when a child’s behavior warrants a trip to her office.

“One of the things I tell them, before I talk about consequences, is that I love them,” Reed says. “I also tell them that I forgive them, and that I will always love them. A couple of times the child has broken down and cried, not because they were in trouble, but because I showed them love and forgiveness.”

Comfort zones are nice. We all need places to rest, regroup, and prepare for the next adventure. But God has a way of calling us out of the safe places and into new areas of faith and trust.

Diana Reed heard that call. Her answer not only transformed her own life but continues to change the lives of hundreds of others she’s led and inspired along the way.