Dear Church, Poor People Are Not Zoo Animals


“When I was about 17, my mom was on the way to the grocery store in her electric wheelchair, and it fell off the side of the curb and tipped over. A woman and her husband were passing by, and they saw her, jumped out of their car, and helped my mom get back up. They got to talking, and that’s when it all started.

“The woman was some higher-up in a church, and after coming over to our house, she ended up buying my mom new furniture and TVs and things. Then for the next couple of months, she paraded all of her friends through our house, showing it off like we were animals at a zoo.

“I felt like we were a charity case being shown off. We were doing just fine before. We had a couch, and no, it wasn’t nice, but we had it. We had a TV; it wasn’t a big flat screen, but we still had it. These weren’t things we needed; we already had them. They weren’t up to date, but we had them. I always had decent things, I never went without food in my stomach. Our bills were fine. I was getting by just fine. We didn’t need anyone’s help.

“There were other things the woman could’ve done. She could’ve just come over and talked. But she felt the need–because in her personal life she had to have the best of everything–to buy us new things. For her, for us to be living like that–which is what we were used to, which was fine, we were making it–was obscene. I had no problem living in poverty at the time; it was what we were used to.

“After that, I didn’t want to go back to a church because I got the image of nothing but wealthy families that may have good intentions but look down on people living in poverty. Churches should care about poor people, but they need to do it in a way that’s respectful. Some churches–like in my experience–do it the wrong way.

“I think there are big issues with churches. Why does a church have to cost millions and millions of dollars to build? Where’s that money coming from? A lot of the money is coming into churches from people with huge salaries. They don’t want poor people coming to church because they aren’t giving much money; they want wealthy people who can give them their money. That’s probably why churches are bigger in wealthier areas.

“If someone goes into your church who is living in poverty who has ugly shoes or poor-quality clothes, everyone gawks at them, and says, ‘Oh my gosh, look at this person, we’ve got to help them. Look, look, look. We’ve got to help this person.’ They’re just making a big deal out of nothing.

“What do you expect when a parking lot is filled with Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, and here I come in a rusty old car? They’re not saying to me, ‘Hey can you watch my kid for awhile?’ I mean that trust is not there just because of how I look and the material objects I have. Money is a man-made object. Cars, homes, they’re all man-made. They have no actual value in God’s eyes.

“But they see me, and they see tattoos, and they don’t see any meaning behind it. They see me smoking, and they just think I’m some punk doing drugs, when that’s not the case at all. They judge a book way before they actually read it, and that’s one of those things you shouldn’t do, being that close to God, but they do it anyways.

“So I have my faith in God, but I don’t believe in going to church. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve lost faith in the Church. I’m not saying that they are all bad, but the ones that I’ve seen that are populated by wealthy people are doing less and less for others and are instead taking care of themselves.

“I don’t believe that going to church signifies your relationship with God. I believe that as long as you follow the Bible and be the best person you can be, that’s all He asks of you. And just be humble. God wants us to treat people the same way we’d want to be treated.”

Cory shared the above story with me the evening before he was baptized.


Over the course of 4 years, Cory had mentioned a few times that he wanted to be baptized; it was important to him and his faith journey, and he felt it would bring him closer to God. One day in June, we were again talking about baptism, and he asked if I could set it up for him.

Because of his experiences with Church, Cory wanted to be baptized in a nearby Alum Creek lake. Unfortunately, though, elevated levels of E. Coli meant that the ceremony would have to take place elsewhere.

When the day was finally here, Cory, his younger brother, and I walked through the doors of the church that I grew up in. He was baptized at Church of the Messiah, United Methodist on August 7. (Thanks, Pastor Jim!)

One of the hardest parts of Cory’s story, for me, is that it is all too similar to others I have heard. Gandhi is often credited with saying, “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” If we form churches in order to support one another on our journeys with Jesus, but we end up alienating people who are poor and marginalized or otherwise unlike us, then what is the point of having a church at all? We are certainly not being like Christ–who walked among the outcasts of society–when we make people feel unwelcome in church.

I am fortunate to know so many wonderful Christians, amazing people who have loved me unconditionally, who have celebrated with me, shared in my pain, inspired me to become more compassionate, urged me to fight for a more just world, and helped me seek a deeper relationship with God. They have helped me to better understand and embrace my call to social justice ministry; they have shaped me into the person I am today.

Calling Picture

However, I, too, have admittedly felt judged, unaccepted, unappreciated, and unheard at times by some who claim to love Jesus. I have felt smothered, trapped, as if my calling and who I am do not matter.

That can be expected. We are not perfect people; we are not perfect Christians, so the Church is not perfect. But we have a perfect Savior who died for us as the ultimate sacrifice, so that we could be in a permanent and unconditional relationship with God. All we have to do is ask for forgiveness and let God love us. Trying to be better and more just and patient and compassionate is a natural result of accepting God’s love and forgiveness, I think.

We are all just stumbling around in this short little life, and I think that the sooner we let go of control and trust God, the sooner we will start leading from a place of love and encourage one another. Maybe we would judge less if we accepted ourselves more.

But what if I had grown up like Cory? What if one of my first memories of church was of being treated like a zoo animal by a well-intentioned person who wanted to boast about her good works? Would I have still found my place in church? Would I be a Certified Candidate for ordained ministry right now? Would I be a Missionary?

Probably not.

I am growing, and I sure hope that I will continue to learn and to grow for the rest of my life. For now, I am reminded that, as Christians, we are just as capable of doing harm as good.

Lord, have mercy on us and guide us.

Blog Photo


Emily Kvalheim

GMF US-2, Class of 2015-2017

South Florida Justice For Our Neighbors

Cutler Bay, FL




  1. Reblogged this on missionaryemily and commented:

    “We are all just stumbling around in this short little life, and I think that the sooner we let go of control and trust God, the sooner we will start leading from a place of love and encourage one another. Maybe we would judge less if we accepted ourselves more.”


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