Economics 101 & Public Square

When It Comes to Alleviating Poverty, Here’s How Your Church Can Avoid Help that Hurts

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Have you ever been part of a missions trip? Ever ladled soup into the bowls of the hungry? Sent shoes to an African village, or built houses in impoverished neighborhoods?

Have you ever thought about what happens to those people after you leave? When the soup kitchen closes? When the shoes wear out, and villagers are still hungry?

These are the types of tough scenarios Dr. Brian Fikkert posed at his recent Helping without Hurting workshop at McLean Presbyterian Church in McLean, VA. 

Fikkert, founder and president of the Chalmers Center and co-author of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, imparted a comprehensive lesson about how to genuinely help the poor.

The workshop was certainly not intended to discourage donations of time or money geared toward charity. But it was intended to better gear charity toward actually helping those in need.

Addressing the Roots of Poverty

The event opened with an exploration of the problem: When we try to help the poor, we try to make them more like us – materially rich. But giving hand-outs can be a dangerous and vicious cycle, increasing the pride of the giver and the shame of the recipient, without ever addressing the roots of poverty.

The reason that trying to fix poverty with material things doesn’t work is because material poverty is just a symptom of the root causes of poverty.

To be human, created in the image of God, means, in part, that humans are relational, wired to relate to God, self, others, and the rest of creation. As a result of the fall, though, image bearing isn’t quite so simple, for our communion with God has been severed. Since we are all wired for a relationship with God, this puts a kink in human flourishing; it strains all of our other relationships, which radiates into our core. As broken people, we go into the world and create broken systems, the effects of which ripple across the world.

Poverty exists because of these broken relationships and broken systems. The material poverty we see is a manifestation of the underlying brokenness, but providing material goods is not the sole solution. The ultimate goal is restoration of broken relationships.

The first step to truly helping the materially poor is to embrace the idea that we, too, are broken. Helping the poor is not about making them more like us; it is about helping them live out who they are in the image of God.

Different Ways of Helping the Poor

Fikkert proposed three broad ways of helping the poor – relief, rehabilitation, and development.

  • Relief is what people need right after a crisis, when they are incapable of providing for themselves. This is the immediate, temporary aid provided in an emergency. Relief is not a means of treating a chronic condition; if relief work is done when the situation calls for development, then people are enabled to remain unchanged.
  • Rehabilitation is the process of restoring people and communities to pre-crisis conditions. Material assistance could still be provided, but those in need are directly involved in the process of changing their lot; they exercise their gifts and attributes to contribute toward their own improvement. Not only will this leave them able to provide for themselves once the aid is gone, but working is also better for people recovering from a crisis, for it gives them fulfillment, worth, and hope for the future. Working is part of image bearing, which is part of emerging from poverty.
  • Development is a long-term venture. It’s about walking with the poor into new arenas that they’ve never been in before and helping them be stewards of what they have. This process of ongoing change moves people closer to reconciling broken relationships.

How Can Your Ministry or Charity Revise Their Efforts to Better Help the Poor?

There is no secret formula for assuaging poverty, and there will always be complications. Sometimes, people are even moving between these three stages of vulnerability.

The key is maintaining a core focus: relief, rehabilitation, development, and understanding how to respond depending on the situation. Fikkert suggested some tips for maintaining this focus:

  • Aim to diagnose the situation correctly, and provide relief appropriately. For example: It’s Christmas time for a group in the rehabilitation phase. They’re still struggling, but have been cooking the food they receive at the church, and helping to clean up. When Christmas rolls around, your church organizes a toy drive. Instead of collecting toys and sending them to the group’s children yourself, why not make a toy store where parents can shop for their children? Then, the parents can provide for their children, which reinforces the desire to continue improving, builds dignity, and restores relationships.
  • A short-term mission can work toward the goal of alleviating poverty by pursuing an asset-based, participatory development approach. Participatory development includes asset-mapping, and learning with the poor – determining what they do have, and then helping them discover how to put those assets to good use. This process allows the people you are helping to define what success looks like in their communities.
  • In your church’s mission to help, it’s important to be culturally approachable to the poor. Restoring people requires a personal approach. Fikkert reminds us that the goal isn’t to turn Tanzania into McLean, VA, but to turn both places into their own version of the New Jerusalem. The goal is to help people uncover the ability to live out who they are in the image of God. One example is the Circle of Support model.This involves bringing together a group from your church, and a group from a partner church to talk over dinner, followed by a discussion on some topic of interest to them. Then, people who are willing to help and be helped can form lasting, dynamic relationships of mentoring and encouragement. This provides access to social networks and helps the poor navigate broken systems.

Fikkert outlined key principles that should prompt us to reevaluate how much our efforts are helping the poor in the long-run, and how we can make adaptations to help more developmentally. We must always work to help the poor with the goal, not of making them more like us, but of helping them realize and live out who they are in the image of God.

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