HELPING WITHOUT HURTING
I would like to share three caveats before coming back to these stories.
First, there are times when the only option is to give things away. In cases of war and famine, in refugee camps, for children who are on the brink of death—what these individuals need is food and medical assistance—and they need it fast, or they will die. I recognize that sometimes the best solution is to help by freely distributing stuff. What I’d like to encourage us all to do is to examine what the correct response could be and should be in situations where there are opportunities for long-term involvement and partnership.
Second, we need to examine our own hearts in how we view the poor. We need to abandon our tendencies to view ourselves as the great healers of the world and the poor as the sick who need us to heal them. We need to replicate what we saw in Christ, who came to earth as God incarnate to live among us, His creation. Not only did He choose to come to earth, but while here he purposefully chose to live around, party with, and minister to those in need. There is so much we can learn about ministering to the poor in his incarnation alone. Pastor, civil rights leader, and community developer John Perkins says it this way:
Without living among the [poor], without actually becoming one of the people, it is impossible to accurately identify the needs…an outsider can seldom know the needs of the community well enough to know how to best respond to them. Churches that respond most compassionately to the needy are those that have sent out from their own congregations people to live and walk and eat and breathe among the poor.
We need to be friends with those in need. Globally, we need to develop partnerships with organizations and churches that have local members of the community serving and working there, who really understand the local community.
Third, helping people physically is not enough. Christ and his ministry and the example of the New Testament church present a model of helping that is directed to the whole-person. It is not enough to provide bread for the poor if we aren’t introducing them to the Bread of Life. From my experience, there are a lot of Christian organizations who practice and purport a theology which places value on helping the poor in the name of Jesus, but doesn’t place value on helping the poor by introducing them to Jesus. To go back to the stories I shared earlier:
What would have happened if the church starting the ministry in Rwanda had found a few individuals like Jano and helped them grow their egg businesses? What if they had invested in a locally-run organization that was training local Christians to run their businesses in godly ways? What change could have occurred if these business owners had then been connected with orphanages and if they committed to giving eggs on a monthly basis to those sick children in desperate need of protein? For I was sick, and you cared for me.
Years after the missionaries encouraged the Tanzanian community leaders to stop eating grubs and bugs, new missionaries came into that community and were helping to restore the local culture by reintroducing the bugs back into the diets. They came as friends and lived there with humility. They recognized that they didn’t have all the answers. And as a result of this posture, they developed trusting relationships through which they could minister effectively. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.
It is exciting to see what has happened in Atlanta with the church that had the free clothes outlet. They decided to convert their clothing outlet into a thrift store, where they charged reasonable rates for the clothing. If individuals could not afford to buy any clothing, they provided them with opportunities to work at the store to earn a living and purchase the clothing. The church members hired and trained unemployed and homeless individuals from the community. They were then able to build relationships with these individuals and through those relationships, introduce them to Christ. When they made the change, the clothing outlet became a profitable venture within 18 months.
And one of the greatest changes was the shift in what their relationship looked like with the local community. No longer was there the healer-patient mentality which plagued the free clothing outlet. Lupton describes it this way:
Customers now felt valued rather than guarded against. They were needed and they sensed it. They were welcomed, not as subjects of compassion, but as essential customers. The store could not survive without them. Instead of staff expending energy on how to keep the customers’ greed in check, the energy went into creating an atmosphere that would attract them…
The experience revealed that people—perhaps universally—would far rather engage in legitimate exchange than be the object of another’s pity. There is something in one-way giving that erodes human dignity…We [need to] get out of the business of giving away. We [need to] start using our heads as well as our hearts to build value into people and relationships—value realized only when authentic exchange occurs. Again, perhaps the greatest poverty of all is having nothing of value to offer the community. I want to believe that no one in my community is that poor. For I was naked, and you clothed me.
What Lupton touches on here is important. In Matthew 25, Christ says that whatever you have done to those in need, you literally have done to Him. There is power in that. How would we treat our Creator if He was here among us? I look at my own life and question whether I treat the poor in that light. It has changed my perspective to think that I am to treat those in need with the same dignity and respect in which I would treat almighty God. This was central to the response Jeff Rutt had to the requests of the pastors in Ukraine.
When he was approached by these pastors, they asked him and his church kindly to stop bringing the free stuff and encouraged Jeff to find a way to help them long-term. In being there, and because he owned a business himself, he saw that there were a lot of talented and gifted Ukrainian leaders who were capable of starting businesses to support their own families and their church. But, they lacked the opportunity to do so. There were no banks that allowed the poor to be customers. Jeff recognized that these individuals just needed a kick-start.
So, together with the local church leaders, they decided to give it a shot. They hired a local staff to find the brightest leaders and potential business owners and started with 12 energetic entrepreneurs. They opened, essentially, a bank for the poor that provided loans, basic business training, and mentoring to help them get their start. That was the beginning of HOPE International. Ten years later, HOPE is working in 14 countries with over a quarter million entrepreneurs across the globe, providing Christ-centered banks to the poor.
Read “The Challenge of Helping – Part 2” of this 3-part series.