Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Pastorgraphs: “When Helping Hurts”



E-Vangel Newsletter
April 30, 2013

Pastorgraphs: “When Helping Hurts”

I would like to tell you I enjoyed my trip to Memphis last week, BUT the truth is it made me quite uncomfortable. Not the visit with my family in Mississippi; that was wonderful. It was the Eurasia (Russia) Mission Conference in Memphis that was a punch in the stomach. And I blame the stomach ache on Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.

You see, Steve and Brian wrote a book, “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor ... and Yourself”. It was required reading for the conference. And it totally changed all I have assumed about charity giving, mission trips and caring for the poor; a bitter pill to swallow. Wish I had read this book in seminary rather than as I transition into retirement. It is a game changer.


The basic premise of the book is that much (if not most) of what we do to help people may actually hurt them. That includes local outreach and mission trips around the globe.

How can that be?

We heard story after story of well-meaning folks doing everything from providing toys for poor children at Christmas to building churches. How could those efforts ever hurt? I will tell you what I learned.

Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis learned the reason there were never any men present when they delivered toys to poor children in a nearby neighborhood was that the men already felt guilty they could not provide gifts for their children. So when the church folk showed up with their sleigh full of gifts, the fathers stepped out back, further humiliated that they could not provide such gifts. That hurts.

Bishop McAlilly was District Superintendent of the Mississippi Seashore District immediately following Hurricane Katrina. One tiny church right on the Gulf shoreline was completely blown and washed away. A group of well-meaning Methodists from another state rode into town, and proceeded to construct a brand new church for the locals. (Isn’t it peculiar that much of what we call missions involves hanging drywall and color coordinated t-shirts. Just sayin’.) The truth of the matter was the Mississippi Conference was on the verge of closing the tiny church to better reallocate resources. The mission team never asked if the church SHOULD be rebuilt. And to make it worse, they built the new church building BELOW sea level, insuring it will soon be washed away again. The 9 members of that small congregation appreciate their nice new building, and the mission team truly believes they did a good thing. But should the tens of thousands of dollars spent on that “re-build” been better used elsewhere? That hurts, too.

We heard dozens of similar stories, including a northern church that sent an 18-wheeler filled with heavy overcoats to Louisiana right after Katrina. Really? It is only 98 degrees and 100% relative humidity in Louisiana in early September. (Now if I could have only gotten those good folks to send the coats to Siberia.) Again, well-meaning efforts of loving folks hurt other efforts that were more needed at that critical time. Another story was that a church donated 125 sewing machines to a poor area in Asia. When a missionary came back three years later, he learned the machines had never been used because no one donated thread or cloth, nor taught them how to use the machines. And there was that little matter of no electricity to run the electric sewing machines.

So, Brother Bill, are you telling us to quit caring for the poor or doing good works? Come on, you know me better than that. Let me share some quick principles I learned from the book and the meeting.

1.   If you are doing something “to” or “for” someone, chances are greater it might actually hurt than if you are doing something “with” them.
2.   Do not be so arrogant that you know what the problem is, have the solution, and have come to “fix” things.
3.   Never decide what you are going to do in the name of missions (locally or globally) without first asking the recipients what THEY want done. (And allow them to say NO without getting your feelings hurt.)
4.   Relationships are more important than drywall, hardware or even money. If you fly in and have an intensive old fashioned barn raising without getting to know the locals and sharing your faith with them, imagine how they will remember you. “Hit and run missions” rarely work. We heard of one team who learned at the end of “the project” the locals would much rather have experienced more fellowship and worship times with them than having someone fix their broken plumbing.
5.   They, not you, OWN the project. You built a school in Uganda? Great. Just remember it is THEIR school, not yours.
6.   If the project creates dependency, it most likely is hurting. It should be a 50/50 partnership that ultimately becomes self-sustaining. Help them reach the point they do not need your money or efforts any more. But they will always want and need you!
7.   Relief efforts are good right after disasters such as earthquakes, floods, etc. We are generally good at relief efforts, providing short-term food, clothes and shelter. But we need to learn how to do recovery and sustainable mission efforts as well. Doing the same “relief” effort year after year will do more harm than good.
8.   What we consider to be poverty may not really be poverty. In our materialistic society, we equate poverty with the lack of things. Often mission teams return saying they learned more from the people they came to serve; slow down, enjoy life with family and friends, and we all really can live happier lives with fewer “things”.

John Wesley knew that helping the poor was only half the battle. Without establishing relationships, especially a relationship with the Lord, the mission is incomplete and, yes, hurtful.

So even though I’m not Catholic, I felt the need to go to confession. I confess much of what I have done in the name of charity has been to meet my own spiritual ego needs more than to go the extra mile to build a real relationship with those I sought to help.

Lord, forgive me. And Lord, help me to do a better job in caring “with” (not for or to) the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, prisoners and strangers you send my way.

Pastor Bill

From the Quote Garden:
“But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? Little children, let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth.”
~ 1 John 3:17-18 ~
(New American Standard Bible)

Christ United Methodist Ministry Center
“Christ in the Heart of San Diego”
3295 Meade Avenue - San Diego, CA 92116 - (619) 284-9205

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