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.
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.
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.
Christmas is that busy time of year with parties, shopping, and time with family and friends. It holds so many memories for me personally. As a child, my brothers, sisters and I stayed awake half the night in anticipation. We were up before dawn rushing to find presents under the tree.
Now, so many years later, the wonder of the season hasn’t left me. I anticipate the joy of spending time with our newest grandchild, just one month old.
As we celebrate this special time of year, it is a wonderful time to remember that God himself came to earth. What is so extraordinary is that He chose to identify with the poor and marginalized. He gave up all of His splendor, was born in a stable, and laid in a manager. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 we read, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor.”
The heart of God is close to those who are poor, forgotten, and alone. Of all the classes and peoples on earth, He chose to identify with them. He lived and walked among them. He knew their pain and struggles. He opened His arms to bless and heal them.
As the president of World Concern I am keenly aware that God continues to walk with the poor. He does that through you and me. I see it every day.
This Christmas, amidst all the joy we will experience, let us pause and remember. Join me in prayer for the poor and marginalized—those close to God’s heart.
It’s noon, the least ideal time of day for interviewing and taking pictures. Stomachs are rumbling, the brisk morning air has been swallowed up by the afternoon heat, and the sun is positioned directly over our heads.
Ilova Kokoto and I move into the shade of Ilova’s meager brick home. She lives here with her daughter and granddaughter. Natural light streams through the doorway and frames Ilova’s face – exposing her wisdom-induced wrinkles and deep brown eyes. “I’m not able to know my age,” Ilova shares, but it is apparent that she has lived to see a thing or two.
We are in Basuba, a rural village in Lamu county – a detour off of the journey up Kenya’s coast, the road toward Somalia.
“Life in Basuba is difficult. For many years, we have suffered from famine due to numerous droughts,” Ilova explains in perfect Kiswahili, an infamous attribute of Kenya’s coastal region.
Resting her chin on her weathered hands, the mother of four continues, “Until two years ago, we had no clean water. We traveled far to collect dirty water, and many people died from cholera.”
Though proud of Basuba’s recent clean water improvement, Ilova further informs me about the village’s ongoing challenges – many of which will soon be considered a shida (Kiswahili for trouble) of the past.
Take hygiene, for example. When World Concern first visited Basuba, the community was living naively in hygiene indifference. Having never been educated about the importance of drinking clean water, relieving oneself in a contained area, and washing one’s hands, preventable diseases were rampant among local residents.
Ilova laughs recalling her defecation memories of the past. “When we would relieve ourselves, we would have to go deep in the bush. Even at night. Sometimes I would encounter snakes and buffalo and have to run for my life. It was very hectic.”
It did not require much consideration for the Basuba community to insert latrine use into their daily routines. Ilova explains, “The toilets are nice, we are using them often. We now don’t have to go where there is a lot of danger.”
Sitting on the dirt in Ilova’s doorway, I cannot help but feel overwhelmed by the glaring simplicity that is such an immense issue – an issue that is lessening both the quality and length of human life all over the world. Simply put, many survive without available, clean water and hygiene education. These should be a basic human rights, yes?
Though the people of Basuba still suffer from poor farming conditions, World Concern’s partnership has transformed a significant part of their daily life. According to Ilova, “Because of the toilets, we don’t feel the sicknesses we used to have. We used to complain of stomach issues but we no longer do because the conditions are clean.”
Peter Okongi, a Basuba primary school teacher who has been translating for me throughout the interview, proceeds to chime in (though I will toot my own horn a little here – I could understand about half of Ilova’s sentences. Mimi nimefahamu!), “When I first moved here, there was no clean water and no latrines. Clean water was very difficult to find. People could travel between 4 – 5 km to collect unhygienic water. My students would often complain of stomach ache. Even me, I was often sick.”
A Nairobi native, 36-year-old Peter was assigned to teach in Basuba three years prior – just before World Concern installed the djabia. Frustrated that his students frequently missed school as a result of their poor health and the distance of the remote water locations, Peter is particularly jovial about the community’s recent improvements, “Even school attendance has increased. Students used to travel so far that they sometimes had to stay a night away. But now that the water is available, more are able to attend school, where we are also teaching about hygiene.”
Ilova’s gorgeous daughter and granddaughter step into the home, plopping themselves into plastic chairs. Looking at her loved ones, Ilova warmly expresses, “Now that the toilets are built, we are no longer afraid. We feel supported.”
Snakes, buffalo, and cholera be gone. “We feel supported.”
Support empowers people live with dignity – to live a quality of life that is deserved by all human beings. Empowered with clean water and education, in partnership with World Concern, the people of Basuba are jumping across stepping stones toward holistic transformation.
Here’s the most beautiful part: with education, training, and proper equipment, on their own, the people of Basuba are going to be able to maintain a lifestyle that includes clean water and hygiene for years to come.
She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Jean Berlin knows that his life was spared during the Haiti earthquake in 2010 for a reason. And that reason is to serve others. In honor of World Humanitarian Day, we wanted to share his amazing story of a life dedicated to serving people.
A math and physics teacher, Jean Berlin was teaching in a 5th floor university classroom in Port-au-Prince on January 12, 2010. Just before the earthquake hit, he got what he describes as “a bad feeling inside.”
“I felt something would happen,” he recalled.
He left the building, excusing himself from his students and explaining that he wasn’t feeling well.
Moments later, when the shaking started, Berlin was confused. He’d never experienced an earthquake before. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the school was gone. The building had collapsed and everyone inside was dead.
“I said, ‘Oh my God what happened?’” Berlin ran home to check on his two sisters. Thankfully, both had survived the earthquake.
He’ll never forget that day when his city went dark. “It was a very, very bad time in Haiti,” he said. “After I wondered, ‘God why didn’t you give me the chance to ask my friends to come out too?’”
Berlin still has no answer as to why so many died that day, but he survived. All he knows is that he is here for a reason.
“Jesus saved me to serve people,” he says with confidence.
Although Berlin loved teaching, he now dedicates his life to helping protect vulnerable families and communities in Haiti from future disasters, like hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes. As a project manager for World Concern’s Disaster Risk Reduction program in Port-de-Paix, Berlin teaches people safe building practices, disaster preparedness, and how to keep their families safe in a disaster. He says he never wants to see such massive, preventable loss of life again.
“If something happens in Port-de-Paix one day, now we won’t have as many victims,” he explains. “This is one way I can serve people.”
Berlin’s humanitarian service is his life mission, and the mission of World Concern.
“I can say that it is very, very important to serve people because, as Christians, we have to do what Jesus has done. Because Jesus himself, he served people too. As a Christian organization, it is our very special mission to serve people.”
We at World Concern humbly salute Jean Berlin as a dedicated humanitarian who is fulfilling his calling by serving others and protecting human life.
Listen to Jean Berlin say, in his own words, why he believes his life was spared so that he could help protect others.
The following is an excerpt of a letter we received from a 20-year-old woman. She enclosed a fifty dollar bill to help educate a young girl in a poor country. It touched our hearts to hear how she was able to put herself in Jovia’s shoes, and to see how God uses people to help transform the lives of those in need.
Dear David Eller,
I received your letter about this 14-year-old girl named Jovia. I was touched by your letter and I was shocked to see that these girls are getting married at such a young age. I cannot imagine being married at my age, which is 20, let alone 14! My heart goes out to these young girls.
I received my paycheck at work and discovered I had less hours this week. I wanted to give to Jovia and her cause, but was struggling with how I was going to make it work. I was really praying about it and I didn’t know what to do, so I set the letter aside.
One morning, I was reading my Bible and this portion of scripture caught my eye:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17-18)
I read those verses and paused. Memories of my high school years filled my mind. There were so many fun, exciting, embarrassing, sad, and interesting situations that I had growing up. I have some of the most lasting friendships from high school.
I know Jovia would love to continue having those experiences and friendships in her teen life. Those are what start to mold us into who we are today. So to get married right off the bat so young would be missing out on a part of your life that has not been fulfilled.
I glanced around my room and saw all the beautiful luxuries I had compared to Jovia. I have a comfortable bed with a pretty bed spread, sturdy furniture, many nice clothes, purple painted walls, and carpeting. I know I am blessed, and to read about this girl who doesn’t have anything close to that, and her only hope is for her dream of attending school this year to come true.
The Lord is always faithful and guides us with his eye. He moves in wondrous ways…
3 1/2 weeks.
10 villages. Over 35 interviews. 7 airplanes. A large variety of beds.
15 Cokes. 3 Coke-car-explosions (inevitable). 2 head-scarfs.
2 times getting the Land Rover stuck – once in a wadi & once in mud. 25 cups of hot tea. 1,596.97 moments of wishing I spoke French. 42 herds of camels.
Countless painful stories. Countless stories of resilience and hope.
1 fantastic team of colleagues.
Over 4,000 photos.
The following photos are highlights of Africa Communication Liaison Kelly Ranck’s time spent visiting World Concern’s projects in the Sila Region of Chad. “I’m fairly certain I could write over 30 blog posts based on everything and everyone that I saw, heard, met, and experienced. But, for now, I give you photos,” says Kelly. “If you haven’t caught my last two posts on Chad, make sure to check them out here and here.”
Malala Yousafzai’s tragic experience of being shot for her advocacy of girls’ rights has brought much attention to the importance of and need for girls’ education worldwide. As Malala celebrates her 16th birthday with a visit to the UN, all eyes are on the world’s response.
Will we simply talk about the importance of educating girls? Or will we do something?
When I think of the incredible challenges faced by girls in developing countries to pursue an education, I think of girls like Christine.
Unlike most girls her age, Christine is one of the few in her rural Kenyan community to complete her education. Throughout secondary school, she was the only girl in her class. “It was difficult,” she said.
In this part of the world, most girls her age are either married off young—some as young as 10-years-old—or cannot afford to pay school fees. When finances are tight, parents tend to pay for their sons to go to school, rather than daughters. World Concern provides scholarships for girls like Christine to finish school.
Because she did not marry young, Christine and her family were ridiculed by others for their decision to pursue education. She found it hard to relate to her friends. But this never weakened her determination.
Christine is waiting for the results from her secondary exams so she can apply to university. “I want to become a dentist so that I can come back to the village and help others. One day I want to start a school to educate more girls.”
Christine is now a role model for girls in her community.
“The few girls in the area who are not married off are working hard so they can reach the level I’ve reached,” she said. Twirling her braids for a moment, she paused, then said, “I tell them to work hard because life is so hard.”
“In Maasai land, girls are very vulnerable,” explains Jennifer Warabi, the head teacher at a nearby primary school that provides scholarships for at-risk girls. “Parents send boys to school over girls. We have rescued many girls who were married at a young age, and brought them to school so they can continue their education.”
Ms. Warabi has taken a special interest in one of her teen students named Agnes, who was already married and pregnant when she came to the school. She gave birth while living at the school, but has been able to continue her studies. “She’s performing well,” said Ms. Warabi.
The situation in places like Haiti is critical too. Crushing poverty keeps many girls from attending school, and even fewer from completing their education.
It is especially important to support girls in their pursuit of education. According to UNICEF, only 52% of girls in Haiti participate in primary school and the number drops to 21% in secondary. The need is obvious, and the solution is simple. Not only does an education provide increased social and economic opportunities for a girl but it helps break the cycle of poverty in her family and community.
Manoucha is 19 years old but still has a couple of years left of high school. “I like to go to school but I have lost some years because I was sick,” explained Manoucha.
Although she has experienced challenges, Manoucha is committed to finishing high school. “It’s the best way to help your family,” she said. She also has a dream of being able to help others one day. “When I become older I want to be a nurse because if someone is to get sick I will be able to give them aid.”
World Concern is helping Manoucha finish her education. In Haiti, we do this by providing young people like her a way to earn income and pay school fees. Manoucha received a goat and training on how to care for her goat.
Her goat’s first baby was returned to the program so it can be given to another child. This way, the program can sustain itself and kids are able to learn a skill and are given ownership.
“Once there are more baby goats I will sell them to purchase things I need,” she said. “It will help me pay for school fees.”
You can help a girl like Christine or Manoucha finish her education, pursue her dreams and change the future of her entire community. As we stand in awe of Malala’s courage today, let’s help her celebrate this milestone birthday by taking action.
This week I was browsing through photos and documents from 2006-2008, when our staff was assessing the needs of families in Chad in the wake of the Darfur war. Wow. The situation was grim. According to these documents, in 2007 there were about 230,000 Sudanese refugees in Chad, and 180,000 displaced Chadians.
We were planning a response in camps near Goz Beida, a town that previously supported a population of 5,000. By 2008, there were an additional 60,000 displaced people living there. Imagine if your hometown of 5,000 suddenly had 60,000 traumatized, homeless, and desperately needy visitors.
These families—what was left of them—had survived horrific violence. Armed militia on horseback (called Janjaweed), had lit their grass homes on fire, destroyed their villages, and killed everyone in their path. Only those who hid in the bush survived.
One of those who survived was a woman we’ll call Hawa. I discovered her story amidst pages of data collected by our staff. One way we determine how to help is by talking directly with families—hearing their stories. Hawa was eager to tell hers, and other women gathered around as she spoke, nodding their heads that their stories matched.
Hawa lived in a village of about 2,000 people, their houses scattered along the edge of a seasonal river. In the short rainy season, they cultivated grain, harvesting enough to feed themselves throughout the rest of the year, plus a bit to sell.
During the dry season, they dug wells in the dry river bed and grew vegetables to sell in the local market, or to dry for eating. Each family had about 60 animals that provided them with gallons of milk.
The girls fetched water while the boys looked after the animals, attending the local school when their chores were done. There were occasional droughts when times were tough, but they lived a full life and seldom went hungry…
Then one day, without notice, men mounted on horses and camels surrounded the village, encircling it, running around the perimeter of the houses, shooting into the air. Women scrambled, terrified, to collect their children. A few of the riders charged into the village, killing 40 of the men, setting the thatch roofs of the houses on fire.
In the chaos, the women ran with their children to hide beyond the riverbed. For hours the attackers systematically pillaged the village, taking anything of value that had survived and loading them up on the large train of camels they’d brought along for that purpose. They killed anyone they found remaining in the village, carrying away 3 women they captured alive.
The attackers even poked around in the ground to find their grain stores. The excess they could not carry away, they burned to make sure that no one could come back to live in this village.
After hiding for a couple of days, a few of their number returned to the village to see what they could salvage, to bury the dead and to find missing members of their families. Hawa held a scarred cooking pot. From all her possessions, it was the only thing she’d managed to save. But she had all of her children together and was grateful for this. She didn’t know where her husband was…
She sought safety amongst the tens of thousands of others in Goz Beida. Now she had only a grass hut, a crusty cooking pot, a cotton cloth to cover her children at night and a few kilograms of grain to feed her children. No milk, no vegetables, no oil or even salt. When she’d first arrived, she’d been lucky enough to receive a bag of grain as food aid, but she’d had to sell about half to buy some basics like a spoon, salt for the food, dried okra and soap.
Not willing to simply watch her children starve, she braved the threat of rape to collect firewood to sell in the hopes of earning maybe 25 or 30 cents which she would use to buy food. This takes time and plenty of stamina, but must be done in addition to the eight hours each day she spent collecting water. Even then, it is only enough for drinking, cooking and washing their faces.
Hawa had lost so much, but she retained her dignity and her will to fight for the survival of her family.
Around the time Hawa arrived in the camp, World Concern began providing emergency assistance there. Knowing that this kind of aid is temporary, we developed ways to help families become self-sufficient, mostly through cash for work, savings groups, and small business development.
The land had been depleted of trees for firewood, so when it rained, the water ran down hill, flooding certain areas, and leaving other places desolate and useless. Nothing was growing.
We began paying people cash to build rock lines that would cause rainwater to soak into the ground and allow plant life to grow again. At first glance, the work appeared tedious and pointless. But families could use the cash they earned to buy food or supplies. And the lush, green growth that emerged after it rained proved this system worked. Families began the long process of recovery.
I came across a statement in one of the reports written during this time that caught my attention. It said, “World Concern is committed to being a long term presence in the area.”
We’ve kept this commitment. We’re still there, five years later. Some of the camps have closed. Others turned into towns. Our focus in Chad has changed as people’s needs have changed.
I remember, about three years ago, asking the staff member who interviewed Hawa what the solution was—what these families really needed most.
She responded, “What they need is to go home.”
For the past year and a half, this is exactly what’s been happening. Families are returning to their villages—or the areas where their villages once existed—and they’re rebuilding their lives from nothing.
Once again, we started by assessing needs when several hundred families returned to the tiny village of Harako, about 40 miles from Goz Beida. A few grass huts were built as shelter, but fields for farming were overgrown with brush. The families had no tools to clear the fields or plant crops, and the planting season was near. Their only source of water was a muddy hole they dug in the sand.
Through One Village Transformed, and with the support of donors and groups like Westminster Presbyterian Church, things look very different in Harako today. Families received farming tools, seeds, and training to plant crops—and their first harvest provided enough to get them through the dry season. A well was dug, gushing forth thousands of gallons of fresh, clean water. And residents worked tirelessly, baking bricks to build the first classroom for their new school, which is scheduled to be completed this month.
Everywhere you look in Harako, lives are being transformed. Out of the ashes, families are rebuilding what they never thought they’d have again … homes, crops, schools, wells.
In a way, things have come full-circle from the horrible tragedy that swept through Eastern Chad a few years ago. Full circle, from disaster to resilience. And restoration of what was lost.
These families are going home. And we’re going with them. Join us, and witness the transformation.