Public Square

Why a Ukrainian Church Said ‘No’ to American Aid

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When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, the newly independent nation of Ukraine faced numerous challenges: Between 1991 and 1997, Ukraine lost sixty percent of its GDP, inflation increased to five digits, and there were riots in the streets.

Members of a church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, asked, “How can we help?” Eager to put their faith in action, they partnered with a church in Zaporozhye, Ukraine, a city of a million people in the country’s southeast.

Leaders at Calvary Monument Bible Church had recently read Matthew 25 and desired to put this well-known passage about caring for the poor and needy into practice. It states,

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.

Matthew 25:31-36 is clear in its message and is not an abstract allegory. The members of CMBC took the words seriously, knowing that “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Responding in God’s Grace

Considering it a privilege to respond in God’s grace, they sought to care for the poor and needy as if they were directly serving Jesus:

  • I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. Recognizing that years of Soviet rule had decimated local food production and distribution, CMBC shipped flour, rice, and other staples of nutrition.
  • I needed clothes and you clothed me. The Ukrainians wore old clothes that were often insufficient to face harsh winters. CMBC members shared warm clothes with their Ukrainian friends.
  • I was sick and you looked after me. Hospitals and infirmaries in Zaporozhye had few to no supplies, so CMBC arranged for shipments of medicine and medical supplies donated by area doctors and hospitals.

Noticing Ukrainian believers only had a dilapidated, crowded building in which to worship, CMBC members also helped purchase land and provide funds to build additional educational space.

This pattern continued for several years, marked annually by a special Thanksgiving offering.  Afterward, the church would ship a container with food, clothing, and church supplies to Zaporozhye.

But something was wrong.

Raising Support, Raising Questions

After three years, leaders from both sides of the Atlantic began to question whether the shipments were helpful. Both churches felt like they were entering the black hole of charity. Neither church had an exit strategy, nor did they believe this partnership was making a positive impact.

The Ukrainian church would always have needs the American church could respond to, but it had stopped providing for its own needs in the process.

This worried the Ukrainian pastor. Though grateful for the generous support, he recognized his congregation had less desire to serve one another. Why sacrifice anything to feed or clothe a neighbor when an international shipment and team would soon arrive?

As aid continued, the Ukrainian pastor had more questions:

  • What would happen if the generous people in Pennsylvania suddenly stopped providing?
  • Would this kind of assistance produce a stronger community long after the donations stopped?

Additionally, American aid impacted the Ukrainian economy. The generosity of the American church was hurting local businesses as they competed with free American goods and services entering their marketplace.

The gifts from America, however well intentioned, caused more problems than they solved. The American church knew its call to feed the hungry, clothe the needy, and invite the stranger in, but the way it was going about it was causing harm. The Ukrainian church, though grateful for the partnership, saw itself becoming increasingly dependent on charity.

Both churches were learning a difficult lesson: Compassionate responses to practical needs work well in the short term but cause many unintended consequences in the long term.

Transitioning from Aid to Development

The case study of the Lancaster and Ukrainian church partnership illustrates another reason why it’s important to transition from aid to development.

After the downfall of the Soviet Union, the initial response by the American church was warranted: food, clothing, and supplies were sent, and individuals had their needs met.

Three years later, the appropriate time for aid had passed. Toxic, ill-timed aid was crippling the Ukrainian church.

The Ukrainian pastor had the courage to stop the inappropriate relationship between the two churches. He called the leaders of the American church aside and told them,

We need a hand-up, not a hand out.

The two churches realized that the best way to help would be to equip local Ukrainians to create jobs or be better equipped to find a job. They stumbled on microfinance, a relatively new concept in Ukraine.

At the time, only one microfinance institution—offering training, savings, and small loans—was operating there.

In 1997, individuals from CMBC offered twelve small loans to individuals in Ukraine. All were repaid, and the financially poor had the opportunity to provide for their families in a dignified way.

This model emphasized enterprise instead of aid. While one concept crippled initiative, this approach to poverty alleviation created opportunity—and promoted work as calling.


Editor’s note: This post was adapted from Peter Greer’s chapter entitled, “‘Stop Helping Us:’ A Call to Compassionately Move beyond Charity,”  in IFWE’s book, For the Least of These: A Biblical Answer to Poverty

On “Flashback Friday,” we take a look at some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This article was previously published on Apr. 8, 2014.

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