Tag Archives: poverty alleviation

Generosity

Every time I go to Africa I learn something new. I learn new things about the places and cultures, and about how one country or one region or one tribe is different from another. And whereas when I first went to Africa everything was new and different and very black and white, over the years I’ve begun to understand the subtle nuances of why some things are the way they are. More exciting for me is that in coming to understand more about Africa and the Africans, I’ve come to understand more about myself.

My most recent revelation was on my last trip to Kenya. As a missionary, you grow in your relationships with the people you’re partnering with. As that happens, you begin to learn more not only about their interactions with you, but their interactions with each other. What I learned this time was that, with some notable exceptions, Kenyans are very hospitable people, but not very generous. They are willing to take people into their homes and spend time with them, but when it comes to giving money or volunteering for a cause, it’s a much more difficult proposition.

So I started thinking about that. How do we (missionaries) show a good example of how to be generous? Because we’re generous, right? And it was at that point that I learned the lesson about myself.

In the book of Mark, Jesus is at the temple in Jerusalem, and makes an observation to his disciples.

“Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”

So how is this different from how we as missionaries act when we go overseas? We go to a foreign places, throw some money around, go home, and congratulate ourselves on how generous and giving we were. We give away used shoes and clothing, undermining the local merchants, and hand out money that creates dependency, ruining Africa one person at a time. Is this generosity? I think not. We give money because for us, relatively speaking, it’s easy to come by. They (the Kenyans) give of their time, because (again, relatively speaking) it’s easy to come by. Neither is really generous when it comes down to it, because, as we learned from the story of the widow’s mite, true generosity is when you give out of your lack.

I’m not saying that giving money is a bad thing, far from it. But what would it look like if we gave not only our money, but invested in meaningful relationships with those we are partnering with. What if we truly gave of our time and emotional reserves and truly bore each other’s burdens as if we were family? This is the model that Jesus set up for us, because we are brothers and sisters in Christ and therefore heirs of the same Kingdom. And that is the example of generosity.

Some people see life as a pie, and there’s only so much pie to go around. When you see life that way, you do all you can to get as much pie as you can, because the pie will soon be gone.

Others see a life of infinite pie. There will always be more pie. As Christians, we need to see life this way. We know the one who makes all the pie, and if we just ask for it with the intention of giving it away, he will give us more. But in order to receive it, there has to be less of us, and more of Jesus. That’s when we’ll see generosity take hold.

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The gods of the Western World

I’ve been back from Kibera for a week now. Though I was able to formulate a lot of my thoughts while still there, how to put them down was another matter.

I think I’m going to start with the premise that the largest deficit and therefore the largest detriment to missions coming from the Western world is a lack of humility. Without getting into too much detail, this is what we saw when we went into Kibera.

In Hebrews 1, we find that “God…has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power,”

In reading this we find that Jesus upholds all things. Yes, I know there is still sin in the world, and that is why God’s Kingdom is both here and coming at the same time. But when we realize this fact, what we discover is that no matter where we go, God is already there working. Frequently as missionaries it is not so much our job to come in with a new plan, but rather to walk into a place prayerfully with our eyes and ears wide open to discover what it is that God is already doing. It takes an awful lot of hubris to think that God isn’t there until you show up.

If we don’t do this, we find what we unfortunately did when we went into Kibera, and is summed up in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. It reads, ““The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

When we go into a poor community thinking we know it all, we are ultimately going to do damage. Western missionaries had come in and put a plan together without consulting the indigenous leadership, then pulled the funding they had been giving when they didn’t go along with it. Their plan was to pull everyone out of Kibera to a place where they felt they could more easily sustain themselves. Though this sounds like a good plan on the surface, it did not take into account the vision and mission that the people living there already had; that being to reach the community around them. They were being asked to abandon their own countrymen who needed them. Imagine what Africa would look like if Western missionaries came into every community and removed the leadership. If you want to see REAL poverty and suffering, that’s the way to do it in short order.

Summing up, we need to be very careful when we come into indigenous communities with our grand plans. Often they are just that…. ours.

Kibera, Kenya.

Just a short post today, as I’m still in the field in Kenya. we came back to check on some friends we haven’t seen in three and a half years. I’m happy to report that they are doing well. The daycare that Pastor Obedi and has wife Helen run under very difficult circumstances is also doing well.

I’m looking forward to what the future brings for them and those kids, and I’ll be writing about some of that in the future. But for tonight I’m just going to post some pictures from the last couple days.

Kibera and Paul’s Fifth Missionary Journey

In less than three weeks I leave for Kenya. This will be my first trip to Kenya in about three and a half years. There will be a team of four of us going, two of which have never been to Kenya before. It’s hard to convey to people who have not been there not only what it will be like, but also what we’ll be doing there. It’s the second part, the what we will be doing, that I’d like to talk about today.

I think the best way to start explaining what we are going for is to use the Apostle Paul’s fifth missionary journey as a template. You say you haven’t heard of Paul’s fifth journey? Well, it’s not nearly as well known as his first four. It’s the one where Paul took a group of people to Tarshish, and they painted the walls of a church that didn’t need painting. After that they did some street preaching in a language no one understood, and then handed out flip flops and used shoes. After that, on the last day they went shopping and snorkeling.

This of course did not happen. And I realize that my sarcasm is biting. But I also know that when people read something that is true, the initial reaction is to be angry, but then to think about it. There is nothing wrong with going somewhere to do projects that need to be done, and there’s nothing wrong with having some fun on the last day you’re there. What I find distasteful is that short term missions has gone from an opportunity to build unity within the body of Christ, and to both be a witness to the lost and encourage and strengthen our indigenous brothers and sisters to do the same, and instead has become wholly about us. What is the project? What are we going to paint? What are we going to build? What are we going to do TO or FOR these poor people? The moment we ask these questions we put ourselves on a higher plane in our own minds than those we are going to minister to. There’s a song with the phrase, “the notion that we’re better than them; the ultimate delusional chant.”

Instead, we ought to ask things like, How can we work together so that we can all grow in better community with each other and with God? How can we learn from each other so we will not continue to walk in our own brokenness? When we ask these questions, it suddenly becomes less about projects, and it becomes a lot more about people.

So going back to what we’ll be doing in Kibera, I think it would be best to start with a description of what Kibera is.

Kibera is the largest urban slum in Africa. It’s population is unknown, though estimates range between 250,000 and a million people. The average family lives in a 12 foot by 12 foot shack. There is no trash pick up, and there are no sewers, so sewage runs down every gully and low point of ground. The average wage is $1 a day. Crime and violence are rampant.

In light of this, going in and painting something or doing some kind of project, or even feeding the poor would be the equivalent of putting a bandage on a dead beached whale. The truth is, a large number of the people there are either unemployed or sporadically employed. So if I go in with a team and start working on something that needs to be “improved”, all I’m doing is depriving someone of a paying job.

So what can we do? This is where the “working with” as opposed to the “doing for” is so important. You find the indigenous resources and skills that are already there and figure out how they can be developed with the help of the people who live there every day. You identify community leaders, like pastors, who already have the respect of the people. You find out what their own goals and vision for their community are and do what you can to achieve that. When there is a specific deficit, and only when there is a specific deficit that can’t be filled from within the community do you bring in foreign money and talent.

This doesn’t sound nearly as romantic as saying, “we went to Kenya and fed 1000 poor children”. And this is the reason that I decided to write this blog. One of our new people lamented that when he told people what we were doing, he had a hard time raising support. The response was, “So basically you’re going to Kenya to have a bunch of meetings with people?”

The answer was essentially yes. But we have to go and do what’s ultimately right, and not what makes people feel good about giving. After all, it really isn’t about us.

The Immortal Hamster

I’ve been back from Ethiopia now for nearly a month. I’ve thought about a lot of things in that time, from the things I’ve seen and the people I’ve met, to the vision I have for what God is doing. It’s very exciting, but also upon returning, I can’t help but feel as if I’ve come back to an American church that is fast asleep. The bible says that “my people perish for lack of knowledge.” Well, without knowledge, you can’t move on to wisdom. And without wisdom, there is no vision. Without vision, we have no purpose. Without purpose, we start chasing all kinds of crazy things, and the church gives up the gospel in exchange for prostituting itself to the world in the hope of finding “cultural relevance.” The bride of Christ is searching the street corners, looking for someone to tell her she’s beautiful.

I often teach a class on missions and poverty alleviation, and one of the questions we open with is, “Why did Jesus come to Earth?” The two most common answers I get are, “So my sins could be forgiven,” and “so I can go to Heaven.” Though both answers are technically correct, they are both tertiary reasons and completely egocentric.

In Luke 4, Jesus himself states why he came. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read. And He was handed the book of the prophet Isaiah. And when He had opened the book, He found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,

Because He has anointed Me

To preach the gospel to the poor;

He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,

To proclaim liberty to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To set at liberty those who are oppressed;

To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Then He closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all who were in the synagogue were fixed on Him. And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus came to restore what was lost, and to put us back into relationship with God. He set in motion a restoration of relationship between God and creation. It wasn’t just so we could be saved from Hell but continue to do what we were already doing. It states right in the beginning of Genesis that men and women were created in God’s image. That being the case, we ought to imitate Christ as he imitates God the Father. If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice without accepting this second part, we have reduced ourselves to God’s immortal pet, his hamster, if you will, existing for God’s amusement but with no purpose, born only to consume.

I believe that this is why the American church is largely devoid of men. Men are designed and built to serve a larger purpose, to take hold of a challenge and to serve a greater purpose than themselves. But if we accept a Christianity that says “I’m saved now. Just sit in the pew on Sunday and listen to a watered down message of meek and mild Jesus,” a great injustice has been done. Do we need to be reminded that Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple with a whip….twice?

Jesus gave us a lot of instructions, most of which we aren’t following. Sure, we follow the ones about keeping ourselves pure…..sometimes, but what about all those ones about going out like sheep among wolves? What about all those instructions about feeding the poor, standing up for the widow, the orphan, and the alien? What about blessing those who curse us, or showing love to our enemies, or were those instructions for somebody else? What about dying to self?

I have to ask these things, because if we say we’re going to be Christ followers, then certainly we should take a cue from Jesus, who “made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2)

God is looking for men and women of purpose. The Church has got to wake up.

“Awake, you who sleep,

Arise from the dead,

And Christ will give you light.” (Ephesians 5:14)

Fear, greed, guilt, and love.

Well, it’s official. I’ve been called back to Ethiopia. I’ll be there in April this year. This will be my third trip to Africa in eight months, which for me is a lot. So why do I do it? This is the question I was thinking about this morning. For me there are a number of reasons; to see the love of Christ come to people, to see captive people set free, to see people lifted out of poverty, to see the sick healed. Then there are other, less noble reasons; the desire to travel, the desire for adventure, the desire to meet new people and see and take photos of new things.  These and many other reasons are why I go. So I could go any number of directions with this, but the subject I want to talk about today is poverty alleviation, because the desire to alleviate poverty for most people is not a desire in itself, but is driven by other factors.

What are the basic human motivations?  I believe they can be broken down into four basic categories. Human decisions are based on fear, greed, guilt, or love. You might balk at this idea, but I believe if you look around and put this idea to the test, it will play out.

In the United States, politically speaking, there are basically two attitudes toward the poor.  (I know I’m generalizing, so you’ll need to forgive me for that.) The first is that if you increase the number of jobs, the poor will naturally be lifted out of poverty as less people are out of work. It’s a completely supply-side equation for poverty alleviation. The other side says that if you just give the poor enough financial assistance, they’ll be better off. This is a completely demand-side equation.

Let’s go back to the four human motivations. Do you think either of these methods of poverty alleviation are done out of love for the poor?  I would argue absolutely not. Why?  Both of these methods are by design completely arms-length transactions. They both exclude getting your fingernails dirty and actually engaging with the poor or looking them in the face. I believe the first view is based on greed, and the second on guilt. Greed because there is a desire to get rich, and if crumbs fall to the poor, that’s great, too. It fails to recognize that there are other reasons people are poor besides a lack of jobs. The second group feels guilt over their own success, so throwing money at the poor without actually dealing with the underlying causes helps them feel better. This side fails to realize that when you give a poor person everything without making them work for it, you break their spirit. Both views think of poverty as a purely economic phenomenon, but fail to address the mental, spiritual, and social aspects of poverty. Neither side actually wants to look a poor person in the eye. The attitudes these two groups have toward each other drive me nuts. Guess what? You’re both wrong, so put the condescension aside.

There’s a quote from the book, “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert . I’ve quoted it before, but I believe it’s worth quoting again.  “The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also direct  extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are the best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

The only true way to alleviate poverty is to actually love the poor. It says in the book of Isaiah, chapter 1, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter-when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I. If you do away with the yoke of oppression, with the pointing of the finger and malicious talk, and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.”

So this morning I had to ask myself again, “What is my motivation?” If it is out of greed or fear or guilt, I have no right to go back to Ethiopia.

Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.
Lack of money is not the only reason for poverty.

Rocks In The Road Is Not A Business Plan

Last time I was in Kenya, I was in a car with my wife and two of the Kenyans who are our good friends. As we neared the edge of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, our car was stopped by two men who had placed a large rock in the road. Their “business” if you will, was to put a rock in the road and demand money from people as they drove by before they would remove it. What they got instead was a stern talking to from Jimmy, who had given up a fairly comfortable life to live in the slum.

I have to admit, I’m quite angry right now. One of our friends from the United States is currently helping Jimmy in Kibera. There is a small library there, and it’s not much to look at, but it gives kids who would normally be abandoned during the day a place to go. Outside the library is a festering cesspool of human waste that runs between the library and the next building. Yesterday Jimmy, our American friend, and a group of willing people built a platform over that gully, not just to cover the filth, but to create a small area for kids to sell goods so they can support themselves. On the first day, the children took in about $30, which is quite an accomplishment considering most people live here on $2 a day. It gave the kids a way to learn initiative and self-respect, and keep them from selling drugs.

Over night, some people came and destroyed the bridge they had built, for no other reason than misery loves company. This is the incredible difficulty in poverty alleviation. I’ve seen this happen in Kenya. I’ve seen this happen in South Sudan. I’ve seen this happen on the Indian Reservations in the United States. The attitude is, “I’m Ok with misery and lack as long as you have misery and lack, too.”  Confucius said, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”  The same can be said for envy. You can’t sabotage someone else’s work and expect that the same is not going to happen to you. That in a nutshell is why Kibera still exists.  The unfortunate and politically incorrect truth is that no rich man is needed to hold down the poor. Given the opportunity, the poor man will do it himself. This is why it is impossible to separate the spiritual from poverty alleviation. Poverty is rarely just a lack of resources. It may start as a lack of resources, but quickly turns into poverty of spirit. That’s why it is so hard to lift a community from poverty once they’re there. This is the fundamental flaw in western understanding of poverty.

A couple months ago, I was watching the news. Some member of a European royal family (which one I don’t remember) was in Africa with a large entourage and a film crew and reporters. This royal was touring a village and looking around at the poverty. He was interviewed by one of the reporters, and asked what he thought should be done. The royal responded, “They just need resources. They’re not getting the resources they need.” All I could do was sit and shake my head. It wasn’t the resources that were the problem, it was the poverty of spirit that keeps people poor even when the resources are there. You can give a man in the slums fifty dollars, and for some rare individuals he’ll take it and start a business.  But more likely than that is that he’ll take it and get drunk, then come home and beat his wife. This is the harsh reality of the slum. That’s why Kibera has been there for over 100 years. This member of the royal family’s heart was in the right place, but the understanding is not there. He’ll go back to Downton Abbey, and probably raise a bunch of money that will be sent back to this community. In ten years, there will be no sign that he was ever there.

What the slums need is people who are committed for the long haul. People who realize that change comes slowly, one person at a time, through personal sacrifice. What the slums need is leadership from within, not the white man to come from outside and fix all the black man’s problems. The slums need partners who will identify and empower the people and the human resources that already exist there. The slums need Godly men and women who are willing to sacrifice personally so that others won’t have to, and to be examples to people who wish ill to anyone who wants the slum to become a better place. This is all a lot harder than throwing money at the slum. I wish I could convey this concept to anyone who hasn’t been to Africa, but unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. After my first trip to Africa, I knew in my knower that you could throw all of the worlds financial resources at Africa, and if that’s all that was done it would bankrupt the whole world.  If you’ve ever thought about traveling and seeing the world, I want to encourage you in the strongest possible way, to go and see the developing world. Go the the slums. Go see what most of the world lives like. It will give you an understanding of the world, and an understanding of yourself that you didn’t even know you lacked.

For now, all I can do is pray for our friends in Kibera that they will have the fortitude to start over. I will also pray for those that put rocks in the road and destroy other people’s work, that God will break through to them and show them that all they’ve done is hurt their own communities and themselves. I’ll pray for those that think that tearing someone else down somehow lifts them up.  But tonight I’m just sad and angry.

A view of the sewage ditch from the library in Kibera.
A view of the sewage ditch from the library in Kibera.

I’m Rich, I’m Humble, I’m Better Than You.

Why are rich people rich? Why are poor people poor? How do we alleviate poverty? Why do we alleviate poverty? You ask the questions and you’re going to get different answers depending on whom you ask.

Western thinking tends to either completely deny the spiritual aspect of our lives, or separates the spiritual parts (worship, going to church, evangelism) from the secular parts of our lives (work, business, politics).  Western secularism removes the need for God in our society altogether, and consequently fails to understand how the spiritual is instrumental in poverty alleviation. Furthermore, it forms in our minds a condescending attitude toward the poor, as explained in the book, “When Helping Hurts”, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett. Here is a quote from the book.

“The god-complexes of the materially non-poor are also a direct extension of the modern worldview. In a universe without God, the heroes are those who are best able to use their reason to master the material world. In other words, the materially non-poor are the victors in the modern worldview, the gods who have mastered the universe and who can use their superior intelligence and the material possessions they have produced to save mere mortals, namely the materially poor.”

A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya
A woman next to open sewage in Kibera, Kenya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How often have we heard phrases like, “we’re saving the world,” or “we can save Africa”?  The fact is , you could throw money at Africa all day and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if you go into it with the above attitude. Poverty is alleviated slowly and tediously through love for the materially poor as you work with them in relationship with both them and with God. We help the poor because we love them, not because we’re better than them. And we love them even though they’ve never done anything for us, because Christ set the example by loving us before we ever loved Him. We learn from the poor, as we work with them in relationship, that all the problems in life are not simply a matter of “you need to do something about your situation.” Poverty has as much if not more to do with the spiritual and the psychological as it does with the material. We see that people are materially poor while failing to recognize our own poverty in other ways; broken relationships with family, mixed up priorities, keeping up with the Joneses. These are the things that cause divorce, broken families, heart disease, mental illness, all the ways that we are poor in the United States.  We lose so much of the equation if we try to help the materially poor without being tempered by the humility that comes with recognizing our own poverty. And to this end, poverty alleviation is about working together to alleviate our respective poverties with the realization that we are all fallen creatures in need of forgiveness. To fail to recognize this means that we help the poor out of guilt for our own material success rather than love for the materially poor. To this end, many of us just feel the need to “do something”, whether it does any good or not, because helping the poor is about removing our sense of guilt rather than seeing the poor actually thrive. This is probably subconscious for many people, but I hope that by simply writing it, many will recognize this fact. Helping the poor MUST be done out of love for the poor and love for God, or it will at best be temporary.

Below is a link that humorously portrays some of these western attitudes. Till next time…