5 Key Principles for Working with the Poor: # 5 Transformation through Relationships

This is the last of 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 fact that we are all created to be creative.

5. Transformation through Relationships

“The tasks we think are so critical are not more important than the people God has entrusted to us.” – Sherwood Lingenfelter

Are you like me at work and keep your “To-Do” list within arm’s reach? I’m probably a little weird, but I find it cathartic to scratch stuff off that list. Sometimes I keep scratching through it a little longer than I need to.

Unfortunately, I think we often treat ministry with the poor like a “To-Do” list. We make it more about crossing things off our list than we do about the people themselves. In your church, is it more common to see drives for shoeboxes and back packs full of schools supplies, or mentor programs that focus on being with people? Ask most outreach pastors and they’ll tell you that close to 100 people will sign up to provide a shoebox for every one person who agrees to volunteer for a weekly mentor program.

We forget that poverty is ultimately about people, and ministry is relational. We tend to focus on the material problems rather than the people themselves. “See a problem, Fix a problem.”  If ministry with the poor is relational in nature like other types of ministry, shouldn’t it look more like small groups at our churches?

Community members and leaders in the village of Harako, Chad, meet with World Concern staff to share their needs and their goals for transforming their own village.
Community members and leaders in the village of Harako, Chad, meet with World Concern staff to share their needs and their goals for transforming their own village.

At World Concern, our community development process starts, in most cases, with several months of meeting with the community and its leaders. We want to hear the story of their village, ask them about their vision for the future and their struggles that keep them being where they want to be.

Then, we begin to work with them on the goals they’ve set by building on what they already do well. Seeing lives transformed in this way takes time and requires walking with people patiently through the ups and downs of life. It’s not a quick fix, but it is lasting.

In my next post, I’ll tell you about how World Concern pulls these five principles together in our community development process by telling you the story of one village.

5 Key Principles for Working with the Poor: #4 Created to Be Creative

This is the fourth of 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 building on God-given skills and abilities when we help the poor.

4. Created to Be Creative

“Like all good and satisfying work, the worker sees himself in it.” – Tim Keller

This woman in Bangladesh earns income by using her skills as a seamstress.
This woman in Bangladesh earns income by using her skills as a seamstress.

In the last post, we talked about the importance of starting with what people have not with what they lack when doing ministry with the poor. In this post, we’re going to continue that thought, but focusing on the God-given need we all have to use our skills and abilities.

From the outset of the Bible, we see God at work in creation, and throughout the Bible we see God continuing to work within creation. We also see God reflect back on His work with joy, for instance at the end of each day of creation. I think this is, in part, because His work bears His signature, it’s a reflection of who He is in some sense. Pslam 19 affirms this idea:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Tim Keller says, “Like all good and satisfying work, the worker sees himself in it.” This is not only true of God, but being made in His image, we’re also designed to use our unique skills and abilities.  Keller also says:

“Work is as much a basic human need as food, beauty, rest, friendship, prayer, and sexuality; it is not simply medicine but food for our soul. Without meaningful work we sense significant inner loss and emptiness. People who are cut off from work because of physical or other reasons quickly discover how much they need work to thrive emotionally, physically, and spiritually.”

A young Haitian man uses his construction skills to rebuild homes in Haiti.
A young Haitian man uses his construction skills to rebuild homes in Haiti.

This video, “Eggs in Rwanda,” shows an example of how good intentions of helping actually undermined the God-given need for a person in that community to work.

Let’s be sure we’re equipping people use their God-given skills and abilities when we help the poor.

5 Key Principles for Working with the Poor: #3 God Made the Glass Half Full

This is the third 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 maintaining dignity when we help the poor.

3. God Made the Glass Half Full

“What really works is defining a community by its strengths, resources, achievements and hopes—not by its degree of brokenness.” – Angela Blanchard

Not long ago, World Concern was interviewing people at a church about their partnership with our One Village Transformed program. I sat down with a little boy and asked him why he wanted to help people in the village where his church was partnering.  Here’s what he told me:

“They don’t have a school. They don’t have a lot of silverware, and they don’t have a lot of food.  They don’t have a very good well.  They don’t have enough shelter.  They don’t get very much rain.  They don’t have very much grass to plant.  They don’t have very much clothes. They don’t have very much stuff in their homes.”

Although I’m not sure about the silverware, he did what we all hope to do by responding with compassion to the brokenness of poverty we see in pictures and videos. Actually, his description wasn’t far off from the reality of that village.

In the first two blog posts I’ve been critical of the “See a problem, fix a problem” approach we commonly take in helping the poor. So, if we should respond with compassion to situations of brokenness, what am I suggesting?

When we directly address the problems we can see, like delivering a shipment of clothing, or … silverware, it reinforces the problems to the people and to ourselves. We (both them and us) begin to think of them in terms of what’s wrong. We forget about the God-given skills and abilities that each one possesses.

I recently watched a trailer for an upcoming documentary called “Landfill Harmonic.” The opening quote sums it up well. “The world sends us garbage. We send back music.” The documentary shows how one man is taking pieces of garbage from the landfill and making musical instruments for kids. The kids in the village have tremendous musical ability, and the man making the instruments out of garbage seems like a genius to me.

What if we helped build on that skill by offering him a micro loan to expand that as a business? Of course, we wouldn’t break our first principle; we would start by listening to his vision for the future. But, there is so much ability there that could be built upon.  And, the trickledown effect is that the people will begin to use their success to address areas they see as problems. It’s quite possible the changes you wanted to see will in fact happen, but they happen by building on what worked, not on what was broken.

 

5 Key Principles for Working with the Poor: #2 Dignity Matters

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.

5 Key Principles for Working with the Poor: #1 Listen First

When your church helps the poor, could your actions be summarized: “See a problem; fix a problem?” Many churches work to repair what’s fractured in the lives of the poor or try to solve their problems for them, but they forget that poverty is about people and ministry is relational.

1. Listen First

Often we act on behalf of the poor without actually knowing them, or even asking them about their situation.

Shortly after college, I began going on short-term trips with my church to a rural part of Central America.  Many of the kids had tattered clothes, rotting teeth, and gnats circling them as soon as they stopped moving. We quickly grew to love these kids and wanted to do what we could to help.

Giving hygiene kits to these kids in Central America failed to solve the hygiene problems in their community.
Giving hygiene kits to these kids in Central America failed to solve the hygiene problems in their community.

We had seen this problem and we decided to do what we could to fix it. So, throughout the year we started collecting travel-size hygiene items at hotels. The next year we returned with enough large Ziploc bags for each family in the community to have items like soaps, shampoos, tooth brushes, and toothpaste.

We walked through town passing these out door to door. We felt good doing this, but we never actually asked the community if they wanted hygiene kits or felt like they had a need for them.

Over the next five years I went back on the same trip and passed out hygiene kits every year without seeing any change in personal hygiene in the community. We were unable to fix the problem. But I worry more about how we affected problems that can’t be seen. Without listening first to the community about things they could change, our actions carried a clear message: You look dirty. Here’s something to fix that.

Years later, I read about a study done by the World Bank in which they asked 60,000 poor people from around the world about poverty. I expected to read quotes from the poor talking about hunger, lack of clean water, the need for adequate shelter, and poor hygiene. But instead, the poor spoke more often of issues that are unseen, things like dignity, hopelessness, oppression, humiliation, and isolation.

It helped me realize that poverty is not only more complex than I thought, but it goes much deeper than what I can see on the surface.