The thesis of the book When Helping Hurts (WHH) is a Christian call to “North American congregations and its missionaries to participate in poverty alleviation at home and abroad, taking into account the God-ordained mission of the church” (15) and to “have a responsibility to help the poor … in the ways that each Christian is to fulfill this biblical mandate” (14). The author’s goal is to promote a social witness among evangelicals that results in a healthier approach when strategizing to alleviate poverty (14-27).
Corbett’s and Fikkert’s proposition for alleviating poverty requires a shift in the traditional parading from a top down approach (when churches decide for the poor in which way resources should be invested) to a bottom up approach (when churches are walking with the poor to understand their context, resources, and assets before providing aid) (cf. Part 1: 31-71 and Part 2: 99-133). I concur that this approach opens greater possibilities for relationship and alleviation strategies to be most effective. However, it requires an enormous act of humility on behalf of those providing the resources to the local recipients. A posture that is very hard for many North Americans churches and agencies to take. The authors did not provide examples of how to resolve the tensions that rise between those with the power of wealth, requiring specific purposes to be accomplished through an agency that is negotiating with the local recipients where the funding is to be invested.
From a Latin American perspective, a third option is to be contemplated for poverty alleviation. One that combines the author’s thesis of the bottom up approach built on Bryan Myers’ (1999) Transformational Development (TD), with Orlando Costas’ and Samuel Escobar’s views of participating first in relationship with the poor. Escobar calls us to integrate the Jesus servant model as one accomplishes the mission of poverty alleviation (Escobar 2003). For Escobar, the space of poverty within our “social and structural realities of our time and space,” requires our development agencies to demonstrate two qualities: service and love. Consequently, when engaging with Latin American contexts to help the poor; we love and serve as a neighbor, as a friend, as the body of Jesus, and as his hands and feet.Costas’ view also aids the mission of poverty alleviation strategies by starting dialogue with the poor from the context of the margins.
Costas is one of the first contemporary missiologists/theologians that brought forth the importance of starting with the context for effective social transformation in the late 1970s. For Costas, poverty alleviation is linked to evangelism; it’s intentional and “it does not happen in a vacuum. It relates to a specific historic situation, people are not abstract and have concrete realities and the goal is transformation” (Costas 2009, 141). Therefore, the mission of poverty alleviation is always evangelistic in nature and should connect people to Christ through the many diverse channels. The connection must focus on the whole person: spiritual, material, emotional, social, political, cultural facets of people and communities. Subsequently, the transformation will be holistic, focus on individuals and on communities, bringing them to the table of Christ to share bread physically, as well as spiritual healing. That is the kind of Christian poverty alleviation that the Bible speaks we ought to practice.
The combination of WHH with the Latin American theologians proposal promotes a holistic social witnessing and transformation that brings together three streams of thinking (namely, international development theory, Christian relief practice, and biblical theologies of transformation) that draw in equal measures on the disciplines of theology, missiology, social science, and that cuts across reductionist dichotomies of spiritual/material, individual/communal, and psychological/systemic so common in development praxis.
The authors of WHH and TD build especially on the work of development theologian Jayakumar Christian (1999). The authors argue that development is a theological act as much as it is a problem-solving act, and that therefore our aims and methodology must be grounded in the biblical metanarrative. Corbett and Fikkert implement this proposition through their Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) strategy (122, Chapter 5). I was encouraged with this idea and was most impressed to find that Corbett, Fikkert, Myers, Costas, and Escobar had a contemporary Christian vision for alleviating poverty that provides a consistent view of the role of the Church to serve the poor.
In many respects, development ecclesiology is reminiscent of Roman Catholic social teaching (cf. Orborji, 30, 143-47; see also Groody, 94f; Myers explicitly draws on Catholic documents, 50, 77). Historically, Protestants have proven especially susceptible to reductionist ecclesiologies that have either relegated the Church to the sidelines of transforming mission (cf. Hoekendijk 1967, Rütti 1972; also RM 22-30) or over-spiritualized social transformation completely ignoring systemic injustices in our task of church-planting either locally or abroad (Myers, 77). As a refreshing corrective, it is argued that “transformation is the work of a community” (Myers, 74), “poverty alleviation is the ministry of reconciliation” (Corbett, Fikkert 74), and the Church is that “hermeneutical community” (Myers 200, Corbett, Fikkert Cp.11) which best embodies the biblical story that shapes the contours of our transformation and development (79, 84, 192; cf. Bosch, 389).
Corbett, Fikkert, and Myers also acknowledge the imperfect witness of our imperfect churches (cf. Myers 315, Corbett & Fikkert, 77-84). Yet, these authors find great hope in the Church’s witness; in fact, he reminds practitioners of the critical role of partnerships with local congregations and communities because of their lasting impact long after the development intervention has ended. The development ecclesiology, in essence, lifts the Church up - particularly the Church of the poor as the best expression and the primary agent of God’s holistic mission (192, cf. Padilla in Chester, 8). What a refreshing and hopeful view of the Church!