With the globalization of everything in today’s society, the concept that the whole world is my “neighbor” to love (i.e. help) is a valid mindset. I can see images of impoverished children on my phone; I can visit communities with economic challenges on the other side of the globe through international travel. Organizations such as ONE (whose celebrity advocate Bono rallies millions of his fans to sign its petitions and give money at U2 concerts) and Compassion International (which enlists millions of church-goers to sponsor a child in need by allowing a donor to see pictures of the children and pick the child based on looks and/or the desired country the person is drawn to) have rallied countless Christians and non-Christians alike to eliminate poverty in our lifetime. All of these streams of conscious-searing “voices” call me to get involved to help the less fortunate, which I can do, they say, “with minimal effort” on my part: simply give a few dollars a month, about the same amount I spend on coffee each week. So how can I resist this simple call to help? [Full disclosure: As a fan of U2 since high school, I have signed the ONE petition numerous times; and I have sponsored 2 children through Compassion International in the past.]
This generic call to help results in impulsive giving that lacks true discernment of the full impact of the gift. This reminds me of a cautionary tale of long ago when I was just beginning my ministry as a youth pastor. I took my students across the border into Mexico to serve a community that by financial standards was living in poverty. On our last day with these precious children, as we were saying our “good-byes”, one of my students was so moved by the experience that she gave all her remaining spending money that she had brought with her to one of the children. This amount of money most likely would have been more than the child’s parents earned in a month. While I can commend my student’s generosity and compassion, I do not think the gift was the best offering to give this community. I say this not because of my Western value of stewardship, but rather because of the potential unintended consequences that this gift may result in.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, identify that if we feel motivated to help by giving money to alleviate suffering, we may cause even deeper problems, as generic giving of money “exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame” (62). The challenge is to move beyond a provider-recipient dynamic that builds our sense of superiority and their sense of inferiority.
The call to help requires greater time and effort to truly understand how we can help without undermining the value and commitments of those who live in the community we seek to benefit. “Hence, a significant part of working in poor communities involves discovering and appreciating what God has been doing there for a long time!” (p. 57). This goes “against the grain” of our Western values of speed to see results and our value of stewardship, to leverage money to make the “greatest” impact. But who evaluates this “good” that we seek to do? Is it by our standards or those of whom we are giving the help to?
To truly understand how we – who are also broken and impoverished in our being – can help others in their need, we must change how we engage in the call to help. To summarize, Corbett and Fikkert’s thesis challenge: we are to help as, and when, we are invited to help, in the manner they want the help.
So how are Western Churches and Christians to begin to get involved in helping others from our isolated position? Corbett and Fikkert suggest a process called Asset Based Community Development (122). This can be described as investing time and resources to identify and mobilize the capabilities, skills and resources of the individual or community to meet their own needs. Therefore, as much as possible, we are to look for resources and solutions to come from within the individual or community, as they set the agenda for our help. We, as outsiders, must commit to not bring in resources unless they truly are in a desperate stage of need, and not to work processes that undermine the assets and values of the community.
To respond to the call to help, the priority is not to give money but rather to seek to build relationships among local individuals, associations, churches, etc. within the community we wish to come alongside of. We must change our mentality from “Doing to” and “Doing for” to “Doing WITH”, or even better “Responding to” the request by the very people we seek to help in the manner they desire.
I have finally learned this lesson after many mistakes as a youth pastor with the best intentions. In 2009, my family adopted a little boy from the Durban, South Africa region. Through this amazing experience, my church developed a long-term relationship with the orphanage. As they got to know us and we them, they eventually asked if we would like to bring a team from our church to visit them. We excitedly said yes and the following summer we traveled to South Africa with a team that had a variety of skills and passions. However, regardless of our abilities, we allowed them to set the work project – to refurbish a cottage for future children like my son. Even after we received our task we made sure we would not hurt the community by doing a job for them that others in their community could do. Per their policies they did not utilize the unemployed people of the community due to restricted access to the grounds in order to protect the children. This was a large task they wanted to be done that their maintenance team was too busy with ongoing projects to get to; so our team freed up their people to do the more pressing jobs. Lastly, instead of bringing tools and resources from America, we bought all our supplies from a local hardware store and left all the tools with the orphanage to help their local economy.
These practices delayed the work until we were asked, and delayed it again as our first efforts were to go shopping and then do work projects that took longer as we were not “experts.” However, our free time was filled with laughter and conversation with the staff that will stay with the children long after we are gone. We involved the older teenagers in our work after they got home from school so this cottage would have their sweat and fingerprints invested. The call to help this organization that had helped my adoptive son was a reciprocal investment in each other, as we recognized we are brothers and sisters connected to one another rather than just a long-distance anonymous donation that reduced them to receivers and alleviated our guilt to help. Sometimes pleas for help must be delayed in response to insure we are truly giving as the need requires.