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Read This Before Giving the Poor Your Change

Well-meaning, good-hearted people can do a lot of damage.

For the past year, I’ve served in a volunteer program that seeks social justice for the marginalized and disadvantaged. It’s been a challenging year, including times when I’ve wondered how much good I was really doing.

Recently a friend introduced me to the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Someone had recommended it to her as a must-read for every missionary. After reading the book, I would add that it’s a must-read for anyone in ministry, social service, political office, or non-profit community organization. Correct that to anyone who sees, knows, or contacts poor people. If panhandlers wait on street corners of your city, you should read When Helping Hurts.

Corbett and Fikkert teach economics and community development at Covenant College as well as have leadership roles in the Chalmers Center for economic development. Their book starts with the premise that people who try to help the poor often result in causing more harm than good. They explain that poverty has much less to do with a material problem than it is a relational problem.

According to the authors, poverty occurs in four foundational relationships: with God, with self, with other people, and with the rest of creation. They write, “Due to the comprehensive nature of the fall, every human being is poor in the sense of not experiencing these four relationships in the way that God intended.”

Credit: Jeremy Brooks (https://flic.kr/p/56xUqh)

Credit: Jeremy Brooks (https://flic.kr/p/56xUqh)

This worldview turns out to be key to resolving poverty. The authors circle back several times to the universal poverty inherent in every human being. They argue that we cannot hope to tackle the causes of poverty unless we’re able to first admit its presence in our own lives.

Once we can begin our healing, then we can move forward in healing others.

The other major worldview shift comes with recognizing different situations require different kinds of help. The authors divide help into three categories: relief, rehabilitation, and development. To grasp the different levels of help, imagine a tsunami destroying an impoverished community.

Relief: provide “first aid” for basic survival, including medical care, temporary shelters, and food handouts.

Rehabilitation: restore the community to its pre-tsunami state, rebuilding houses and reestablishing businesses and farms.

Development: improve the community beyond its pre-tsunami state, growing businesses, increasing social stability, and empowering community members to realize fulfilling lives.

North Americans tend to think the more resources are pumped into a community, the better off it will be. Relief is simpler, easier, and produces faster results than the development needed for long-term, sustainable growth. The authors explain this is seeing poverty only on the material plane while ignoring relational brokenness.

We pour more money into the bottomless jar, hoping something will stick, and what we find is a magic trick where the dollar bill disappears and never comes back. The givers end up frustrated and jaded, stuck in their god-complexes, while the poor become even more disempowered, feeling inferior, and stuck in their helplessness. The relational poverty grows.

On a Sunday not long ago, I walked by a woman sitting near an outdoor ATM. She could have been waiting for someone to meet her, I thought, until she waved at me to stop.

“Hey, hey, can you help me out?”

There was cash in my wallet. It would have been easy to hand her a bill, ask her name, and hear her story. I could have spared five minutes for decency’s sake.

So why didn’t I? Corbett and Fikkert encourage generosity and compassion for the poor. They even admit to times when they have provided handouts, but they explain why that may not have been the wisest course and how they would change their response.

When Helping Hurts taught me that what I do for the immediate rush of feeling kind, generous, and good actually disempowers both the poor and myself. Giving a handout seems compassionate at first, but it wouldn’t have changed the woman’s situation. Even if I stopped to listen, she would still ask the next passerby for the same kindness. She’d still be stuck.

I kept walking because I wasn’t in the position to do what it would really take to change her life.

Corbett and Fikkert support a developmental approach to poverty. This requires long-term relationships, recognizing the poor’s assets, assisting them to plan their goals, and letting them take the lead in changing their communities for the better. Most importantly, it means acknowledging our own poverty (of God, self, others, or creation), repenting for hurting the poor in our attempts to “save” them, and walking alongside the poor in humbleness towards our mutual growth.

I’m thankful for the past year learning from those striving for their local community’s development. My volunteer placement involved serving school-age children in need of caring mentors to be their role models and friends. The mentors give their time and energy to uplift their mentees for a brighter future. They build the children’s self-esteems, help them discover their passions, and guide them towards achieving their goals. These children will later become successful, contributing community members. Some return to become mentors themselves.

It’s been first-hand experience that positive relationships revitalize people in poverty, whether their symptoms are material or not.

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Posted by on July 21, 2015 in Books

 

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When Some College Kids Prayed Together

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It was January of my final year in college. A friend had just returned from a semester studying abroad, and he told me there was this group of friends that he wanted me to meet. Another mutual friend said the same, inviting me to check out the group. They told me the group gathered upstairs in the student union every night of the week. Their one goal? To pray.

“About what?” I asked, a bit wary of religious fanaticism.

They replied, “Personal struggles, family needs, our campus, missionaries, unreached people, the world at large—anything and everything.” So one night I agreed to come.

I never left.

My latest book project is dedicated to that group, a strange conglomeration of college students who I never thought to meet—students passionate for pursuing God, understanding the Bible, living like Jesus, and praying always. Students who geek out over the prophecies of Isaiah and get excited to sing old hymns in public locations. Students who spent a week-long road trip together and never once started a fight through cold campsites, irregular meals, or getting lost several times. Students who pray for hours until the campus security guard kicks them out to lock the building and who then continue to pray in the night air. Students who confess their strongest temptations and worst fears and hold each other accountable as they grow together. These students became my closest friends and most admirable inspirations in my relationship with God. They are, in short, the most beautiful people I’ve ever met.

I realize we enjoy a rare community. Not everyone has friends who stop you and say, “How are you doing really? Tell me. What’s on your heart?” Instead, I’ve met many students who crave intimate spiritual community and don’t know how to find it. They suffer from loneliness and stagnation. They may have a relationship with Jesus, but they are cut off from their brothers and sisters in Christ.

Young adults need mentorship from older generations, but we also need fellowship with our peers. We need to commiserate with those going through our same life situations. We need friends we can rely on for encouragement and support as we walk alongside one another. And together, as the body of Christ, we are strengthened.

I’d like to share our story with you. That’s why I am in the process of writing a book about how God has worked in and through the prayer group over the three years since its start. New people have joined while others have left. The atmosphere of our prayers have transitioned through different seasons. There have been nights of tears and days of celebration. Sometimes God was tangibly present in our midst; then there were times when we cried for his guidance and healing.

The deep intimacy you desire is possible. It isn’t a far-off dream. It’s real. I’ve experienced it. You don’t have to be alone. You can have life-giving relationships with a community of people and, most crucially, with God.

 
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Posted by on March 18, 2014 in Books

 

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