Culture At Large

The least of these: Gerard Straub and the face of global poverty today

Andy Rau

I just got back from hearing Gerard Straub speak at Calvin College's January Series. Straub is an author and filmmaker with a single overriding passion: raising awareness of global poverty. That's what he talked about today.

About half of Straub's presentation was spent discussing his personal testimony--how he came to be where he is, traveling to the bleakest, most impoverished parts of the globe with a camera in hand, recording the faces and voices of the world's poorest people. In his former life, Straub was a wealthy and influential television producer, working mainly on highly-successful soap operas. But he was unsatisfied with his life and work (in his words, "I looked up and asked, 'who would watch this crap?'"). After much personal searching, he encountered God while researching a book about Francis of Assisi. Now he travels the world challenging people through film to take action to help the poor.

Straub's story is inspiring, and you can read/watch more about it in this PBS Religion & Ethics story about him and a Sojourners story from a few years back. Straub's work today consists largely of films about poverty, and it was appropriate that much of his Calvin address was devoted to short screenings of his films.

Straub's films are jarring: they largely consist of video he shot himself in leper colonies, disease-ridden third-world huts, and hellholes of poverty in North America. (On the walk out of the Calvin auditorium after Straub's presentation, I overheard fellow audience members using words like "disturbing," "sobering," and "upsetting" to describe the experience.)

But despite the horror on the screen, the films are strangely positive: their purpose is not just to leave audiences wallowing in aimless moral discomfort, but to inspire people to go home and do something about the problem of poverty. Straub repeated several times what might be his motto: Jesus doesn't want you to give him your spare coins; he wants you to give up your entire life. We are called to deal with poverty not just by writing the occasional check to charity, but by treating the poor with the respect and kindness that any human being deserves.

Several items from Straub's films stand out in my memory:

  • the Payatas "Mountain of Garbage" in the Phillippines, where thousands of people live and scavenge through a monstrous pile of trash.
  • images of people stricken by leprosy, a disease nearly forgotten in the First World. Almost worse than the disease, Straub observes, is the social isolation to which lepers are condemned until they die.
  • the plight of the poor trapped in Los Angeles' Skid Row, living in extreme poverty in the shadow of unbelievable affluence.
  • the range of basic human emotion evident in the lives of the people Straub interviews and films. These people weep, laugh, tell jokes, and experience fear; they're real people who defy our temptation to label them simply as "the poor" and imagine that they're somehow undeserving of help or unworthy of inclusion in our society.

Compared to the more nuanced messages of Lauren Winner and N.T. Wright earlier in the January Series, Straub's message is short and sweet: care for the poor among us, as Jesus commands. How we go about following this divine command may be something to discuss and debate; but if at the end of the day we are not doing our part to clothe and feed the "least among us," we are failing to obey the clear teaching of Christ.

Note: one of Straub's films (Endless Exodus: The Sorrowful Flight of the Migrants) will be screened tonight (free admission) at 7:00 pm in Calvin College's Fine Arts Center Auditorium; if you live in the vicinity of Grand Rapids, Michigan, I encourage you to attend.

Topics: Culture At Large, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice