You have probably heard the old adage “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” This saying deals with the issue of short-term (immediate) help versus long-term (permanent) help. Living in a world and society that faces poverty in every corner, we must become more creative and careful than ever in order to effectively help people who are struggling economically.
In Ecuador, I lived in a rural town where economic poverty abounded. Although I cannot say that I have ever actually lived in poverty myself, I experienced it firsthand in my community and realized quickly that I had little power or resources to overcome it. So I invested my energy into developing relationships with people, loving them for who they were, and trying to be a genuine neighbor.
Now I am working with Alabama Rural Ministry, an organization in Alabama that directly addresses the issue of rural poverty through home repair. We work with families who have very limited incomes and connections. This creates extreme challenges in their ability to provide what we would consider “basic” needs to their family. Hospital bills, rent, and putting food on the table easily suck up their monthly check so that there is no money left to fix leaks or send children to college.
So, I have experienced both sides of the problem: being inside the community where people are struggling, and coming from the outside to try to help. The more I interact with families we serve here at ARM, and the more I see their living situations, the more the wheels start turning about the root causes of poverty and how we can solve the larger issue. Because really, giving people money or patching their roof is great, but it doesn’t help them become financially independent or stable. When the next big rain comes and blows away some part of their home, they will be back at our door asking for help again. The goal should be self-sufficiency.
How can we keep from creating dependency? By providing job training, drug rehabilitation, and pregnancy and childcare classes. I strongly believe that by teaching adults life skills and training them to have successful careers, we can prevent much of the poverty that is happening in the U.S. and abroad. That is why part of ARM’s vision is to develop relationships with the homeowners, in order to empower them to improve their own situation (we also refer people to other social service agencies).
I am currently reading a book called When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. In it the authors address how sometimes our well-intended ideas of “missions” or “service” such as giving families food or gifts at Christmas, can actually harm people. It is important to think through why we are giving or serving before we do it. So often we want instant gratification, or that feel-good moment, where we can take a picture of ourselves handing a new pair of shoes to needy children. And maybe that pair of shoes helps a child for a few months, but what about after? We have still not addressed the root problem: that the parents cannot provide for their children, which is often due to injustices in their society or political system.
So as we think about doing missions, let’s remember to look at the bigger picture and how we can empower people to help themselves. Through meaningful relationships, we can make a huge difference in an individual’s life, and we can bring about the kingdom of God here on Earth.