Sounding an Alarm on Social Media Evangelism

Excitement and awe were palpable in the dimmed hotel ballroom as I stared at the presenter’s screen. The young speaker, who appeared to be in his early 20s, was explaining how Facebook was proving to be a strategic way to share the gospel and allow people to learn about scripture safely and privately. Facebook users could view his page that was filled with scripture verses, and if they commented or liked the content, he would send them a link to an online Bible in their language. It was clear to all of us that this was a revolutionary way to broadly share the gospel with people who might not have the courage to ask for a Bible in person. 

Since that day in 2011, Christian ministries and indeed the world have experienced massive shifts in how we communicate, connect, and share information with one another. With smart phones now outnumbering people globally, social media platforms have morphed from a means of connecting with loved ones to a ubiquitous medium of communication and marketing. People separated by thousands of miles can now easily form a community that does not require physical proximity.  

A Double-Edged Sword

With every innovation comes both blessing and curse, and social media has been no exception. What began as a medium of socializing is now a powerful advertising tool. Social media platforms’ ability to market to the audience most likely to purchase a product is at the heart of many marketing strategies. Since social media platforms can quickly learn details of users’ preferences, personalities, and socioeconomic status, they are able to disseminate individualized content that is curated for each user’s ever-changing preferences. With increased usage, users grow dependent on social media to meet their needs for interpersonal connection, news, entertainment, and general events in their community. 

Dependency on these apps has turned into outright addiction for many users, and the problem of social media addiction has turned from concerning to an outright crisis both in the U.S. and around the world. The tentacles of social media addiction reach far beyond how a user spends their time. Mental health experts and former social media insiders are sounding alarms on how social media is purposefully addicting youth and young adults and making them depressed, anxious, and suicidal. 

We know far more today than we did 12 years ago about the mental health hazards of social media use, and we have a greater awareness of social media companies’ incessant use of unethical practices in addicting and exploiting their users. Nevertheless, Christian ministries are promoting social media use for evangelism, and doing so with little regard for the well-documented accompanying hazards.  While some would argue that the “end” (users hearing, believing, and accepting the gospel) justifies the means, it would be irresponsible for Christians to neglect a careful examination what exactly the “means” is. While we cannot deny the fact that social media can and has been a way of exposing people to the gospel, we must start recognizing that no one, neither users nor administrators, are inoculated against the harms of this medium’s addictive and exploitative nature.

Exploitative?

Social media companies can give users content that is personalized and helpful. Based on their searches, posts, and likes, expectant mothers can expect ads for baby gear and nursery furniture. A grad school student might find their feed peppered with study aids and paper-writing tools. But what begins as a simple search for ten minutes is, by design, often extended into viewing other similar or related posts, and that added time viewing more content gives the platform evermore data on the user’s preferences. The apps purposefully remove “stop cues” like an actual end of a page or a blank screen at the end of video reels. There is limitless content that the platform is able to offer up to its users, so people who see no harm in spending hours upon hours on social media may do so without realizing that they are becoming addicted. 

This practice becomes increasingly unethical among users who are unwittingly using a service that is likely to harm them. Social media use is just as ubiquitous in low-income countries as it is in wealthy areas of the world with a broader understanding of internet addiction. Nevertheless, impoverished and low-income regions tend to be where social media evangelism efforts are being deployed. These areas have far fewer resources to educate populations on mental health hazards, so there is consistently a minimal understanding of addictive internet use.  Consequently, low-income countries offer up highly vulnerable and captive audiences to social media companies, who then sell that audience’s attention to anyone willing to pay for it. This is Exploitation 101: offering a service that seems highly beneficial while concealing its hazards in order to exponentially benefit and enrich the service provider. 

Seizing upon the dependable attention of social media audiences, Christian ministries join the fray by purchasing a piece of that attention. For a fee paid directly to the platform, evangelistic ministries can buy ads and broadcast to audiences most likely to view their content and respond. In order to grow their online audience (and thereby attract more users to their page), account pages can pay for likes, views, and follows. These accounts are often being run hundreds or thousands of miles away from the target location in order to protect the identities of Christians who live nearby, as these are often places with a history of hostility towards Christians. 

Users who view evangelistic pages are often presented with content and videos full of grace, hope, and love. For some, it is the first time they have ever read scripture, and it speaks to them in a deep, profound way.  Users who respond to the ministry’s social media content with questions or a desire to learn more are encouraged to call or meet in person with a local Christian who speaks their language and understands their culture. The hope is that people who are genuinely interested in knowing Christ will go beyond just text exchanges on a screen and begin a relationship with people who care for them. 

The question of ethical practice here is not about the message being offered to vulnerable social media users. It is about the medium by which that message is being conveyed and its incendiary methods of creating markets of hungry consumers. Yes, Christian ministries are offering a message of truth and hope to these markets. But is paying the drug lords who run the market an ethical practice? And are Christian ministries taking the time to inform their patrons of the health hazards of the medium they are both using?  

Beyond the Target Audience

The target audiences of social media evangelism are not the only vulnerable parties in these efforts. Those who are tasked with responding to inquiries are also falling prey to social media’s addictive devices, but their unhealthy habits or full-blown addictions are easily cloaked in the language of urgency for the gospel and “lives on the line.” Since this type of work is increasingly becoming a full-time job for globally minded Christians, we must recognize the addictive nature of social media ministry as an occupational hazard. Some responders are staying up into early hours of the morning to correspond with people who have reached out, and others report a hesitancy to create boundaries around ministry time on social media and personal time in general. 

The church should never shy away from entering dark places to carry in the light and love of Jesus, and we have a rich history of doing so. Ministering to people who are trapped in substance addiction, sex trafficking, and systemic abuse is the work of the body of Christ. However, we have historically done this work with diligence and awareness of the systems of oppression that can just as easily ensnare and brutalize us. We need to treat social media outreach in much the same way we would treat ministry in night clubs, casinos, or red light districts. The people on the inside may just be passing through, but they are very possibly there because they do not know how to leave. This may mean that people who put their faith in Christ as a result of finding hope on social media were indeed there because of an addiction to the platform. And this may mean that they need recovery rather than an invitation to work as social media evangelists or responders. 

Installing Guardrails

There was a road in the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan where the guardrail was completely destroyed, giving way to a frighteningly clear view of a bus skeleton far below. While the guardrail had certainly been in place on that treacherous road, it did nothing to deter a bus full of passengers that veered off course. 

The best boundaries are both strong and visible. Seeing them helps you keep a healthy distance, but bumping up against them protects you when you fail to notice. In using a tool as powerful, addictive, and controversial as social media platforms to spread a message of hope, Christian ministries need to ensure that guardrails are well-established to avoid doing harm to vulnerable populations. This could mean refusing to use strategies of engagement that are addictive in nature, such as rewarding users’ viewing of a video with another video. It could also mean transparency about how their respondents’ information is being saved, stored, and shared. This particular issue requires imagining how you would feel if, in an existential search for connection and hope, a person responded to your need while keeping a detailed record of your messages in a database and shared it with donors who funded the campaign. A guardrail could also mean that ministries begin disseminating information about social media addiction right alongside their regular posts. When using targeted ads, it could mean researching and adhering to rigorous standards of ethical advertising. 

Likewise, Christians who are taking part in social media evangelism ministry need clear guardrails with regular accountability on when, where, and how much time they spend on the platform. Since social media platforms make both accidental and purposeful viewing of pornographic content easy, we must also inquire of a person’s current internet habits and personal history with pornography use before inviting them to make social media work their full-time job and ministry.  The Kingdom of God is not dependent on any social media platform. It has been advancing since Jesus blew the doors off and began inviting everyone into his family. As we assess the time, space, and resources God has provided for us today, may we work with both compassion and conscientiousness of the realities of oppression and sin that will be present until the day of Christ’s return. And until that day, may the Holy Spirit guide us in serving people with love, respect, and dignity to the glory of God the Father. 

To the Ones Who Are Tuning Out

by Anonymous

I recently hit a bit of a wall, so to speak. Maybe this wall is one for the mid-termers, the ones who have been in a place long enough to know intricately the unique beauties and breakdowns. Or maybe this wall is a seasonal one, with which many of you will resonate no matter your length of days away from your home country.

This was my wall: I could not hear another American friend describe their multi-ten-thousand-dollar kitchen renovation. I could not hear another family member talk of the fifth massive camper they have now bought. I could not hear of the extended holidays and vacations and gadgets and gear for another hobby and the cost of inflation and soaring real estate prices and all of the other American things… not anymore.

When my friends and family would start to talk about them, my brain would shut down, I would mumble “mmhmm”-type responses, and afterwards, go back to my room alone to cry. I realized that this was not the mature or godly response, but I seemed unable to change it.

Why the tears? It has taken me some time to understand, and maybe I am still processing. But, in our seventh year on this field, in this particular place, I am keenly noticing the gap between our life and the lives of most of our American friends. I am holding, deep in my body and heart, the challenges that come with these extremes. I am feeling, deeply, the many discrepancies of our lives, often pondering if we will ever fit back in, or if we would even want to.

But mostly, I am craving for these friends, for these family members, to be a witness to my life here. To acknowledge, even in the smallest way, that it is very difficult to hold a massive kitchen reno in one hand and the extreme poverty behind our fence in the other. To understand, in some basic way, that my mind is heavily with our dear friends who have been unjustly threatened with their lives for money following a car accident that was not their fault, and not on the details of your two month, snow-bird vacation for the sixth year in a row.  I crave for someone to know, to take the time to listen to my heart, to bear with me gently, in this middle, in-between place.

So much of what we bear daily is our own; so much of our lives are unseen. This is true for my own life and for the lives of my family and friends an ocean away. Do I know it is unrealistic to expect this kind of understanding from those I love on another continent? Do I realize that they are trying, in their own multifaceted ways, to connect, to share their lives and witness mine? Yes, and yes. And I can see, in my most honest moments, that I am in my own place of selfishness when I cease to listen well to the things they have to share, simply because it is hard for me to do so.

Would I perhaps make a similar choice someday, and see that even my choices now are not purely selfless? Do I recognize that my own heart struggles with the same issues that I blatantly see in others? Do I acknowledge that I am not alone in these wonderings, in these questions? Yes to all of it.

And yet. In some seasons, perhaps it is okay to put away the Pinterest pictures, to tune out a little when these types of things are shared, in the interest of protecting my heart against bitterness and my mind against pride. I am not a better person for witnessing what God has put in my life in Africa. I am no holier for holding the extremes with care. I, truly, am not that different than the ones I tune out.

In his graciousness, God has gently reminded me that he is the one to bear witness to my life. He knows. He sees my broken heart, my conflicted priorities, my judgment of others, my compassion for others. He knows, he takes the time to listen to my heart, when I take the time to share it, and he bears with me gently.

God has tenderly reminded me that his love transcends all extremes, as Romans 8:38-39 speaks to us: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And so when I sit back in my room and cry, I can pour out my overwhelmed, unseen heart to him. I can list the conflicted emotions and trust he will hear and hold them. I can repent of my judgement, of my hypocrisy, and receive his forgiveness. I can rest in knowing that he knows. I can rest in knowing that his love bridges the vastest of extremes.

And in time, I can be restored in Christ, in order to listen well again, in order to hold these extremes of my life tenderly and to care for those on both sides with love. Soon, I will be able to tune back in, joyfully, to rejoice with my friends and family on both sides of the ocean, and to extend the unending love of God, in this messy middle place.

Seeing Dignity Instead of Misery Among the Poor

by Amy Straub

I used to assume that life must be joyless for those without all the material comforts that were commonplace to me. When I considered people who had only the clothes on their backs and just enough food for each day, my first and strongest reaction was pity. I felt it often in our early years in Zambia, and that revealed a lot to me about my true priorities. When we equate poverty with misery, our core values are exposed. 

In speaking of poverty, I’m not referring to a life-threatening lack of resources (absolute poverty), but to the many people around the world who are deemed “poor” in comparison to Western standards. People in relative poverty have their basic needs met, but they have a smaller than average income for their society. It’s easy to assume that people in these circumstances must be miserable when we view them through the lens of our own experience. It requires deeper insight to explain the unexpected joy and laughter that are so often found in places of material emptiness.

Our western worldview clashes with the scripture that plainly affirms, “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:8). These words force us to acknowledge that contentment, satisfaction, and even outright joy are possible with very little. Maybe they’re even most possible with very little. But those of us who were born into privilege can’t internalize this through personal experience. We have to learn from those who understand this paradox because they live it every day. The ones with limited resources who embrace their lot with joy can teach us that poverty offers a different kind of fullness that is invisible to our eyes. 

This is not to minimize the adverse effects of poverty on individuals and families or to gloss over the depth of human need around the world. Poverty in itself is not a virtue, and making light of the suffering of others is irresponsible and potentially even harmful. We shouldn’t underestimate the impact of poverty simply because kids in the slums flash beautiful smiles. God takes suffering seriously, and he calls us to align with his heart for those in need. Like him, we must accurately name poverty and its effects. And when we acknowledge its true weight, we see that the burden of poverty is directly proportional to the measure of respect that we owe the poor for their joyful endurance.

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Several years ago near our home in Kitwe, the water main to a high-density neighborhood broke. For weeks, hundreds of people lost access to running water in their homes. With a heavy heart I watched young and old carrying buckets from the Kafue River back to their houses, and I wondered how they were coping. One day I found myself driving behind a pickup truck that was carrying several men with large barrels of water into this neighborhood. I felt a wave of pity for the massive inconvenience they were experiencing. 

Then the truck hit a pothole, and water from the barrels splashed all over the men, soaking them from head to toe. My pity deepened at this added difficulty, and I fully expected to see signs of frustration. But instead of getting angry, the men erupted into laughter. As they laughed they caught my eye, giving me the opportunity to laugh with them. I will never forget that moment or the impact it had on my perspective, and they will never know how much their joy taught me. Over the years, as I have had the privilege of observing hundreds of moments like this, my pity has been transformed into deep respect. 

When we have the honor of knowing people in poverty who radiate joy and bubble over with easy laughter, we become uncomfortably aware of our own misconceptions. Our view of the world is often clouded by our privileged (and therefore limited) perspective. Those who are content in their poverty demonstrate that the less a person has, the greater their ability to treasure each good gift that comes to them—however small it might be. A cup of water, a glowing lightbulb, a filling meal, family and friends. Maybe it’s those of us in the wealthy minority world, trapped in an endless cycle of consumerism, who are most to be pitied. “One who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry soul, every bitter thing is sweet” (Proverbs 27:7). Excess quickly becomes a burden, but those in need are able to receive everything as a gift. 

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Pity is a common reaction to poverty, but there’s another response that is worse, and that’s judgment. Assuming that people in poverty must deserve their condition also reveals how wrongly we rank material things. If poverty is a punishment and we are well off, then we must be upstanding people who deserve the comforts we have. While it might feel good to view ourselves so highly, scripture condemns this attitude as an insult to the God who intentionally became poor. 

From his example of poverty, Christ taught that living for both God and money is an unattainable goal. We have to choose which will rule us. Scornful religious leaders mocked Jesus for this teaching because of the discomfort they felt when they heard it. In their hearts they knew they loved money more than God. His response to them was a sharp rebuke: “You like to appear righteous in public, but God knows your hearts. What this world honors is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). Contrary to many human assumptions over the centuries, wealth does not equal decency. Christ goes even further than this and describes poverty not as a punishment, but as a spiritual advantage (Luke 6:20-26). In contrast, he warns that wealth can be a spiritual hindrance (Mark 10:23-25).

Material wealth isn’t wrong in itself, but it comes with unique blind spots and temptations. God doesn’t require us to repent of our wealth, and material blessings shouldn’t incite feelings of guilt. But in order to thrive spiritually, we must reject the belief that wealth brings joy, and instead trust the God who says we can be content without it. 

We grasp and affirm the truth of scripture only as much as we participate in it. If we are blessed with abundance, we have the opportunity to hold it with open hands and practice letting it go easily. Contentment grows in a heart that doesn’t clench its fists. We do not live to serve our wealth, consumed by our focus on and protection of it. Rather, we live to serve with our wealth, looking outward to find needs and meet them. Through the spiritual practice of generosity, we become steady streams of goodness to others. 

And if we are granted a life of poverty, we have the privilege of walking with the One who had nowhere to lay his head. Contentment grows in a heart that knows solidarity. Christ chose a life of poverty, and because of this, those who have nothing of material significance in this life are able to identify with him, lean on him, and receive from him in ways that are beyond the grasp of the wealthy. It’s the needy who are driven to ask, seek, and knock. One of the beautiful mysteries of scripture is that God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith (James 2:5). This truth is displayed around the globe, and it has been a privilege to see it firsthand in Africa. 

My husband and I are part of a ministry that trains African church leaders to plant churches and equip believers in their own languages and communities, taking the gospel into areas of Africa where foreign missionaries would be ineffective. We’ve met rural pastors who have so few spiritual resources that they travel for days, sometimes on foot, to attend our ministry training conferences. Their hunger for theological education, Bibles, and ministry resources is profound, and it is matched by an equal volume of joy when those resources are secured. Witnessing this deep faith and passionate love for God and his word has challenged and encouraged us again and again throughout our years here. 

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We owe a debt of honor to our brothers and sisters in the developing world who are actively growing vibrant communities of faith with far fewer resources than we enjoy in the western world. The center of global faith has shifted away from the affluent west, which reveals that it’s not an abundance of resources, but a deeper dependence on God, that ultimately turns the world upside down. 

Instead of pitying or judging those with less, we can de-center our own perspective and learn from the experience of others. We can lay down our assumptions and take up humility. We can learn to recognize and avoid false comparisons. I might be miserable in certain circumstances, but that isn’t necessarily true for others. Many people have developed far more fortitude than I have. It’s ultimately unhelpful to measure the majority world by minority world standards.

Furthermore, if wealth hasn’t rendered the West content and grateful, why should we assume it is – or should be – the ultimate goal of those without it? The comforts of this life are a gift, and we should seek to relieve suffering whenever possible. But the need that drives us into community and into dependence on God is not ultimately an enemy to be defeated. Treating it as such reveals what we believe is most important in this life. 

Poverty does not equal misery or failure any more than wealth equals contentment or success. Rich and poor alike are marked by the image of God, and it is this imago dei that endows each person with intrinsic and sacred value. This is what shines through when joy and laughter are found among those in poverty. They are not oblivious to their suffering; they are putting it in its proper place. It is momentary and fleeting, and it will someday be overshadowed by a weight of glory. Not having treasure on earth, they have the opportunity to see the eternal with unclouded eyes. 

May we honor the poor as Christ did. May we recognize their dignity and value them for their personhood rather than their possessions. And may the words of our savior in Luke 6:20-21 remind us of his heartbeat for those in need:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.

Together we have the opportunity to carry this heartbeat into our global communities, while looking forward in hope to that kingdom where the hungry are filled and the weary rejoice. 

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Amy grew up in Minneapolis, MN, where her idea of travel was her family’s annual trip to Kansas. That all changed when she married Ben, a Canadian TCK with a travel bucket list as large as the globe. Together they moved to Kitwe, Zambia, where they have served for the past 10 years at Central Africa Baptist University and in their local Zambian church. They have four kids, two dogs, and five guinea pigs. Amy enjoys reading, having people over for shared meals, exploring new countries with her family, and the year-round sunshine and gardening of the Southern Hemisphere. She sometimes enjoys homeschooling, and has permanently retired from Minnesota winters.

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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?

Save

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

buildings-455239_1920

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.