This is the second in five posts covering key principles in ministry with the poor intended to help churches move from transactional to transformational ministry. In the previous post, we discussed the importance of listening to the poor before acting.
2. Dignity Matters
Consider the message when we try to fix what’s broken.
When I was a sophomore in college, some friends were talking about a spring break trip they were planning to Juarez, Mexico, to build houses. I was a fairly new Christian and was excited about the idea of an adventure with a great cause attached to it. Other kids were headed off to beaches in every direction, but I felt like this was an opportunity to see the real world, and serve the Lord at the same time.
For my first “mission trip” it was just about as eye-opening and real as you could get. The part of Juarez that we worked in looked like an attempt to reclaim a garbage dump. As we dug up the ground to prepare a place to pour the foundation, we discovered little plastic bags that we jokingly called “goodie bags” because they had anything but goodies on the inside. For a kid that had grown up in the suburbs, this was extreme, and I honestly felt pretty good about my willingness to serve the Lord by digging up human feces in the hot sun of the desert.
More students signed up for the trip than the organizers were expecting, and we looked a little bit like stirred up ants on an ant hill. We had so many people that we didn’t even have enough jobs or space on the work site, so we had a team of people in the street prepping stucco and other materials for those working on the house.
One afternoon, the man who would be receiving the house came home from his day of labor. He picked up two trowels, one for each hand, and began applying stucco to his new home. There were five other college students working on the adjacent wall, but this man did his work faster and with a higher level of quality than all five of the students combined. This man was clearly a skilled construction worker by trade.
When the house was completed, we concluded with a ceremony where we presented this home to the family. We brought them into their home, waited for their reaction to this gift.
As a husband and a father myself, there are few things more important than having a family who is proud of you, as a person and as a provider. Being unable to give your family something as basic as a home tears at the fabric of who you are as a person. I can’t imagine the shame a dad must feel when his kids are asking for basic necessities he can’t provide.
I wonder how this man felt, having a lifetime of experience in construction, when 100 unskilled kids from America came to do what he was unable to do for his family. As a man with such expertise, could we have honored him in front of his family by at least putting him in charge of our efforts?
When we “see a problem, fix a problem,” the message we send often reinforces some of the unseen problems of poverty, like lack of dignity. Dignity matters.