How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself

          The above is the subtitle of a book that has influenced me more than any other in the last 5 years.  The book is called When Helping Hurts by missionaries Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  It articulates the philosophy that guides our ministry in the 14613 area.

          Poor people are often hurt by well-meaning churches.  How?  By perpetuating dependency.  Consider a the case of a ministry which delivers food baskets to “poor” people.  A somewhat nervous Christian shows up at the door of a low-income home with a heavy basket of food she’s spent $50.00 on.  As the door opens she smiles and is greeted by a somewhat nervous woman of a different race.  There are kids running around and a young man who remains glued to the TV that’s blaring in the background.  The woman at the door thanks the Christian profusely, receives the food and says “God bless you” three times.  The Christian leaves feeling good about helping and the woman at the door feels good about having a feast to look forward to.

          It's a loving ministry that can help people.  In fact we're doing such a ministry now -- but our ministry goes way beyond just dropping off food.  If the above interaction is the sum total of the ministry, that ministry can also do harm. Consider the following skit I wrote.  I’ve never used it in church because it’s too biting.  I apologize for that, but it does make the point effectively. 

The Beggar and the Christian

Giver:           Hello, I’m a Christian, and I want to give you stuff because you’re poor.

Taker:          Great.  Now I won’t have to work hard or make sacrifices for it the way

                   you probably did. 

Giver:           Yes, I did work hard and make sacrifices for my money.  But I don’t

                   expect that of you because you’re, well… poor.

Taker:          You must feel really good about yourself being so Christian like that.

Giver:           Yes, I do.  And you must feel really grateful that I’m giving you this.

 Taker:          No, I don’t.  In fact, it makes me despise myself and resent you at the

                   same time.

Giver:           Yes, come to think of it, I think I resent you, too.  You’re not only

                   ungrateful, you’re lazy.

Taker:          Wow, we don’t like each other very much, do we?  Aren’t you Christians

                   supposed to love people?

Giver:           Oh great, now I have guilt!  Here, take some more stuff.

Taker:          Well at least you don’t have shame, like I do.  I already feel inferior, and

                   here you come making me feel worse.

Giver:           Well then don’t take it if it makes you feel bad!

Taker:          Hey look, if someone came up to you and gave you stuff, wouldn’t you

                   take it?

Giver:           Hmm.  Maybe I would. 

Taker           So why are you really giving me all this stuff?

Giver:           Because I feel worthless and want to do something important.

Taker           Hey – we have something else in common!  Not only do we resent each

                   other, we both feel worthless!

Giver:           You know, this could be the beginning of a horrible relationship! 

Taker:          Yes!  And maybe we could keep it going for generations! 

In a scenario like this the self-worth of the Taker is assaulted, the money of the Giver is wasted, and their relationship is laced with judgment and resentment.  Both parties are now more impoverished than before they met.  And the young man in the background feels quietly humiliated.

          Is there another way to alleviate poverty?  Oh yes.  And it’s a lot more fun and effective than creating dependency.  More on that in my next blog.