Fifty years ago, President Johnson declared the war on poverty. Two generations have been born within those 50 years, and yet the poverty rate has declined a mere four percent – 19% in 1964 to 15% in 2014. Today, 46 million Americans live in households where the government considers their income scarcely adequate.
What if the church were found to be part of the problem, not the solution, to the war on poverty? What if our good intentions have oppressed, not freed, the people we’re trying to help?
A group of Knoxville churches and nonprofits recently hosted Steve Corbett, author of “When Helping Hurts,” for the first of a two-part series entitled “Rescuing Charity.” Corbett challenged attendees to look beyond good intentions to determine if their generosity is truly beneficial or, worse yet, even detrimental to the recipients. Could the actions many in the church have initiated and committed in a desire to help those in need be proof positive of the adage: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions?” Might we, in our eagerness to serve Jesus out of a generous heart, actually be the ones entrapping the poor in their poverty?
These are painful questions for those who have a long history of seeking to serve people in need with our best efforts, gifts, and assets. Corbett challenged his listeners to stop and examine whether people benefitted through well-intentioned acts of service. He then pushed them to go deeper:
- Are resources being used and utilized well, with efficiency and efficacy?
- Are the people being served able to keep their dignity intact?
- Are people in a better place after being helped through your presence, your gifts, and your actions, or are they left dependent, stuck, and entrapped?
“We need to be aware of how often we lead with resources ,” said Corbett.
He then pushed his listeners to consider how they give. Americans and American churches are exceedingly generous with money and resources, but not so with relational investments and time. They love to give Christmas gifts to children in need, food to the hungry, and shelter to the homeless – but in the case of Christmas toys given to children, parents are being dishonored in their role as parent and provider when the gifts are given directly to the child. While this might be fun, emotionally rewarding, a part of church tradition, and makes everyone feel good about themselves as people and church-goers, it also robs that parent of his or her dignity and further erodes the self-esteem poverty has stolen from them.
The key, says Corbett, is through holistic ministry. Though slow, it’s proven to change lives, transform communities, and literally save souls. As one attendee noted, it’s the difference between using a microwave rather than a conventional oven – the food might be hot, but it won’t be as good or as tasty.
Corbett outlined three phases of response in a ministry focused on helping in a holistic way:
- Relief is an immediate response to a crisis situation. Crises cause ten percent of the world’s poverty, so only ten percent of work should be crisis-response (relief) work. This type of response should only be prolonged when the recipients are incapable of contributing to their own well-being. A crisis should be examined to determine its cause. If a crisis is the result of bad decisions or poor planning within a community, and sometimes our presence can be a trigger for change, do our relief efforts perpetuate the problem, or are they constructed in a way to teach recipients they can engineer change through their own efforts? Do our actions perpetuate dependency, or are they a basis for change to begin?
- Rehabilitation happens when people are restored to their pre-crisis conditions and a shift occurs from “doing for” to “doing with.” Is a community’s economic balance endangered by our relief efforts? Are small businesses snuffed out by our “generosity?” Could small businesses be created to fill needs rather than through the presence of relief workers or mission trips? Is economic development being stifled when we respond to needs that could be fulfilled by indigenous members of the community?
- Development comes through ongoing change which draws people into a direct and right relationship with God, self, and one another. People move from being victims dependent upon outside help to leaders who help transform others’ lives and participate in the growth and stability of their communities.
Corbett’s last caution was against the lure of paternalism, which draws givers into “doing for others what they can do for themselves,” and pushed his audience to work alongside people to enhance the work they’ve already initiated within their communities. Givers have two ways to respond to those in need:
- Needs-based – assumes the community is full of problems with little resources, therefore the key driver for solutions is outside the community.
- Asset-based – focus on capabilities, skills, and resources of the person or community, and outside resources build on local resources to help mobilize or connect, but not takeover.
The Book of Ruth is the story of a young woman who is poor, destitute, and a widow. She has remained faithful to her mother-in-law, Naomi, even when it meant she would need to leave her homeland and family and follow Naomi back to Naomi’s homeland. She and Naomi are hungry and have nothing. She realizes she must do something or they’ll starve, and she recognizes she can do something on her own to alleviate the problem:
“…I’m going to work; I’m going out to glean among the sheaves, following after some harvester who will treat me kindly…” (Ruth 2:2; The Message).
She gets up, goes out, and works in the field. She doesn’t take over the work of the harvesters. She follows the harvest workers and picks up what they’ve dropped or overlooked. While working in the field, she’s noticed by Boaz, the man who owns the fields. Rather than swooping in and giving Ruth the food and stability she and Naomi need, Boaz responds as one who understands her humanity, sees her poverty, and respects her desire to provide for herself and Naomi. He is able to devise a plan where she can work as hard as she needs or wants, and then makes it possible for her to do so in safety:
…”Listen, my daughter. From now on don’t go to any other field to glean – stay right here in this one. And stay close to my young women. Watch where they are harvesting and follow them. And don’t worry about a thing; I’ve given orders to my servants not to harass you. When you get thirsty, feel free to go and drink from the water buckets that the servants have filled.” (Ruth 2:8-9/The Message)
Boaz knows the words of Deuteronomy 15:11 –
…”there are always going to be poor and needy people among you. So I command you: Always be generous…” (The Message)
He also knows the importance of human dignity and was able to balance that against the abject poverty of a young widow in great need – a woman who knew hard work would provide the food she and Naomi needed and lift their destitution. Boaz demonstrated how to give and how to help in a way that raised Naomi out of poverty. May we learn from him and from Steve Corbett how to give, how to help, how to respect, how to encourage, and how to truly love people who need help. May we learn how to do so in ways that stabilize communities in crisis, train indigenous leaders to lead their communities out of poverty, and build on local resources so economies grow and people thrive.
To explore more of Corbett’s thoughts, consider reading his book, When Helping Hurts or Bob Lupton’s book, Toxic Charity.
To find out more about Rescuing Charity, visit: http://rescuingcharity.com/