The Root of Poverty And When Helping Hurts

I love Rwanda. I love the people, the country, the heartbreak, and the hope. I love that a country ravaged by a genocide less than 20 years ago is a country that can teach ME about loving others. I love that a country that once ran rampant with evil is now a beacon of hope and revival to the entire world. And I love that no matter how many times I visit, I am awestruck by the warmth and welcome I always receive.

One of the most incredible opportunities in my life has been to travel to Rwanda several times, work with coffee growing communities, and build deep and authentic relationships with the people there.  I often tell people they should expect to receive more than they could ever give when they travel to developing nations. It’s a vital perspective shift.

There are many misconceptions about how to “help” Africa. Yes, there are great needs. Yes, the Church is called to help the needy and serve the poor. But how we define poverty plays a major role in our attempts to alleviate it. Please consider with me that poverty is about much, much more than material goods. If we treat only the material symptoms or misdiagnose the underlying problem, we will not improve a situation. In fact, we might actually make it much worse.

What I am about to say may make some uncomfortable, and it may well be a shift in thinking, but I truly believe that many well-meaning Christians have harmed Africa more than they have ever helped. We have poured billions, if not trillions of dollars, into Africa. Has it helped? If you move past the lack of material goods and look at the underlying problems you begin to see that the solution requires a lot more than wealth. Often poverty is the result of broken relationships: with God, self and communities. What will make a poverty-stricken community whole again? If the people were educated, given authentic care, provided with guidance, a partner to encourage, train, teach would that not also be a solution?

While I encourage groups and individuals to travel to Rwanda and other developing countries, I must clarify: I do not mean the traditional “short-term mission” trip. Such trips commonly create more harm than good. It is in this case that the phrase, “It’s the thought that counts!” has no value.

It is simply not enough to just preach the Gospel; it is imperative to do the Gospel. During his time on earth, Jesus could have provided everyone with an equal income. But instead he spent his time with people, often those most broken. He loved them, He encouraged them, He instilled hope in them. When I traveled to Rwanda, my goal was to build relationships and through those relationships begin to address the causes of poverty. And for me, it all began with coffee and community.

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For more information on the ideas in this blog, please read When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. You can also check out this article “Why You Should Consider Cancelling Your Short-Term Mission Trips” from The Gospel Coalition. It details the common pitfalls of many mission trips these days, but also explains where there is still much hope!

My Life Is Not The Global Norm

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I believe all things are possible. Call it my life perspective, call it my faith, call it my culture beaming from behind my journey in achieving the All American Dream, but I pretty much believe I can achieve what ever I want. And maybe I can. My suburban home and semi new car are just helping me to achieve the idealistic accumulation of material goods that help us keep up with the Jones’s and set me on the path of achieving my middle class happiness.

But here is what I don’t often remember- my lifestyle is not the global norm. I am blessed beyond imagination simply by having a bed to sleep in and the opportunity to have my trendy TOMS on my feet. I pursued my Master’s degree in my mid twenties. That puts me in the top 3% of the world’s population for education. Yet I don’t really feel that smart… especially when I pay my student loans each month. My household income puts us in the middle class here in the US, but we are in the top 1% of the world in wealth income. Yes, top 1%. My perspective is skewed and yours probably is too. Three billion people live on less that $2 per day while 1.3 billion get by on less than $1 per day. We all need to get out of our bubble, and quickly. The top 1% is probably you, your neighbors, your friends, your church and you can have great impact.

I believe one of the most fruitful things you can do in life is be intentional about developing community with people who are not like you. Create friendships with people who are outside of your comfort zone, outside your socio economic status, outside of your race, outside of your education level. It is not a hierarchy despite how often it is perceived that way. I have met poor people who are more content with what they have than wealthy friends who have it “all.” I have been given more wisdom and sound advice from someone with an elementary school education than with a PhD.

We create these walls, God does not. Pursue intentional community. Get out of your bubble and build a relationship with someone who is not like you. Create as much opportunity for them to give to you as there is for you to give to them. It may bless you more than you can imagine.

The Joy of Giving

Giving moves me. It could be the fireman standing on a corner with a boot in his hand or come from the tinkle of a bell ringing outside a large store. It could be any time someone gives something they value to someone else or when something wondrous happens because of generosity. I am always moved.

Now you could say that I am being sappy or perhaps too emotional, but the truth is, I always pause for a moment and feel a sense of wonder. Part of it is the good that money is doing, how it helps others in need, and how every single act of kindness builds the foundation for a better humanity. But I tend to focus on the giver; those people who drop the change in the bucket or the boot, or make a donation online.

This moment of giving tells me that that person is moved too. It is a moment of grace, the giving of something not earned. It is the moment that person is thinking of someone other than themselves, and experiencing the thrill of generosity. It is giving in it’s purest form, without expecting anything in return. In that moment, they are realizing that it really is greater to give than to receive.

So each time you drop some cash in a fireman’s boot or salvation army bucket, know that I am awe-inspired over the giving of a gift from someone who is moved by the needs of others. And I pray that you, too, take a moment to experience the joy of your giving.