Friday, March 1, 2013

When Helping Hurts: Must Read for All Interested and Engaged in Short-Term Youth and Adult Mission

"What are we doing this year?" asked several of my youth who continued to wrestle with whether they wanted to participate in year three of our youth-to-youth missional partnership in Honduras.

"I understand partnership. I agree with our definition of partnership. But when are we going to do something?"

In 2010, the Imago Dei Youth ministry embarked on a new adventure and claimed a new paradigm for youth summer and short-term mission: partnership. Instead of purchasing a packaged program that "makes mission easy," often at the expense of the poor, we were called into a more long-term partnership with youth in a developing nation contexts. We were invited by the Presbytery of Honduras and PCUSA World Mission to chart new ground and a more holistic and healthy approach to cross-cultural engagement.

We no longer wanted to assume that we could "bring Jesus" somewhere Jesus was already hard at work. We no longer wanted to assume that we had all the answers that simply needed to be implemented among the poor. We no longer wanted to worship our North American idols of projects and instead chose to enter into meaningful relationships with people who are gifted and called just as much as we are.

We no longer wanted to assume we were helping the poor through week-long service blitzes when in fact we may be hurting them and their human dignity.

In preparation for our initial partnership, and regularly consulted since, our leadership team read, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. They write:

"One of the biggest problems in many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich- their god-complexes- and the poverty of being of the economically poor- their feelings of inferiority and shame. The way that we act toward the economically poor often communicates- albeit unintentionally- that we are superior and they are inferior. In the process we hurt the poor and ourselves" (65).
This is particularly the case in naive, yet popular, approaches of suburban youth ministries. We often serve not because we are interested in long-term development and holistic transformation of whole people. Instead, we serve because we have an inner-longing to feel needed, wanted, and as though we have "made a difference." We chase after the rush that comes with quick charity and at the same time does not demand much sacrifice and surrender on our part. We are obsessed with the idea of justice and the possibility of change, but not always willing to endure what is really required for sustainable growth and transformation.

We teach our youth and church members that following and serving Jesus is really about us. We proclaim that discipleship and the way of the kingdom is easy.

"‘Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it'" (Matthew 7:13).
What Corbett and Fikkert remind us is that the desire to help and serve is not enough. We must be willing to contemplate how we can break open our limited understandings of the gospel and revolutionize the task and call of the church and youth ministry service projects and mission trips. We must shed our god-complexes, reject paternalistic tendencies, and explore how to empower those in developing contexts through new paradigms of partnership:

"Development is not done to people or for people but with people. The key dynamic in development is promoting an empowering process in which all people involved- both the 'helpers' and the 'helped'- become more of what God created them to be" (105).
"We assume that we have all the best ideas about how to do things...the truth is that we often do have knowledge that can help the materially poor. But we must recognize that the materially poor also have unique insights into their own cultural contexts and are facing circumstances that we do not understand very well" (116).
This sort of shift in youth ministry service and summer mission is not necessarily popular and may not draw the masses. Youth-to-youth partnerships run the risk of generating more questions from parents and church leaders who are motivated by results. It's hard to measure human dignity, which is often sacrificed for the sake of stories and photos shared with mission and outreach committees.

"While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms than our North American audiences. Poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness." (53)
I am grateful for Corbett and Fikkert's contribution to the missional and community development conversation. I am particularly enamored with their ability to make their wisdom and insights accessible to a broad audience, to include youth and their parents. However, there is a danger. Once you open this book and read it together in the context of a community, there is no going back. You will once and for all crucify old and destructive paradigms of youth mission and service.

You will also resurrect new opportunities to serve alongside neighbors in the developing world with much more lasting and holistic results.

You will live into the kingdom of God together...and for much longer than a week over the summer.

"What are we doing this year?" asked my youth.

I am grateful they have submitted their deposits, some not even from their parents' bank accounts, so they can continue to find out.

Other Beneficial Excerpts:

"North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world" (28).

"Rather than fleeing these urban cesspools, the early church found its niche there...the Christian concept of self-sacrificial love of others, emanating from God's love for them, was a revolutionary concept to the pagan mind, which viewed the extension of mercy as an emotional act to be avoided by rationale people" (44).

"The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solutions must go beyond the material as well." (54)

"Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings" (62)

Another great read, with a pending review and blogpost:

Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) by Robert D. Lupton