What can church charities learn from singer Wyclef Jean and Dwight Schrute, the authority-craving, Battlestar Galactica-loving, gullible paper salesman from NBC’s hit sitcom, The Office?
Though the relationship between Christianity and Hollywood is often one of tension, these two stars illustrate different approaches to charity that can help Christians understand why it is important to consider both:
- The message our charitable actions send to those we intend to help.
- The thought process driving our approaches to charitable aid and relief.
After a massive earthquake occurred in Haiti in 2010, celebrities jumped right in to raise money and awareness. They donated to aid programs, started their own relief programs, and flew to Port-au-Prince, the capital, to volunteer themselves. American Idol creator Simon Cowell even produced a charity song to raise money for Haiti.
But not all celebrities were successful in their Haitian relief ventures. One of the most famous charitable failures in response to the earthquake is Wyclef Jean’s program Yéle. The project ended up being a wasteful scandal in which tens of thousands of dollars were controversially spent on private jets to and from Haiti alone.
What’s more, the money that did reach the civilians was not effective. Oxfam America spokeswoman Julie Schindall criticized the organization’s approach for being a “dump and run strategy.” Wyclef’s program supplied temporary jobs and temporary food, resulting in no lasting impact.
In contrast, Rainn Wilson, famous for his role as Dwight Schrute on The Office, thinks the “dump and run” approach is more than ineffective – it’s one of the worst things anyone can do for a country. In a recent interview with Relevant Magazine, Wilson discussed his view on “donation dumping” in Haiti, saying,
The worst thing you can do in a place like Haiti is come in and hand out rice…It disempowers everybody. People who are actually growing rice are like, ‘I’m going to go get free rice down on the corner.’ Children grow up expecting that they don’t have to take care of themselves because someone will eventually show up and hand out rice. It’s really the wrong way to go.
Wilson is in the process of launching his own charity in Haiti to fight this mindset, focusing on building relationships and empowering adolescent girls. His after-school program, Lidè, which is Haitian for “leader,” teaches young women leadership skills through acting and theater games. Wilson says he wants the girls to,
Realize that they are worthwhile and they can express who they are through the arts.
Using his Hollywood talents, Wilson is trying to build community, empower individuals, and cultivate creativity.
What can churches learn from these two approaches to aid and relief?
Peter Greer, President of HOPE International, echoes Wilson’s approach to disaster-relief. He thinks church charities have a huge opportunity to empower Haitians, but often miss it by crushing them with dependency. Greer says charities should be sending a more dignifying message:
God has given you skills and abilities. He has given you something that is uniquely yours to do, and your talents and your voice mean something to this community and this world. Let us work alongside you to transform your life, your family, and your community.
The Bible is clear that we are called to help the poor, it even offers principles and guidelines for helping the poor, but it is less clear on specifics of policy when it comes to helping the poor. As Christians, we need to think clearly about the message our actions are sending to the people we intend to help.
- Are we telling them, “you’re not capable, we’ll do it for you,”
- Or are we telling them “you are capable, we want to empower you”?
One message is crippling, and the other is uplifting.
The difference between Wyclef’s approach and Wilson’s approach is the long-term impact on human flourishing. Wilson wonders what a world would be like if everyone thought this way:
Can you imagine if our natural motto was, ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of human flourishing?’ It’s not happiness; it’s human flourishing—deep, soul-enriching stuff. It’s connection. It’s service. It’s work. It’s creativity. It’s beauty.
What do you think? What can churches learn from Wyclef’s and Wilson’s approaches to charitable relief?