As I (Michelle) mentioned in my last post, I’m starting a blog series related to what I’ve been learning lately. A central part of my study has been the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself, by Corbett and Fikkert, and their online resources at the Chalmers Center. The concepts and quotes in my next posts will primarily come from these sources.
When I was about eleven years old or perhaps younger, I stumbled upon the notion of privilege. I say stumbled because the thoughts that I pieced together at the time seemed to be coming from somewhere other than my own, simple childhood brain- though it was less like stumbling and more like I was deliberately being led down a particular path of thought. Sitting in my room, surrounded by toys, a dresser full of clothes, a house full of nice things, and a beautiful view out my second story window, I realized that all these things had been given to me without even having to ask. Soon, the image of an African girl came to my mind. She was my age and she didn’t have any of the things in my room. She had experienced a childhood altogether different than my own, where safety, health, and basic necessities were never certain because she was born into a different house on another land. I wondered what she thought of me, if she was angry with me. It wasn’t fair, I decided. But other than feel guilty and try to be more grateful, I didn’t know what to do about it.
In high school and college, my understanding of the injustices around the world grew as I learned about historical and current events. I can still remember watching a video about Ghana during a youth group “30 Hour Famine” when I learned that children were forced to kill their own families with axes. Horrific. The sickening image was a wake up call as to the enormity of ugliness, brokenness, and evil in the world. I was so thankful everyone had their eyes closed in prayer as my face had become a mess of hot tears and snot- it was one of the first times I felt so deeply that our world is not as it should be.
The introduction of the book, When Helping Hurts, says:
North American Christians are simply not doing enough. We are the richest people ever to walk the face of the earth. Period. Yet, most of us live as though there is nothing terribly wrong in the world. … We do not necessarily need to feel guilty about our wealth. But we do need to get up every morning with a deep sense that something is terribly wrong with the world and yearn and strive to do something about it. There is simply not enough yearning and striving going on.
I don’t consider myself to be an emotional person but from time to time, I have had experiences similar to the “30 Hour Famine” where I’ve been deeply moved to mourn for what is wrong in our world. Recently I had a break-down after watching Defiance (Jewish brothers in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe escape into the Belarussian forests in order to protect themselves and about 1,000 other Jews) because it reminded me how inherently messed up and distorted the human condition is, and how desperately we need God. I recall my own shortcomings- how I want to be a better person yet I keep criticizing my husband, I don’t express love and appreciation enough in my relationships, I defend myself instead of taking correction, I take the self-serving path much too often… On a personal level, we all fall short no matter how we try. Our relationships with others are broken as well, evidenced by everything from divorce rates to road rage. Our neighborhoods and cities suffer from crime, inadequate education systems, isolation of the elderly… Our nations are plagued by income inequality, political slander, irresponsible corporations, apathy, war… The lists go on and on. I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic, but I think it’s important to realize the depth of our problems- that we are in over our heads and we can’t get ourselves out. Why? Because then we realize how we desperately need God. He is quite literally our only hope.
I know we are not meant to be in a state of mourning all the time- that would be depressing and, in turn, debilitating. But I think it is far healthier to let the weight of the world hit you profoundly from time to time than to feign ignorance and live as if nothing is wrong. This means allowing yourself to see the ugliness in the world, paying attention to current events and being aware of historical injustices. Look people on the streets in the eye, literally and metaphorically, acknowledging their existence, acknowledging that all is not right. Don’t let yourself become desensitized. When I accompanied a group of college students to Arizona (see video blog here), they asked an immigration lawyer working in Operation Streamline how she copes when her clients are continuously treated so unjustly. Her response was that she doesn’t cope and doesn’t want to. She cries- in court- because she refuses to be desensitized or to go on as if nothing was wrong.
Caring about people and the situations they’re in is the first step. The next step, taking action, goes hand in hand. And when we do take action, we must also desire to act in a way that is not only effective but also avoids any harm.
That leads me to our topic for the series which is to follow. I want to address one more thing before I really get into the concepts of serving others without harming them (or yourself). As you can already tell, I’m coming at this from a faith-based perspective, as does the book “When Helping Hurts.” Faith doesn’t just fit into the picture, it is central to it. More on that next.
Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts: Intro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On Material, What To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1), How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)