What do they need?

by Dustin on August 19, 2013

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It’s a simple question. It typically comes from a genuine place in our hearts. We enter a community, or we visit one, and one of the first things we see is the overwhelming need. Whether it’s the splintered relationships of a gossipy suburb in America or it’s the vast physical poverty of the Mathare Valley in Kenya; needs can be blinding.

The problem is when we are so blinded by what’s wrong that we can’t see what’s right.

When I lived in Mexico, it was obvious that people needed housing. We met one family in particular, who I’ll never forget, who lived in a boat turned on it’s side. It wasn’t a nice yacht-like boat either, it was a simple wood boat; basically a small step up from a canoe. It was so obvious that we should start building houses. We knocked on doors and asked local pastors to find out who needed a house the most. For months, we brought groups down from the USA to spend their weekend building houses for people who desperately needed them.

We wondered why we weren’t getting more participation from locals. Why did we rarely meet the dad/husband of the family? Why wasn’t the local government jumping on board and where were all the local churches?

One time, at the last minute, an American group cancelled. They simply wouldn’t travel to Mexico because of the reported danger. We had already bought the materials to build the home. The problem was, who was going to build it? My wife and I were great missionaries, but terrible construction workers. We visited the families that were “next in line” for a house and asked for their help. We asked them to spend a few days helping one of their neighbors build his house.

One guy became the informal leader of this crew of strangers-turned-friends. Once the house was built, he stood up and thanked everyone for helping. He acknowledged that the community had a lot of needs, but as long as there are people willing to help each other like this, everything will be fine.

After that experience, we started telling everyone on the “waiting list” for a house when/where the house builds were. All of a sudden, we had hundreds of dads/husbands involved. Local churches got involved and the local government even started supporting us. The community no longer saw us as an agency that built houses for poor people. We were a volunteer organization mobilizing community members to help each other. Eventually, people started helping out that weren’t even trying to get a new home for themselves; they just wanted to help others.

Fast forward a few years and there are hundreds of families that know each other. Their kids walk to school together. They share meals together in the evening. They attend church together. It’s like we accidentally built an incredibly connected and effective neighborhood watch program.

The point is this: if you only focus on a problem, you’ll rarely find a lasting solution. We were so blinded by the physical poverty, we completely missed the fact that people wanted to help each other.

When you enter a community asking the question, “What do they need?” you are missing what they have to offer. And what they have to offer (and encouraging them to offer it) will be a game-changer.

Ask yourself: Have I been so blinded by what’s wrong that I’ve missed what’s right? Take an inventory of the assets in your community, you might be surprised how much quicker solutions come when you’re actually looking for them.

 

– Dustin Patrick,  1MISSION in Mexico & Central America

Blog: GoodMud | Twitter: @DustinPatrick

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  • Richelle Wright

    “The problem is when we are so blinded by what’s wrong that we can’t see what’s right.”

    That was my favorite sentence! Thank you for this testimony – for sharing both the mistake and the triumph. Although sometimes I’d say I’m more blinded by my own pride than even that totally overwhelmed feeling you have when you know that nothing you do is going to be more than a drop in a swimming pool of hurt. Seeing what’s right and then encouraging that – that empowers! It has often been my approach as a special educator working with exceptional children. But I’m also asking the question why I don’t default to that approach more naturally when I’m talking about missions.

    Thanks for this article!

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    BOOM. Drops the mic, walks away. Awesome post.

  • Lana

    I love your posts!

  • Great stuff, Dustin!

    I have a friend who was born with a birth defect which limits the use of her hands and arms. She shared once how annoying it is when people give her unsolicited assistance. They jump in and do for her what she can do for herself. She gave the example of taking her groceries to her car. She has worked out a system to be able to do that task independently. It bugs her when people grab her groceries without even asking, assuming she will be glad for the “help”.

    When she shared that with me it opened my eyes to the erroneous, and often offensive, assumptions we make about the work we do in our hosts countries. No matter how fine our intentions the better approach is to take a humble stance and, as you say, take inventory of the assets already existing in the community.

    Thank you for the reminder.

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