Are You Poor?

by Rachel K. Zimmerman

I was sitting at a table for four at one of the more exclusive country clubs in Florida. My friend and I were in fancy dresses, trying to enjoy a nice dinner with some relatives. I was headed back overseas a few days later. My anxiety always peaked a few days before going back.

The conversation over dinner wandered from one superficial topic to another. My mind traveled from the taste of the wine to the looks of the buffet, wondering how much this meal was costing and why people spend so much money to belong to a club in order to go to fancy, overpriced buffet meals that were honestly not that tasty. I was present in the conversation and the minions in my mind were chanting their common tune of the mindset of the rich and the poor. 

I’m not quite sure how the question came up but all of the sudden one of the people at our table directed his attention towards me and asked: “so, are you poor?”

I think I blinked a few times, stunned, scrambling to find an appropriate answer to the inappropriate question. To this day, I’m mad at myself for how I didn’t speak up for myself and respond with a question of my own:

Are you rich?

Are you afraid of poor people?

What does poverty mean to you?

Yes, technically, I am materially poor right now. Is that a problem?

Is that any of your business?

Or, just get up, and leave the table, refusing to subject myself to such ignorance.

Instead, I stammered on in a very American way about how I’m volunteering in Haiti but am debt free, have a decent income potential in my profession in the US, etc. My American brain kicked in for me and said the right-ish thing that I thought the people around me wanted to hear. Inside of me, the Haitian and the American in me, the global citizen, felt indignant and also full of shame. 

I have thought about that conversation so many times since that night several years ago. I have rehearsed different ways I wish I had responded with conviction and thinly veiled alarm.

I guess it’s human nature to differentiate ourselves from others. In American society it seems we have convinced ourselves that those who are different from us must have done something to deserve their state in the world. This is what privilege unchecked leads to. It leads to conclusions drawn about others rather than setting a table to learn about the way our fellow human has experienced the world. In the many sectors of privilege across the world, the walls built to differentiate have somehow helped us feel safe and our collective conscience at quasi-peace. 

It’s easier to believe that we are different from them because if we were the same humanity with the same flesh and blood running through us, we may be compelled to live a different way. 

It is our biases unchecked that have led to so many of the social ills and societal brokenness that presently linger in our ‘civil’ society today.

It seems we’ve convinced ourselves:

People with mental illness are somehow more flawed than we are. 

The incarcerated deserve to be caged and their lives ruined as retribution for their sins.

People who abuse drugs are criminals and deserve punishment.

People who are homeless are a problem for society.

People who immigrate to America legally or illegally steal our jobs and need to speak English.

And those darn poor people. It must be their fault too. It’s the poor’s fault for being poor. Why can’t they just pick themselves up off the floor?

There was a message communicated without subtlety that poverty meant there was something wrong with me. I have wondered what compelled this man to ask that question. But honestly, the responses to that question are simply the armor that I put on to protect myself because the voices inside me were questioning:

Am I poor?

Am I doing something wrong?

Why don’t I fit into this country I once called home that now seems to be dominated by greedy capitalism and pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps mentality?

The truth I can see now, many years later, is how outside the norm I must have been as an educated professional choosing to live with the have-nots in a ‘poor’ country living my dream and passion. I suppose this radical way of living tends to get the people around thinking.

This post is not about being rich or poor. I have truly been in the company of both extremes and have felt incredibly loved, seen, and known by humans in both groups. But oh how I miss the simple and joyous company of my Haitian brother and sister eating rice, beans, chicken with sauce, and laughing carelessly in the warm breeze.

I have been gifted some of my favorite relationships, life lessons, and many graces by the materially poor in this world. I wonder if there’s really something radical to the words of Jesus:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.

Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.”

Luke 6:20-22 NIV

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Rachel K. Zimmerman is a physical therapist who spent two years working alongside a capable Haitian team to establish a community health center outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. A self-proclaimed ‘geographically confused’ individual with a Texas license plate, an Oklahoma license, and 40 Haitian stamps in her passport, Rachel currently resides in Washington where she enjoys coffee, teaching yoga, and gasping at the majestic view of Mount Rainier. She is a recovering perfectionist, lover of cross-cultural workers, and student of trauma and healing subjects. You can read along at her blog, catch her on Facebook, or follow her on Instagram.

 

On Scarcity and Abundance

I’m sitting on my couch, feet stretched out. The mosque next door has just begun their Friday sermon, broadcast loud in a language that is still unfamiliar to me. The electricity is on and I am trying to be grateful instead of fearful that it will go off. 

In recent weeks, I have thought a great deal about scarcity. I began thinking about it after a conversation with one of my sons in Greece, where he described someone as living and loving out of scarcity instead of abundance. This stayed with me and I find myself deeply challenged. 

I grew up with frequent power outages, food rations, and water shortages. Nevertheless, as an adult I’ve lived for many years in busy, wealthy, western cities. Until moving to Kurdistan last year, I didn’t think much about electricity, heat, or hot water. Now, these are regular thoughts on my mind. Will the electricity be on? Will it be cold in my office? Will it be cold in my apartment? (The answer is Yes – it will be extremely cold.) Will there be enough hot water to have a shower? To wash my hair? To wash dishes? I find that I want to hoard what I have, to try and capture it so it won’t go away. I think about this all the time. I am living out of fear that there will not be enough – I am living from a mindset of scarcity, not abundance. 

In the book Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives the authors say this: “Scarcity captures the mind…when we experience scarcity of any kind, we become absorbed by it.  The mind orients automatically, powerfully, toward unfulfilled needs. For the hungry, that need is food…For the cash-strapped it might be this month’s rent…Scarcity is more than just the displeasure of having very little.  It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.” Similarly, Michael Beckwith says:

There is a lie that acts like a virus within the mind of humanity. And that lie is, ‘There’s not enough good to go around. There’s lack and there’s limitation and there’s just not enough.’

I fear this is how I have begun to live. 

 And yet, I am surrounded by people who are extraordinarily generous with their time, their food, their homes, and their help. I am surrounded by people who live with this scarcity but don’t let it affect their daily lives. 

Years ago while living in Pakistan, I had a secret stash of special food. Ironically, the food I stored I no longer care for, but at the time cake mixes, taco mix, and chocolate chips were special and unavailable where we lived. I never let anyone know that I had these special, uniquely American food items. Chocolate chip cookies would appear, as if by magic, baked when no one was around to see what treasures I had hidden deep within my cupboard. I was obsessive about my secret stash. 

One day, I went to the cupboard anticipating baking with some of my special supplies. I gasped in dismay. There were the unmistakable sharp marks of a rat’s teeth. I looked farther, holding my breath in hope that my beautiful, secret, special stash of food would be salvageable. It was not to be. There were rat droppings everywhere, teeth marks on bags that had been chewed through – all of it totally destroyed. I pictured the rats having their midnight feasts, an abundant feast sponsored by an unwilling, silent me in my bed. I was furious. I cried tears of anger and persecution. What had I ever done to deserve this? 

My stash was gone. In those moments, I realized how tightly I held to those food items. They had become a security, a secret way to cope with what I found difficult. The longer I thought about it, the more I realized it was symbolic of the way I lived my life. I lived as one who operated out of scarcity and secret food stashes. I didn’t live out of the abundance of the joy and goodness that surrounded me. Whether it was money, food, time, or emotional capacity my subconscious mindset was one of “not enough”. 

It affected me physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  

There was never enough. I was not enough. I did not have enough. And God was not enough. My mindset was one of scarcity and it affected all of my life. 

It has been a long time since that food stash, and in truth, after the rat incident I never again tried to store up treasures that would be eaten by rats. But I find myself thinking about that time during these long days where electricity is scarce, where heat is scarce, where I live far from the abundance I have been used to. Because even though I am not hoarding food, I am well aware that I am operating out of scarcity. 

If scarcity is a mindset, then so is abundance. I recently wrote about my friend Betsy, a friend who lived her life out of abundance not out of scarcity. “Scarcity was not in her vocabulary. She gave in abundance, serving countless people. Her ears and her heart heard the wounds and tears of many. She lived her life extravagantly and radiated the joy of giving.” I ended the post by saying that I want to live like this. I want to live out of abundance. 

As I Finish writing this I’m sitting in one of two coffee shops in Rania, and the electricity has just come on. Adele plays on repeat, her beautiful voice burrowed into my mind. I want to capture this moment because I am content, I am warm. And the electricity is on. But capturing the moment is yet again acting out of scarcity. So I sigh. I breathe. And Adele says “Hello!”

Author’s Note: This piece was originally published in January 2019

Learning from Injustice While Living Overseas

This piece is being posted anonymously so as not to disrespect the writer’s host country or its authorities.

I was waiting in my car at the intersection, watching the policeman directing traffic. He looked in my direction and started walking towards me.

Uh oh, I inwardly groaned. What is it this time?

I put down my window and dutifully greeted him in the traditional respectful manner.

You’re in the crosswalk, he barked at me. You stopped in the crosswalk. He took my license and then shooed me to the other side of the road.

I pulled over and inwardly fumed. The crosswalk was barely visible, the paint rubbed off and the rest of it covered in dust. More importantly, erosion had broken away the sides of the tarmac to such an extent that if I didn’t pull forward at the intersection, I could be swiped by other cars.

Knowing that in this culture, my anger would just make things worse, I put on my sweetest, humblest voice. I politely explained to the officer my reasons. Please, give me grace, I said.

He gave me no response. Just typed my information into his little machine and handed me a ticket back with my license.

The injustice of it all infuriated me. I’m a careful, cautious driver, yet I’ve lost count of how many tickets I’ve received in my host country for insignificant or made-up offenses. Meanwhile, other drivers regularly ignore stoplights, pass dangerously into oncoming traffic, cut in line, and drive on the shoulder, and the police don’t seem to care.

I grew up as a white, middle-class American, so I am naturally accustomed to justice. You follow the laws, and the government authorities are on your side. You break the laws, and you get punished. It’s cut and dry. It’s simple and sweet.

But I’ve learned that living in a developing country, all bets are off. The only way I could have avoided this ticket was to surreptitiously hand the officer a bribe. Since that was out of the question for me, I got a ticket. Granted, the fine was only equivalent to around fifteen dollars, but that wasn’t the point. I was furious at the injustice.

Ironically, I have also realized that learning what injustice feels like is one of the greatest gifts of living in this culture. When the officer walked away, I sat for a few moments and intentionally let the feeling wash over me.

I am angry because this isn’t fair. I feel picked on because of my skin color and because I am a woman. I don’t trust the police, and that makes me mad.

But I consciously reminded myself to think: This is what much of the world’s population feels every day.

It was only fifteen dollars. What if it had been five hundred dollars? Or five thousand?  What if it was my entire daily salary? What if that fifteen dollars meant I would have nothing to feed my children that day…or that week?

What if that officer had been armed and my life was at stake?

What would it feel like to be at the mercy of a merciless government?

What if my skin color deemed me worthy of oppression in the eyes of the powerful?

What if being female meant I was automatically worthless?

And most importantly, What would those daily injustices do to my soul?

Truly, I have no idea. As a white American living in a developing nation, my eyes have been opened to my privileged, charmed life. Even on a missionary’s salary, I am one of the richest people in the world. My education was practically handed to me on a silver platter. Sure, my parents worked hard. I worked hard. But my hard work rewarded me. What if no matter how hard I worked, my life never got better?

I’ve never had a teacher expect a bribe or a sexual favor to pass a class. I’ve never had a government official threaten to unjustly steal the land I labored over. I’ve never had the fear that the military would kidnap my young son and hand him a gun. My husband has never treated me like his property.

So the small injustice of receiving an undeserved traffic fine is an excellent reminder to this privileged white woman. I am not entitled to justice. Instead, I need to look for ways to identify with those around me who live with injustice every day. And more importantly, identify with the Savior who willingly chose injustice on my behalf.

 

To Donate or Not to Donate?

*This was originally published as Don’t Send Your Used Shoes to Africa on Djibouti Jones in 2014. I bring it up again because on a recent flight to Kenya, my husband sat beside a Kenyan small business owner. Her clothing shop sells locally made dresses using Kenyan materials and Kenyan employees. She said these used clothes imports make it incredibly difficult to sustain her business. She gave my husband her business card and the next day he and I visited her shop and I bought a gorgeous dress. And then I read The Crisis Caravan: what’s wrong with humanitarian aid. Mind-blowing.

There is a debate in the development world about whether or not people in developed, wealthy nations should send their used shoes and clothing to less prosperous nations.

You have a pile of used clothes and old running shoes or sandals and purses and hats from last season. What do you do with it? Donate seems like the best answer, right? Is it? Is it the best practice for wealthy, developed nations to send their used items to Africa? (I’m using Africa because that is where I live. The issue is globally relevant.)

What are some of the problems with sending used things?

About TOMS: “A 2008 study found that used clothing donations to Africa were responsible for a 50 percent reduction in employment in that sector between 1981 and 2000 on the continent.” Some Bad News about TOMS shoes

Some of the shoes and clothes that land here are not just used, they are trash. Torn, stained, faded. When people send their garbage, it makes those on the receiving end feel like garbage. Would you wear a bra with two different sized cups? Underwear with one leg stretched so big it sags and the other is tight, or stained? Stained used underwear?

There are wealthy, well-clothed people in Africa. To be specific, there are wealthy, well-clothed people on my block in Djibouti. There are also poor families. Local people, and I include myself while we live here, need to rise up and get involved in our own communities. Outsiders sending free things undermine that by giving local people, from the neighborhood level to top government levels, excuses to turn a blind eye.

When it comes to running shoes, they have already seen hundreds of miles. You stopped wearing them because they are too old and could cause an injury. It is not any different for an African athlete.

Sending shoes does not solve the underlying problem of shoelessness, which is poverty, which is complicated and has other underlying causes. Job creation and economic growth will address poverty. Sending shoes undermines the jobs of shoe makers and shoe sellers (see the study referenced in the TOMS section and see the NYT article link at the end of this post).

Sending shoes costs money. Why not donate that money to a job-creating charity or a local initiative who could purchase shoes locally?

Studies have found that doing one perceived good deed can contribute to a failure to do another. So, doing the easy and anonymous, faceless act of donating used clothing might mean a person is less inclined to get involved in an actual person-to-person interaction that could meet a real and pressing need.

Ways of giving that promote trendy consumerism, like TOMS, that offer a buy one, give one incentive are more about the consumer than the receiver. “So next time you’re faced with buying some slick $200 Armani shades (whose parent company gives a MASSIVE 1% of its total revenue to the Global Fund) why not grab a $20 pair and donate $180 to something worthwhile on the ground.” Craig Greensfield

Donating can feel good, can be helpful, but it can also promote a savior complex. Pippa Biddle

The idea that you can simply donate used clothing to Africa allows the endless consumption of goods in wealthy nations to run on, unabated. Why not buy a new wardrobe every season? Surely some naked kid in Africa can use these out-of-fashion clothes. This is harmful for the environment, damaging to our souls as consuming turns into religion, and it promotes a wasteful mentality. If all that used clothing wound up in American garbage dumps instead of African markets or African garbage dumps, Americans might start to reconsider the need to constantly purchase new items.

All that said, I do think there is a place for donations in the world of development and I think a generous, giving spirit is a commendable, spiritual, and beautiful character trait. We are often on the receiving end of incredibly generous donations – from money to books to shoes to school supplies to soccer balls…for which we are grateful and the things go to really good use. I will not tell people to stop donating but I will make some recommendations on how to be smart about it.

How can you be wise and generous?

Don’t send your trash.

Don’t inflate the impact of your donations. Saving the world won’t be accomplished with a t-shirt.

Don’t send it in ignorance, thinking Africa is filled with naked people. Do a little research, learn about where you are sending your things, use the desire to donate as a launching pad for educating yourself and your family and your community.

Don’t send it simply so you can feel better about an addiction to consumption.

Find a useful, appropriate, and relational way to donate. Engage with a community development project, like Girls Run 2 or a school, an organization with which you can form an ongoing relationship or an organization with a proven track-record of relationships and development.

Pay for the shipping yourself, don’t ask the receiving organization to pay that or for port fees or the inevitable import taxes, especially if you are donating things they have not specifically requested. It is incredibly frustrating to go through the paperwork and fees required to import boxes only to find melted candles, used notebooks, broken crayons, popped balloons, and stained clothing inside. I am not being facetious.

If you aren’t sure clothes or shoes will be useful, appropriate, or relational, donate money instead and trust the people on the ground to make wise decision in allocating that money.

Consider the amount of waste involved in constantly updating your wardrobe and shipping those goods and consider renewing your wardrobe less often.

Invest, but not in stuff. A personal example from just this month: A 14-year old girl faces two options: get married or go to school. She only speaks English but the English school her mother can afford ends after 8th grade. She goes to her community and they raise the funds for one-third of the cost of education at our school. What does she need? She does not need used shoes or a cheap t-shirt. She needs money for the tuition and for transportation. Her community has already committed to supporting her but they need a little more. Either, her mother needs a better job or she needs a donation via the on-the-ground people who can provide her with a quality education that is an investment into her family right now and for the future.

Think about this quote, from Amy Medina in Sometimes the Starfish Story Doesn’t Work:

One person asked me what kind of things people should send to Tanzania as alternatives to shoeboxes. My response was Nothing.
Please don’t send stuff to Tanzania. Tanzania has a huge amount of untapped natural resources. Tanzania doesn’t need stuff. If you want to invest financially in Tanzania, invest in training. Job training, pastoral training, agricultural training, or children’s education.

Ask yourself, really truly ask and demand an honest answer, Why do you want to donate your used clothes? Why does it make you angry to hear it might not be helpful or that cash would be more useful? Does it challenge your ideas about a specific people or country? Does it challenge your consumerism? Does it make you feel guilty, confused, uncertain? That’s okay. I repeat, that’s okay. Everyone I know here, in the US, myself, my family, we all face these issues (and disagree, even at my own kitchen table!). Answer the question with courageous integrity and then go about addressing the answer. We are all on a journey and instead of judging or boasting, let’s grow.

Research, ask questions, learn, and then act, with eyes open wide and a heart filled with humble generosity and humble gratitude

We want to help, right? I know that. I wrestle with how best to help. Sometimes the answers are painful and sometimes they aren’t answers, they are gropings in the dark, prayers for wisdom, confessions of ignorance. And sometimes we simply need to act, to not be paralyzed by fear, to do due diligence in seeking wisdom and then to take a risk and act in faith.


Useful articles:

For Dignity and Development, East Africa Curbs Used Clothes Imports New York Times, 2017

Amy Medina published an article about Christmas Shoeboxes. I wrote about them here.

Second Hand Clothes in Africa on CNN

Am I a Bad Mother or Has Africa Run Out of Shoes?

You Can’t Buy Your Way to Social Justice

NFL T-Shirts

The series: When Rich Westerners Don’t Know They are Being Rich Westerners

Is Foreign Aid Bad for Africa in Time

Why Sending Your Old Clothes to Africa Doesn’t Help in the Huffington Post

10 Reasons Why Our Good Intentions to Fight Poverty Backfire

Good intentions to alleviate poverty are not good enough. Sometimes our helping hurts the “helped.” I hesitate to write these words, because I know how easily an article like this can be misconstrued, and even used to justify the opposite of generosity.

“What’s the point of giving then?” you might be tempted to ask. “It’s all too complex! The risk is too great!” So let me say right up front, please don’t use this list as an excuse to give up engagement with the poor or to be stingy with your stash.

In that case, the risk will be to your own soul. As Jesus said rather descriptively, “It is easier to push a large humped animal snorting and spitting through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

I have spent most of my adult life living and working in slums and inner cities, grappling with issues of poverty. And I’m convinced something needs to change. We don’t need less engagement between rich and poor, we need more. But not just ANY kind of engagement. We need the right sort of engagement. We need wise giving. I know that’s what you want too.

Honestly, a lot of damage has been done in poor communities by those who blunder in with big hearts and open wallets. Don’t follow those examples. Instead, check out these “Top 10 Dangers” of giving unwisely, as well as some key questions and concepts to help you move towards a more promising approach.

 

Danger #1. CREATING DEPENDENCY

The most common mistake people make is not being able to differentiate between a True Emergency – a life and death situation that requires immediate outside assistance – and a Situation of Need, where local people can be helped towards a local solution.

Our approach to these two different situations should be completely different, but instead we get them mixed up all the time. A True Emergency is something like a freak natural disaster or calamity of some sort that requires swift action because people are left momentarily helpless.

The problem is that we do-gooders tend to see everything as a True Emergency and every poor person as “momentarily helpless.” As a result, people learn that the solutions to their problems are most easily found outside their own community. So, the outside assistance that is supposed to strengthen them, ironically ends up weakening the very ones we intended to help.

Ask Yourself: Honestly, is this an emergency or a situation of need?

Consider Instead: In Situations of Need, find ways to supplement and support local solutions, rather than meeting the entire need yourself. Consider that a small gift might be more appropriate than a large gift.

 

Danger #2. UNDERMINING SELF-ESTEEM

Something happens to communities that are constantly on the receiving end of outside assistance. They come to believe that they have nothing to offer. They internalize the “beneficiary” or “victim” label that has been stuck on them by well-meaning outsiders. And that is devastating to their sense of self.

It’s also not the truth, because those economically poor communities are ridiculously rich in many other ways. They have a great deal to bring to the table. So don’t be blind. Allow God to open your eyes, and the eyes of local people, to see clearly the many resources they already have.

Ask Yourself: What local assets, skills, labour, wisdom, faith and resources can the local people contribute? Better yet, ask them.

Consider Instead: Include local people as equal partners (preferably the lead partners) in figuring out the solution in a situation of need.

 

Danger #3. STIFLING CREATIVITY

When a community comes to believe that the solutions to their problems will come from outside donors, instead of from within, they have been robbed of the opportunity to find a creative solution themselves. Which is sad, because there are few things as beautiful, empowering and encouraging as a poor community coming together to solve a problem creatively.

Ask Yourself: When this Situation of Need arises again (as it likely will), what will happen? Who will solve it?

Consider Instead: Don’t be too quick to jump in with a solution, but hold back and wait to see what local solutions people come up with.

 

Danger #4. UNDERMINING LOCAL GIVING

When gifts come from the outside that are relatively large, it makes the tiny pittance local people might have to offer seem insignificant. Local believers ask themselves, “Why should I give towards the church building? My offering is chickenfeed compared to what the foreigners bring.” So, they redirect their energy towards finding outside benefactors, instead of seeing their own contribution as important.

Ask Yourself: How will my gift be perceived by local givers?

Consider Instead: Rather than overwhelming local giving by giving a disproportionately large amount, why not match local giving “one for one” instead?

 

Danger #5. REDIRECTING ACCOUNTABILITY

Outsiders who bring financial resources into a community quickly become the ones who call the shots, whether they like it or not. Accountability shifts away from local leaders and the people themselves, towards the donors. Reports are written, inspiring photos are taken, and accounts are given, not to the people of the community, but to the donors outside the community who are perceived as the key players.

Ask Yourself: Am I strengthening local participation in the project or undermining it?

Consider Instead: Agree in advance about where accountability will be directed, and whose contributions will be publicly recognized and how. Be sure to celebrate everyone who contributes, no matter how small.

 

Danger #6. CREATING UNINTENDED POLITICAL ALIGNMENTS

When certain people in the community (often the ones who speak English) are aligned with outside donors, their power increases. They are perceived as someone with access to resources. This is why you sometimes see developing world pastors posting photos of themselves posing with foreign donors on their church walls (or Facebook newsfeeds).

Ask Yourself: What impact am I having on local power dynamics?

Consider Instead: Connect with the poor, the marginalized, and the disabled.

 

Danger #7. SPURRING SUPERFICIAL CONVERSIONS

When the church itself is seen as a bridge to foreign donors, it suddenly looks like a savvy investment to become a Christian. The unintended message to the wider community is that joining the church is a smart way to get goodies – jobs, cash and Christmas shoe-boxes. Some local people will participate for those reasons, or as long as the benefits last. Others will be suspicious of anyone who joins, because they may be seen as hirelings of the foreigners.

Ask Yourself: Are the benefits of the project open to all?

Consider Instead: Ensure that benefits from the project are offered freely to all people, not just believers.

 

Danger #8. UNDERMINING LOCAL MARKET SYSTEMS

At times our generosity can screw up the livelihoods of hardworking local people. For example, offering free English lessons undermines the local teacher who is supporting his family by teaching English. Distributing free gifts, emergency supplies, toys, and trinkets can undermine the local market stalls that usually sell these things and support local families.

Ask Yourself: What impact on local people’s livelihoods will my giving have?

Consider Instead: Be sure to purchase supplies locally whenever possible rather than importing them, even if it is more expensive or troublesome.

 

Danger #9. FOSTERING SUSPICION TOWARDS LOCAL LEADERS

When community leaders (e.g. the pastor) are connected to outside donors there can be a perception that they are receiving financial support. Whether this is true or not it can foster mistrust, create conflict, and undermine support for that local leader.

Ask Yourself: Is your partnership with the whole community or dependent on one or two local contacts?

Consider Instead: Create a more intentional partnership with community or church leaders that clearly outlines the contributions of each partner, so that giving is transparent and understood by all.

 

Danger #10. TAKING AWAY LOCAL OWNERSHIP

One of the saddest outcomes when we give unwisely, is that there is a big chance that our outside solutions will not be fully owned by local people. Local ownership is crucial for the ongoing success of the project.

Ask Yourself: Do the local people really own and want this solution?

Consider Instead: Allow them to come up with a plan and solution, and provide leadership to the project.

 

Hopefully, becoming more aware of these dangers will help you to avoid the pitfalls inherent in working with a poor community. Use the questions as a springboard for thinking more deeply about the project and consider the alternatives offered above.

Here’s a list of the questions again. What would you add?

  1. Honestly, is this an emergency or a situation of need?
  2. Ask yourself, what assets, skills, labour, wisdom, faith and resources can the local people contribute? Better yet, ask them.
  3. When this Situation of Need arises again (as it likely will), what will happen? Who will solve it?
  4. How will my gift be perceived by local givers?
  5. Am I strengthening local participation in the project or undermining it?
  6. What impact am I having on local power dynamics?
  7. Are the benefits of the project open to all?
  8. What impact on local people’s livelihoods will my giving have?
  9. Is my partnership with the whole community, or dependent on one or two local contacts?
  10. Do the local people really own and want this solution?

If you’d like to explore these thoughts more deeply, I highly recommend reading When Helping Hurts or We Are Not the Hero.

Originally published here.

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Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of the recently published Subversive Jesus. During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

Good Samaritan or Gullible Sucker?

A true confession of my confusion and black heart…

I came out of my office, got in my car, and there was a taptaptap on the window. I wound down the window and chatted with the man standing there.

“My wife just had a miscarriage,” he said. “She is bleeding. Can you help me?”

This wasn’t my first rodeo. I know the deal. Another expat had just told him, “I’ve lived here too long to give people money,” and drove away. She was a lot quicker with a response than me. I hesitated.

What if his wife really was bleeding?

I hear these kinds of sentences almost every day and honestly, most of the time when I investigate a bit, they aren’t true. But what about when they are?

I couldn’t offer to drive her to the hospital, that would have been the best thing to do. But my husband needed the car and it was late and I couldn’t call him.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Follow me,” the man said.

I walked with him about a block, back behind a row of massive new houses. I wasn’t sure how long I would follow him: a strange man, a lone foreign woman, darkness, heading into a huddle of homeless people’s cloth and stick huts. He stopped before we were too far in and pointed at a woman lying on the ground.

She lay on a scrap of cloth, next to what must be called a house. It must be called that because they lived there but it bore little resemblance to what many people would consider a ‘house.’ It was four sticks jammed into the ground and a torn cloth tied down as a roof. There were no walls, just piles of their few belongings. Some clothes, some plastic bottles, probably to be bartered the next day at a shop, some empty cans.

I asked the woman what happened. I didn’t see any blood but she was probably adept at cleaning things up. Women in her position use the slips they wear under their thin cotton dresses to wipe blood every month. She mostly just moaned.

The man said he needed money for a taxi to the hospital. I gave it to him, plus a little extra.

I felt terrible.

What if he used it for khat, the leafy drug people are addicted to here? What if he had lied and it was all a show, to get some money?

And I felt terrible about feeling terrible. I felt conflicted. Had I just been duped? Was I a gullible sucker or a good Samaritan? And then I thought, does it matter?

Who cares if he used it for khat or if he lied? Or if he didn’t use it for a taxi but used it for some bread and beans for dinner? No matter what he did with the money, I had a lot more money than he did.

Why did I have to make this whole scenario about me, (like I wrote about here: Why Is It Always About Money?) about bigger philosophical issues of money and poverty and generosity and guilt complexes and best practice and helping without hurting?

And most uncomfortably, why did I feel worse about the possibility of having been duped than I felt grieved over their desperate poverty?

I didn’t want to write that sentence. I didn’t want to address that issue. It would be easier to wax poetic about the vagaries of wealth and privilege, to spout off verses about giving, to pretend like I had simply delighted in the joy of sharing. I could pretend like I’m a hero, for caring about the poor. That would all be deceptive.

I was conflicted, impatient, suspicious, torn. I don’t like being taken advantage of and so my pride became the issue at the center of this interaction. It was more important to me to be certain that I wasn’t being used than to make certain that this family had food and shelter. And since I couldn’t be certain of it, I was plagued by questions and doubts and the slimy feeling of being embarrassed. What would other expats think? Haha, Rachel, still after 14 years here, gets tricked. Haha.

Seriously?

If I had done nothing and gone home, I would have forgotten all about it. I would not have been kept awake at night with fears for this woman’s health or concerns about her living situation. But because I gave them money and because I worried about my own reputation and sense of honor, I was kept awake by the nagging questions of whether I should have given the money, of what other people would think.

Oh gross heart.

I don’t have any wise conclusions with which to wrap up this story. I’m simply saying, it’s complicated. I’m a mess. I still don’t know what to do. But the conclusion I’m gradually coming to in my heart, for myself and my context, is that I would rather be both a gullible sucker and a good Samaritan than a glib Scrooge.

God can work out the difference in the end. And somehow, I don’t think he will make fun of me for, maybe, being taken advantage of from time to time.

Yet again, we are talking about money. How do you deal with these situations?

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Missionaries are supposed to suffer . . . So am I allowed to buy an air conditioner?

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Esta was my best kept secret for a long time.

Esta comes to my house four days a week.  She washes my dishes, does my laundry (even ironing!), cleans my floors and scrubs fingerprints off the walls.  She cuts up fruit and cleans the windows and makes tortillas.  And even though all my friends in Tanzania know about Esta (because they have their own house helpers), I didn’t want anyone in the States to know about her.

I had other secrets too, like the air conditioner in my bedroom, the generator in my garage, and the times we go snorkeling in a tropical paradise.

I figured that if my American friends and supporters knew about these things, they would think I am spoiled.  That my life is way too easy and if they had to be honest, I might just be a little (dare they say it?) lazy.  Maybe the rich wives of Beverly Hills can get away with that lifestyle, but perish the thought that a missionary hire someone to do her dishes.

After all, everyone knows that missionaries are supposed to suffer.

After all, aren’t you counting the cost?  Taking up your cross?  Denying yourself?  Abandoning it all for the sake of the call?  Aren’t you leaving behind family, friends, and Starbucks to fulfill the Great Commission?  After all, isn’t that why you are put on that pedestal and your picture plastered on everyone’s refrigerator?  So that you can emulate the pinnacle of joyful suffering?

When you’re standing there on the center of that church stage, surrounded by hundreds of people praying for you, plane tickets in hand, earthly possessions packed into bags exactly 49.9 pounds each, you feel ready to suffer.  Yes!  I am ready to abandon it all!

And then you arrive in your long-awaited country and you realize that in order to host the youth group, you’re going to need a big living room.  And in order to get the translation work done, you need electricity, which means you need a generator.  And in order to learn the language, you’ll need to hire someone to wash your dishes and help with childcare.

Suddenly, you find yourself living in a bigger house than you lived in your home country, but you are ashamed to put pictures of it on Facebook.  You don’t want to admit to your supporters that you spent $1000 on a generator, and heaven forbid people find out that you aren’t doing your own ironing.

You even find there’s a bit of competition among missionaries themselves.  A couple of friends and I had a good-natured conversation on which of us deserved the “real missionary” award.  I live in an African country, but I’m a city dweller.  “You live in the village with no running water and a pit toilet,” I told one friend.  She responded, “Well, how about Michelle?  She did her cooking outside on charcoal for two years.”  Apparently, if you suffer more, you are a better missionary.  Or more godly.  Probably both.

But does this attitude really come from Scripture?  Yes, Jesus speaks out against hoarding up wealth and loving money more than Him.  We are called to deny our desires for the sake of the gospel.  But it shouldn’t be about choosing to suffer for suffering’s sake, as if suffering equals more godliness.  It’s about choosing to be intentional, and embracing both the suffering and the privileges that come along with it. 

If God has called you to work among the upper-class in India, then you’ll need to live like them, in a modern apartment.  If God has called you to work among the coastal tribes of Tanzania, then you’ll need to live like them, in a simple cinder-block house with a pit toilet.  Each life has its set of challenges.  Each life has its set of blessings. 

When comforts or luxuries come along with God’s calling, should we feel guilty?  Or instead, should we see it as an opportunity for stewardship?  Since I have Esta working for me full-time, it doesn’t mean that I sit around watching television while she cleans my floors.  It means that I have extra time for ministry.  It means that I am happy to open my home for youth group, overnight guests, or large dinner parties, because I know that I have someone who will help me with the work.  Since I do have an air conditioner in my bedroom, it means I am getting much better sleep than those around me.  How am I going to steward that privilege? 

God doesn’t judge our godliness based on our degree of suffering; He looks at our hearts.  Have we made comfort, or even suffering, into an idol?  Are we insisting on a way of life that helps us, or hinders us, from connecting with the local culture?  Or are we being intentional with the lifestyle we have chosen?  Are we using the gifts God has given us to indulge in our comfort or to increase our fruitfulness?  These are the heart questions that are far more important than the outside appearance of suffering. 

We often quote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” but fail to remember the context of that verse.  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”  And what’s the secret?  “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

As missionaries, we are usually prepared for being in need and living in want.  We know Christ will strengthen us in times of homesickness, scary diseases, and no indoor plumbing.  But we can also learn to be content when we get to vacation at the historical castle, our ironed laundry is hanging neatly in our closets, and the generator is purring.  Let’s not idolize comfort or be needless martyrs

If your motives are right, then go ahead and buy that air conditioner.  Use it to the glory of God.

It Doesn’t Get Easier – A Response to Poverty

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From my spot across the room, I heard an older woman talking to a young intern.

“It will get easier – I promise!”

We were in a hard area. An area where poverty pounded the pavement and homeless gathered in shop doorways, waiting for their evening meal at any shelter they could find. The intern was working at a nonprofit organization as a part of her social work major at university. She had grown up in a suburb with well-kept lawns and less visible dysfunction. She was struggling.

I stopped what I was doing when I heard the statement.

I grew up in an area where poverty was ever-present. From deformed beggars on the streets to children with the bloated tummies and reddish hair of malnutrition, I was never shielded from my surroundings. I am fully comfortable navigating the streets of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and various cities in North America. I spend time with refugees and before I get to work each day, I have already passed ten to fifteen homeless people.

But there’s one thing that I’ve learned about many of us: Seeing and responding to the poor doesn’t necessarily get easier. You may get used to it. You may not stare, or get startled, or cry every time you see a small child put their hand out for money and follow you down the street, ever-persistent in their goal. But it doesn’t necessarily get easier.

Some of us are hard-wired to feel these things in our gut. It doesn’t make us better than others, it doesn’t make us worse than others. It’s who we are at our core. Identifying and empathizing with others is in our DNA.

It doesn’t matter how many times I see Charlie in his wheelchair on the street, his body crippled and unable to function properly. My throat still catches when I see him.

It doesn’t matter how often I have conversations with Jennifer, or Cheryl, or Wilson. I still sometimes want to avoid them, to not have to make eye contact, to not see that sign that says “Homeless. Can you help? Even a little bit helps!” or “Help! Homeless with five kids” (REALLY??? They had to appeal to my Achilles heel?  How do they know I have five kids??)

It doesn’t matter. It is still not easy. It is still not easier.

So I wanted to say to the woman “Easier? Easier than what?” But I didn’t. Instead, I pondered it. I pondered poverty and how to respond to poverty.

And as I thought about it, I realized that through the years and with time’s passage, it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier, but I have figured out some ways to respond:

  1. Learning people’s names. One of my frustrations has always been that I put people in this anonymous category of “poor.” It doesn’t fit with the relational part of me.  They become statistics and sorrow stories. So, I’ve learned to ask people what their names are. There is something about a name. It personalizes people and moves the relationship from “I-it” to “I-Thou.” This comes from Martin Buber’s work. He distinguishes between I-it relationships and I-thou relationships. When we see another as “it” it makes them an object, able to be put in a box and manipulated. They exist merely as a part of our own experience. Moving to I-thou puts us into relationship, two people both a part of a dynamic process of relationship.  Learning the names  of those I encounter reminds me that I am responding to a real person, it brings me into relationship.
  2. Finding ways to give aside from money. My “go to” is buying coffee for people. I now know their favorite flavors and whether they take cream and two sugars, or cream and six sugars. Buying coffee builds on the relational piece.
  3. Wrestling with my own ideas of the “deserving poor.”  In February, Craig Greenfield wrote an excellent article on this that is a must read and I quote him here: “….God’s work in transforming lives is more about God’s love than whether the beneficiaries are deserving or not. For no one is worthy. That’s why we need God’s grace. In Matthew 25, Jesus does not categorize people based on whether they had sinned…or not. Nor did He judge them by whether they had already had multiple chances…or not. His call was simply to reach out to those whose needs are unmet and love them: ‘I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was unclothed. I was in prison. I was sick.'”
  4. Finding organizations that I trust who work with the poor. Good organizations that work with the poor know the best ways to give. They are the experts, and we are not. They write books, research, and develop programs that help to meet the needs of those living in poverty. They can give advice, ideas, and workshops on responding to the poor. They often are desperate for volunteers.
  5. Recognizing that I am not the Savior. I alternate between having an ego the size of the Great Wall of China or the size of an ant. Neither is helpful. Remembering I am not the Savior gives me perspective. It reminds me to pray. I am forced to remember that I don’t have the solutions, that I am often helpless in the face of poverty, but Jesus isn’t. Jesus reminds me that when I connect with the poor, I am connecting with Kingdom people.
  6. Saying the Jesus Prayer – over and over and over again. The root of the Jesus Prayer is probably the oldest prayer known to man. “Lord have mercy.” God have mercy.” The Jesus Prayer takes three phrases and the more I use those phrases, the more powerful they become. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me.”  In asking for mercy, we are identifying with the poor. We are not seeing ourselves as other, but rather as at one with the human condition. It could be me begging. It could be you begging. Asking for mercy brings us into the fellowship of suffering. We recognize that we are all a part of a world that is broken and begging for mercy.
  7. Giving thanks. For over two years after Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts was published people said to me: “You will love this book.” And cynically I thought “They are so, so wrong! I will hate that book.” (My contrary nature says that I will hate anything that everybody in Christendom likes so there you have it….) One day, I found a free download of chapter one. I read for a few minutes and felt the taste of salty tears rolling down my cheeks and on my lips. The Eucharist precedes the miracle. It always does, it always will. Giving thanks precedes the miracle.

Murmuring thanks does not deny that an event is a tragedy and neither does it deny that there’s a cracking fissure straight across the heart. Giving thanks is only this: making the canyon of pain into a megaphone to proclaim the ultimate goodness of God.”*

The well-known words of CS Lewis remind us that There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t really get easier for some of us. Because ultimately, it’s about immortals made in the image of God. We find tools, we develop ways of responding to the poor, but it doesn’t get easier.

Perhaps it’s not supposed to.

*Ann Voskamp One Thousand Gifts Devotional

How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up

Partnering directly with poor churches is a promising way to do mission for affluent churches. Skip the middleman and Go Direct is the mantra of this internet age.

I personally like the idea of this approach because of the possibility it holds for real, long-term, mutual relationships to emerge between rich and poor. But if you’ve been involved in one of these “Church-to-Church Partnerships,” you’ll know that they are FRAUGHT with difficulty. Fraught.

I feel your pain. Maybe you started out thinking you had a Partnership of Equals and somewhere down the track realized you had become some kind of benevolent Santa Claus in a wildly unbalanced patron-client relationship – complete with the once a year visit and bags of toys for children.

So, it’s not surprising that churches who have experienced these pitfalls turn to concepts like Empowerment to help guide their way through this minefield. But words lose their meaning through overuse. And Empowerment is one of those words we love to abuse – an idea that started out as an important concept and deteriorated into a noxious cliché.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone working with the poor who doesn’t “believe in Empowerment.” But when you add in cross-cultural complexity, and mix in some serious power imbalance because of how much money you bring to the table – you have a recipe to make everything worse. Much worse.

Face it. You’re going to screw this up. I know because I have, many times.

It’s going to take more than rhetoric to be truly empowering.

I visited an impoverished community on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. A group of well-meaning Christians from Western countries had come to bless these poor Cambodians by building them houses. Each of the houses they built had a solid tile roof and concrete block walls, a cute front door and a brass plaque on the front – stating who had worked hard to come and build it.

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Built for the breeze

The only problem was, poor Cambodians build their houses on stilts so they can sit underneath during the heat of the day and enjoy the cool breeze. So, no one wanted to live in these ill-conceived foreign monstrosities. They stand empty and abandoned on the edge of the village — a testament to another failed partnership.

A stone’s throw away, there stands a rusting pump and well that had been installed by a different group of foreigners that had fallen into disrepair and also lay abandoned – for multiple reasons that I won’t list here.

Each group had good hearts and probably were deeply impacted by their trip. They probably went back to their home church bursting with amazing tales of miracles and encouragement.

But Jesus says we should judge a tree by its fruit, and I’m having trouble seeing the fruit for the poor in this scenario.

So, here’s an alternative approach, straight from the life of Jesus. It’s found in Luke chapter 9, a passage in which Jesus gathers his team together for an inspiring chat.

Imagine you are part of that team. Because, you know – you’re a disciple too. So, it’s not that weird.

There are twelve of you, and sorry to say, so far you’ve proven to be a pretty lackluster bunch gathered mostly from the margins of society – fishermen and outcasts.

But Jesus figures it’s time to send you out on your own to do some ministry. So He gives you Power and Authority to go kick some demon butt and heal some sick people. That’s all you need, and you’re set to go.

But then Jesus gives you one final instruction that blows your mind. It just seems too hard. Too crazy. Get this – Jesus commands your team to take NOTHING for the journey:

  • no stash of Dr Pepper or peanut butter or any food at all
  • no Northface backpack with built in compartment for a sleeping bag
  • no Visa card or even any local currency
  • no change of clothes…

Nothin!

Read it for yourself in case you think I’m making this up:

He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra shirt. Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that town. (Luke 9:3,4a)

Hmmm. This is a hard one. I mean, you’re going to need a change of undies at least, surely!?!

Before you write this one off as simply too tough, let’s grapple with it for a moment shall we? Here’s my suggestion of how to understand what Jesus is doing here:

In stripping your team of their basic resources, Jesus is forcing you to rely completely on the local resources of the villages you visit as you do ministry.

He is forcing you to empower local people by your posture of dependence. Matthew put it even more clearly:

“Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff; for a worker is worthy of his food” (Matthew 10:9-10).

This is actually an incredibly IMPORTANT principle.

You see, bringing outside resources to help solve problems, without the ability of local people to copy that same strategy is the opposite of empowering – it’s immensely DIS-empowering. It sends the clear message that problems can only be solved by well-resourced outsiders.

Sure, those resources you bring will make an immediate difference. They will solve the problem. For now. But what happens the next time those people face a similar problem? They will be forced to turn back to you (or someone like you) for help again, thus setting in motion the inevitable patron-client relationship that we all know and love to hate.

So, Jesus is laying a foundation for an approach to ministry that is built entirely on working within the limitations of local people and encouraging reliance on God rather than you.

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An Alongsider praying for her “little sister” (who is also her neighbor)

Let me give you an example. I was visiting a poor family in a rural village a few months ago and they asked me to pray for their sick child. I had never met them before, but I had been taken there by an Alongsider (young Christian mentor) who was their neighbor.

Now, imagine I have a powerful gift of intercession – imagine I can pray for folks and they are healed. Imagine I was the most equipped candidate to pray for that boy that day. And now imagine I did pray for him and he was healed. Where would they turn next time someone fell ill? To the magic white foreigner of course.

I didn’t want that to happen.

So instead, I asked the Alongsider to pray for that boy. The Alongsider, a 17 year old local Christian girl, became a local resource person who they could turn to for help in future. Ultimately, the goal is for them to know they can turn to God directly for healing.

Empowerment.

I know, I know, it feels awesome to be the one that poor people look to for help and to be able to provide that help so easily. I’ve felt that power. It feels awesome to report back to your church about all the people you “saved.” But it’s not about you. It’s about what God wants to do through local people and particularly your local church partner.

Jesus is saying – leave your resources behind. Strip yourself down and come only to offer a way that relies on God and what He has placed in the people’s hands already.

Strip it back. Give up the posture of benevolent donor. Stop being a White Savior.

You’d think the disciples would have learnt this important principle by the time they get back from their mission trip. They had been reliant on God. They had taught reliance on God. They had seen miracles…

When the apostles returned, they reported to Jesus what they had done. Then he took them with him and they withdrew by themselves to a town called Bethsaida, but the crowds learned about it and followed him. (Luke 9:10,11)

This is the point where the stakes are raised. And maybe it’s the type of scenario you have in your mind when you complain to me that this stuff just doesn’t work in the real world of massive needs. They face a bunch of hungry people. 5000 of them.

And here’s what Jesus says to them: “YOU give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13).

What? Can you believe this guy? Remember, they have just gotten back from a trip where they were forbidden to carry food or money, so they are highly unlikely to be carrying the resources to feed 5000 people. Highly. Unlikely.

On the surface, Jesus’ command to feed 5000 people seems pretty ridiculous. UNLESS, you had just been learning how to have eyes to see the resources that local people have.

Unfortunately, it seems the lesson was still sinking in, as the disciples struggle to grasp what Jesus is doing here.

And that’s where once again we see Jesus patiently demonstrate the principle of Local Ownership and Local Resources. This time it’s a little boy with a handful of tuna sandwiches who gets the ball rolling. So often it’s the young and vulnerable that we tend to overlook, and yet have the faith to trust in God. And we see the immediate need being met – 5000 hungry people fed – in a way that every single person there could replicate in future if they have the faith.

Now, not everyone is going to be down with this approach. Some people are looking for church partnerships because they have an agenda that is not a Kingdom agenda. That’s why Jesus says, “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” (Luke 9:5)

It seems a bit harsh to me, but Jesus is making the point that not everyone is going to have the faith to see this as a good thing. In that case, don’t be discouraged.

Just. Move. On.

So, there it is. How to partner with a poor church without screwing everything up. At the heart of this approach is a willingness to come empty-handed and open-eyed, just as Jesus did (Phil 2:7), and in humility and solidarity, point people towards God and the resources He has already blessed them with.

 

This is a pretty radical way to approach church partnerships. But one which we need to seriously consider. There is a lot more complexity to it, and I’ve only just scratched the surface. So, if you are left with questions or difficulties, feel free to raise them in the comments, and I’ll do my best to engage with you.

 

Originally published here.

craig1Craig Greenfield is the founder and director of Alongsiders International and the author of Subversive Jesus (to be published by Zondervan in 2016). During more than 15 years living and ministering in slums and inner cities in Cambodia and Canada, Craig has established a number of initiatives to care for vulnerable kids and orphans, as well as formed Christian communities for those marginalized by society. His postgraduate research in International Development led to the publication of his first book, The Urban Halo: a story of hope for orphans of the poor which is currently available for free on Craig’s website. He loves God, the poor, and fish and chips. He’s on Twitter and Facebook too.

 

Responding to Beggars

I’m not even going to pretend to offer rules on how to respond to beggars. I’m not even going to define ‘beggar.’ There are lots of varieties of people who ask for money or help and I don’t like calling them beggars. I prefer to call them Saada or Abdul but for simplicity, I’ll call them beggars. (The following was written after I read 9 Quick Tips for Responding to Beggars by Someone Who Knows Them by Craig Greenfield.)

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There are a lot of beggars in Djibouti and with the new stoplights (that’s right, Djibouti recently got stoplights), street corner begging has increased. By street corner begging, I mean when you stop at a red light (that’s also right, in Djibouti most drivers stop at red lights) and kids swarm the car.

There are other places where people beg and there are beggars who come to our door. I want to talk about two kinds of interactions – the ones on the street corner and the ones at the front door.

I have to confess that I haven’t always responded well to street corner beggars. I used to ignore them. Stare straight ahead. Continue the conversation with the passenger. Pretend there isn’t a young girl holding a baby or a boy with a pouty look tapping his fingers against his lips for ‘thirsty.’

Then I read a story about Jesus where the first thing he did was look at the person seeking help. He looked at him. Step 1 and it cut me to the heart.

Okay, I can look at them. Ignoring someone is not honoring their personhood, it is not offering them the dignity of acknowledging that they, too, are made in the image of God. So I started looking.

And I saw the same kids on the same corners all the time. So I started engaging with them. In the first few seconds they could only repeat the ‘give me money’ request and couldn’t hear that I was asking them their name. But slowly, their faces would change. Their eyes would ignite, they would start to smile. They dropped their fingers from their lips and said, “My name is…”

“Where is your mom?” I would ask. “Is she working? Where is your dad? Why aren’t you in school?”

We would chat until the light changed and the conversation would resume the next time I stopped. The kids on my regular corners stopped asking for money. They waved, some saluted, some made running motions because we also saw each other on my early morning jogs, sometimes they joined me for a block or two.

I never give them money. I do sometimes suggest places they can go for help – the neighborhood mosque or the Catholic-sponsored charity for street kids.

The beggars who come to my house are regulars. We know each others names, I know a little bit of their home life stories. They are usually mothers with heaps of young children that I know are their own because we’ve lived here long enough to see women through several pregnancies. I also don’t give these women money but when they come by, about once a week, I raid my cupboards and fridge and hand-me-down clothes. If they have a medical prescription, I take it and fill it. If they are in labor, I drive them to the maternity hospital and pay the bill.

It isn’t easy. I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m grumbling inwardly as I stuff bags or I thrust the food at them and don’t interact in a warm way. I’m greedy and selfish and lazy. My mind fills with excuses and judgments. But I try to keep going back to Jesus, who looked at the needy. And I started looking, really looking and recognizing individuals. Sometimes that makes it harder because now I know them and I can’t fix their situation. I can’t stop drug abuse or spousal abuse, I can’t solve endemic problems, I can’t force parents to keep kids who seem so sharply intelligent in school. But…

I’m learning that the most important question to ask is not: How can I solve this problem? It is: How can I love this person well?

It starts with looking at them and from there, it is a long road of growth and challenges. Along the way, we each need to be led by our own situations, contexts, convictions, and the Spirit filling us.

How about you? How do you respond to beggars?

Money Gives us Power over People

Last month at A Life Overseas, we discussed the dangerous stories we can tell in order to raise funds.

This requires further consideration if we provide funds, pay national workers, or are just generous in any way. While the debate on this one is hot and heavy, I doubt we can make absolute statements.

“Always and never” are tricky when settings, organizations, and methods are so different around the world.

What I would like to look at is the power money gives us over people.

Even something as simple as “good, ole Godly generosity”; sharing money puts us in the place of power. As foreign workers, we must always be aware of the power we have (real or perceived) over those we work with.

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Here are some things to consider about the power of money:

1. Clogs open and honest conversation. Disagreement or varying opinions might be silenced when a person feels they can’t “bite the hand feeding them.”

2. Puts someone in the receiver position and us as the giver. When possible, I would recommend anonymous giving. Once, I was given a wise suggestion of using an intermediary to deliver the funds. In our case, I used an African who was a peer. This created separation between the giver and receiver which was needed as we worked side by side.

3.Places hurdles in communication. If we offend or hurt someone, it no longer only an issue of confrontation. In many cultures, these conversations with leaders are difficult, but now we have the added obstacle of a being a leader who gives money!

4. Makes us think we have the right to criticize. When giving, it is a small step to feel we have the power to tell people how to use the money. We must guard against criticizing spending habits. There is a place for discipleship and education, but this must come carefully.

I had the biggest fallout of any teaching from a sermon when I spoke about money. I was called a racist who did not want Africans in missions. Ouch!

While painful, these people felt free to express their opinions because I was not personally giving them funds. I never would have seen the delicate nature of the topic if they stayed silent to keep their wallets full.

5. Moves us into a parent / child relationship. Do we prevent people from hearing bad news? “The donor did not give this month”, etc. We can feel the need to protect people from reality to cushion the blow. We cannot take that power, even if we feel it protects. They are not children, but adults.

6.Brings Pride. Being the missionary who gives requires humility. We cannot possibly know all the pressures, demands, and issues built into a culture. We do not always know best.

7.Keeps People in Poverty. If we help people, but only as much as the country’s economics warrant, we may actually pay people less than we should, thereby keeping them in poverty. I’ve seen this happen when NGO’s give people a minimal amount, unintentionally keeping them in poverty.

As you can see there are many issues to consider when money is involved. Money is not evil. The people we reach out to need it.

The real issue is HOW we engage with money. This is something each missionary needs to ask in light of the culture, customs, and situation they find themselves in.

One size does not fit all. But, integrity with finances is timeless.

What is the expression of money with integrity you are called to walk in?

What other resources can you suggest for study in this area?

 

Photo credit: 21 The Coins of the Money Changers via photopin (license)

Dangerous Stories

Sometimes the stories we tell of those we minister to can become dangerous.

I’ve been at this missions thing for 23 years now. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.

I often reflect on things I did in the past and cringe. Hindsight is always 20/20, but perhaps others can learn from my mistakes.

One mistake centers around how I have reflected the stories of others to my own supporters and sending churches / organizations.

One of the things our organization does is partner with nationals who are also involved in missions. We attempt to raise monthly support for them and use our network to assist financially.

We often highlight one of these nationals in our periodic newsletters. We share what they are involved in and add something like, “your support to Project Grace helps this individual/or family to accomplish this work…”.

This approach seems harmless enough, but there are several dangers involved.

We realized this when years later, one of these people who had since moved on, contacted us and confessed that they had harbored bad feelings to us for how we represented them. He felt we were “using” him to show how great our ministry was. This dear friend carried this hurt for years till he finally was able to express it. We were so grieved and set about attempting to restore the relationship.

There are some lessons here. We can share dangerous stories without even intending to. There is an appropriate sharing of stories which must happen. How can we guard against the danger but still share to the glory of God?

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5 Signs You are Telling Dangerous Stories:

1. Carefully consider your words. If the person were standing next to us, would we reflect our stories in a different way? There is always a temptation to embellish poverty, lostness, or a person’s state of need.

2. Avoid any hint of superiority. This is rarely intended, but so many sharing times promote a “they are so primitive, we must help them see the light” mindset. I’ve sat in far too many testimony times where people ignorantly share how horrible a foreign land was, not thinking that there are nationals from those very places present!

Sometimes, the people we are attempting to show the gospel of grace to, walk in massive grace with us!

3. Ask their permission. This was the biggest mistake I made in the above story. This helps you cut through any misguided motivations in a hurry.

4. Share in the blessings. If you benefit materially from sharing a story, it would be good to extend a blessing to the friend or co-worker you shared about.

Imagine what this scenarios seems like for a national:

  • They know you are sharing their story.
  • Often we as missionaries live a higher lifestyle than those who’s stories we share.
  • Even the most noble of people would have a question or two about the use of funds which was in part gained by their story.

Sharing the resources promotes open communication. We’ve receive donations and when sharing the blessing, told our friends, “We told your story and people were blessed. They ended up blessing us so we wanted to pass some of this on to you.”

5. God must be honored. Are stories shared in a way which is honoring God or us?

Do we become savior, rescuer, and the lifter of people’s heads or is that place reserved for Jesus?

No one sets out to say this, but our words can convey this if we are not careful.

Attention Life Overseas Community!

I am sure we have countless stories and mistakes made in this area among us. Let’s share and learn from each other!

What pieces of advice would you add to the five I have mentioned? How can we avoid Dangerous Stories?

Photo credit: Seyemon via photopin cc