Trying to Process “When Helping Hurts”

I picked up this book after over-hearing (“eavesdropping” sounds so negative) one of our missionaries recommend it to a high schooler thinking about becoming a missionary. Passages like this are apparent punishment for said prying:

“Why do you want to help the poor? Really think about it….I confess to you that part of what motivates me to help the poor is my felt need to accomplish something worthwhile in my life, to be a person of significance, to feel like I have pursued a noble cause….” (p.65)

Sheesh! How did those authors see into the deepest, darkest, ugliest parts of my innermost being?

I’m no Mother Teresa or Jim Elliot but certainly have a heart for the the poor, the lost and the broken….but before reading those sentences I never really thought about that (com)passion becoming a source of negative pride.

“Unfortunately, when the economically rich interact with the economically poor, they tend to do so in such a way that exacerbates the shame that the economically poor feel, while also exacerbating the pride of the economically rich.”

We’ve all experienced these situations where people mean well but end up hurting those they are trying to help and actually hurting themselves:

  • giving the homeless man at the city park money…which then fuels his drinking addiction…which then fuels the giver’s frustration at the homeless man for his drunkenness
  • telling people about the greatest news ever to be given-Jesus came to save us all…and then being frustrated when that news is not received with great joy…while the hearers are frustrated that no one is there to answer their questions and walk alongside (disciple) them
  • Les Stroud aka “Survivorman” detailing the destruction of ambition, family and culture  in Sri Lanka as millions of dollars poured in after the 2004 tsunami. “The poor became rich and the rich became poor.”
  • providing eyeglasses/cataract surgery to people who could never afford it…and being disappointed when they don’t scream “I CAN SEE ! Tell me about Jesus.”
Travel, cost, time away,'s all easy with these reactions.

Travel, cost, time away, sickness….it’s all easy with these reactions.

So how do we combat all this? The authors give an excellent aid in helping us think through how we each personally diagnose the problem which helps us understand how we will see the solution. From p.55:

If we believe the primary cause of poverty is……..then we will primarily try to…..

  1. A lack of knowledge……………………educate the poor
  2. Oppression by powerful people………work for social justice
  3. The personal sins of the poor………..evangelize and disciple the poor
  4. A lack of material resources………….give material resources to the poor

That table helped me understand why I’ve been frustrated with projects, staff, organizations and mostly myself at various times.

7 people live here in this Bangalore slum. Most of us know giving them $100 won’t make any lasting change so where do we start?

  • I don’t want to just build schools, churches and clinics.
  • I don’t want to just slap around people who abuse their power (I want to slap lots of non-powerful people too).
  • I don’t want to just throw Bibles at illiterate natives.
  • I don’t want to just provide medical care and BCGs to the poor at home and abroad.

“The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be…..these things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.” (p.81)

THAT’S IT! That is why I love reading Facebook updates, talking to, and being involved with the likes of David and Lorna Joannes, the Buktas, my Lions Club and many others…..and why I cop out and say “I’ll pray for you” when someone is doing good work that I’m not going to be passionate about 🙂

The book really hit home for me as a white north american male. We want to fix things…yesterday. Instead we need to learn to:

“Avoid paternalism. Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.” (p.115)

The authors aren’t talking about telling people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps (especially when they don’t even have shoes). Instead, they’re emphasizing:

“Participation is not just a means to an end but rather a legitimate end in its own right.” (p.145)

“One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make-by far-is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.” (p.105)

These people know relief..most of us don’t.

  • Relief is “seldom, immediate and temporary….meant to stop the bleeding.” Think tornado, flooding, etc. relief. Relief is provided only during the time people are unable to help themselves.
  • Rehabilitation is “a dynamic of working with people as they participate in their own recovery.”
  • Development is “a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved-both the ‘helpers’ and ‘helped’ -closer to right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.”

The problem is that takes time and lots of emotional energy. If you’ve spent time in the third world, you know that timelines just don’t seem to translate out of English. Much easier to fly in, see XYZ number of patients, perform XYZ number of procedures, build XYZ number of houses than to go live somewhere and build relationships….I write this mostly so I’ll read it.

So-should you read this book? If you want to go on a short term mission trip with me, it is now a requirement 🙂