Over the years, I sensed a growing tension when I planned short-term missions efforts. As our group was serving, I started to ask the question, “Who are we serving?” Looking back, I was ashamed to be honest with the answer, us. I am grateful for the opportunities I served and led, and I am ashamed that I enabled a broken system so beautifully articulated in the book, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor.
The authors stress three important distinctions: relief, rehabilitation, and development. Most short-term missions efforts or even any initiatives I led and/or participated in before coming Mars Hill were more in the relief realm. Relief is supposed to aid in the immediate suffering of someone when going through a crisis. I was excited that we were able to make someone’s home more beautiful, but upon further reflection, realized much of what I was doing was something the residents could have done themselves (in most cases). After years of this pattern, I questioned whether I was really trying to help myself or the people I was (allegedly) serving. What was interesting as I looked back on my experiences is that the moments that seemed more helpful or sacred were the relationships that were being built throughout the week. A concurrent sadness came when I realized that I would most likely never see them again. I could imagine the disappointment from residents when we left, going back to the way things were before, almost viewing that week as a pipe dream.
This is not saying that all of these efforts were in vain. Some of the places we visited were connected to a local agency or church who saw these people day in and day out, but I wondered whether our presence was really helpful, or if just giving materially might have helped out more. Currently, I have a very hard time going to a place outside of our local context, never to visit again, and thinking that is called missions. This book served as a confirmation to the tension I felt all of these years. I felt ashamed and relieved.
Another convicting part of this chapter was reading on the way we paternalize the poor. As much I as I want to think I’m not operating under a middle-class, or white-privilege mentality, I do by the systems and cultural assumptions I promote. If someone said “I have life figured out better than you do,” most people would be offended, and rightly so. What was hard for me is that I was saying this phrase by my attitude and actions toward mission. I thought, “If only I could come in and fix this, THEN they would have a better life.” How many times have I heard the comment, “They taught us so much more than we taught them?” Maybe I should pay attention to structuring how I serve around the second comment than the first.
What was even harder to swallow was the churches I served (this includes me) was proud to display how we were “serving the world for Christ.” Then showing a thousand photographs on what great servants we were, and the smiles we brought to those “poor” people. Sadly, I still see many churches display this attitude, which makes me grateful to be in the place that I serve currently. Having more cultural intelligence is messier work, but definitely redemptive.
I think it’s easy to beat myself up for what had happened in the past. I have asked God forgiveness for my arrogance. My hope is that I will pursue the harder work of development, or at least discerning which of the three types of help is appropriate. I also hope I can be more proactive in efforts of raising poverty awareness in educational settings. Given what seems to be a middle-class model of education, many in poverty are trying to survive this system with seemingly no progress. While the task seems daunting, I feel my journey is starting to necessitate thinking through these kinds of issues.
I am grateful for a place like Mars Hill that is not only thinking critically through these issues, but is engaging them head-on with integrity and wisdom. The principles in this book must be taught to the North American church if we are to truly love those who are hurting.