GOOD INTENTIONS ARE NO LONGER ENOUGH
A friend and colleague of mine lived three years in Rwanda. There he became friends with a young man named Jano. Jano was vibrant and innovative and recognized there was an opportunity for him to start a business selling eggs in his community. So he bought chickens and began selling eggs. His business was successful and began growing rapidly. Jano also was growing in prominence and sought positive change in his community.
At the same time, a church in Georgia was in the midst of exploring helping the poor globally. They recognized they had a tremendous abundance of resources and wanted to help those in need. They knew of the hardships the country of Rwanda had endured in the late ‘90s, so they sent a church team to visit an orphanage there. While there, the church members got an up-close look at some devastating poverty. Their hearts broke for the children who were dying in the orphanage. They recognized there was a huge protein shortage in the orphanage, so they brought the stories of the children back to the church and asked the church to support a plan to help the country of Rwanda.
And the church did respond. They decided to commit several hundred thousand dollars over a few years to Rwanda. They wanted to address the protein shortage they witnessed at the orphanage, so they arranged for hundreds of thousands of eggs to be delivered over a few years and distributed freely in the community they had visited.
This church was responding to Matthew 25. They experienced the “least of these,” and they were compelled to act. This church sought to bring light into darkness and healing to the broken. But, in the process, despite their best intentions, they actually caused a lot of harm. What happened as a result of their charity was some short-term relief – but a lot of long-term harm. Jano, the egg seller, was unable to compete with free eggs. He had been growing his business and becoming a leader in his community. As a result of the hundreds of thousands of dollars of free eggs, he had to sell all of his chickens. Along with the rest of the egg sellers who were starting to emerge in this country, he had to close up shop. The market was then flooded with chickens, and he lost a lot of money as a result of the church’s newest program.
It sadly gets worse. While there were undoubtedly individuals who were healthier during those three years, when the church’s program ended and they decided to re-direct their missions budget funding to a project in South Africa, the community in Rwanda was left out to dry. They now were at a worse point than when the church began the project as they now had no eggs and nobody in the community to buy them from. Good intentions are not enough.
My wife lived in Tanzania for a few months, and while there she spent a lot of time in the village of Muhama-get-tu. There she heard from the local leaders of missionaries who had come through years before and encouraged those in the village to stop eating the grubs that were a staple of the community’s diet at the time. The missionaries sought to bring civility to this village. These missionaries left their homes to live in a place with no electricity, no comforts—completely outside of their comfort zones. They heard Christ’s call in Matthew 25 to care for the poor and responded.
Yet, despite their very best intentions, there were some devastating consequences as a result of their interventions in Muhama-get-tu. Years later, all the children born in this village continued to suffer from malnutrition. Sickness and hunger sky-rocketed. As was discovered later, the very grubs the missionaries had encouraged those in the village to stop eating were a vital source of nutrients and protein. When they were removed from the diets completely, the children in the village suffered.
Right here in our own country, there is a church plant in a tough urban neighborhood in Atlanta that took up its home in a historic church building. The young and vibrant church body was cognizant of the pressing needs of their community. They committed to come together and take care of the less fortunate there.
In their new church building, they had a lot of unused space and wanted to use it to minister to the neighborhood. So, they began soliciting donations of clothing in order to open a free “clothing outlet” – they announced this to the neighborhood, swung open the doors of the clothing outlet, staffed by church volunteers, and welcomed in the community. This church had wonderful intentions! They saw the “least of these” – they wanted to clothe those who were “naked” in their community. But, good intentions are not enough.
Within days of the shop’s opening, it was flooded with individuals who lined up to get their share of the free goods. Bob Lupton, who is an author and member of this church described the first few days this way:
As soon as the first customers came through the door, the spirit of charity that smiling volunteers exuded faded rapidly. A hoarding instinct took over our customers as they grabbed and growled and stuffed as many clothes into as many trash bags as they could carry. It was pure bedlam.
Dejectedly, they went back to the drawing board. Their intentions were to help the community. What they ended up with was a piece of meat thrown into a pen of starving lions. They weren’t able to solve any problems…at least not in a sustainable way. They may have helped a few people get some decent clothing, but they certainly had a lot of unintended consequences.
So, they enacted rules at their clothing closet. They began limiting the customers to three items per person. One visit per week. “But what about my three sons in school who can’t be here with me?” “What about my sick uncle who can’t leave his house?” Soon the loving, charity-driven volunteers changed. They began behaving, as Lupton described, and I love this,“like temple police guarding the resources of the Kingdom against the very people we had intended to serve.”
There is one last story of good intentions gone awry that I’d like to share. This story could be familiar to many of you. Calvary Monument Church had a passion to live out Matthew 25, specifically in the post-Soviet country of Ukraine. Every year, teams from the church would travel to Ukraine, where they would distribute tens of thousands of dollars of goods—food, medicine, school supplies, clothing—freely to individuals in poor communities across the country. Year after year they did this until 1996, when several local pastors approached the missions team and asked them to actually stop bringing their charity.
Jeff Rutt, who started a large home-building company here in Lancaster, was on the missions committee and a member of the missions team who was approached by the group of pastors. He was there when they shared the stories of the in-fighting that occurred between the church members as they argued about who should get the stuff and how much they should get.
He heard them talk about the dissension that had arisen between the church and the local store owners who were frustrated because they could not compete with free. Jeff heard about how the t-shirt vendors found their customers drying up as they just waited until they could get the free stuff. He noticed that dependency was developing on these handouts and perpetuating a negative relationship where the Americans were viewed as the healers of this community’s problems.
Calvary Monument Church; the missions teams they sent; Jeff Rutt. They were all well intentioned. They saw needs and tried to meet them. They literally responded to every tenet in the passage in Matthew 25—they provided clothing, food, water, and medicine to the poor. But, they found in these villages in Ukraine, as in Atlanta and Tanzania, that their attempts to help were in fact not helping. They found that their attempts to help were actually hurting the local economy, tearing apart the local church, and creating tension in the local community.
Read “The Challenge of Helping – Part 1” of this 3-part series.