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John Grant: Helping without hurting

John Grant • Updated Jun 29, 2018 at 8:00 AM

When local dentist David Foster leads a mission trip in Honduras, he does not treat patients from the community even though many of them live in poverty. He limits the clinic to residents and staff of the Mission Lazarus children’s home. 

Here’s why. If missionaries offered free dental care in the community, they would harm the local economy. They would put Honduran dentists out of business. Yes, there are local medical professionals in Honduras. And yes, they depend on paying customers for their income. 

Imagine if you were a small business owner and a group of foreigners dropped in a few times a year to offer your service for free. How would you feel toward those do-gooders who deprived you of your livelihood? Would you be inspired to learn more about their God or might you feel resentment?

This story illustrates the complicated questions surrounding poverty relief efforts. How can wealthy Americans show love and compassion for neighbors in need without creating new problems? 

In their book, “When Helping Hurts,” Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert analyze the challenges of poverty alleviation in America and around the world. Then they offer strategies to activate resources for positive change in poor communities. 

The root problem behind many outreach efforts is a pair of faulty assumptions. First, we assume that potential aid recipients have nothing. Were you surprised to read there are trained medical professionals in Honduras, as well as patients willing to pay for their services? If so, what assumptions does that betray? 

Second, we assume that wealthy educated Americans know how to fix others’ problems. We love to swoop in with amazing solutions to vexing issues. It’s what Corbett and Fikkert call the “god complex.” Sometimes the solutions are helpful. Other times we have blind spots, so we dig a well that sits dormant because the locals have limited access to electricity or to parts for repairs. 

“When Helping Hurts” offers an alternative, a practical application of the cliche’ – “teach them to fish, rather than giving them a fish.” It starts with a belief that God is good and God loves everyone. “He causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good,” Matthew 5:45. 

Because God is good, every person has resources. Even when people lack money, they possess time, talents, relationships, ideas and much more. I am amazed how resourceful my homeless friends can be. They have learned to live without “necessities,” and they have much to teach me about persistence and creativity in the face of challenges. 

Effective relief efforts start not with donations – “what can I give you?” Rather it starts with resources – “what do you possess that might address this situation?” This energizes the resources of the community, rather than sending them a message that they are inferior. A couple of years ago, I was impressed to watch the men in Papalote, Mexico installing the ceiling in their church building. They were able to hang heavy boards in high places that the “missionaries” could not reach. They were proud to use their skills and ingenuity to work on their church building. It was a partnership, with Americans buying supplies and local men installing them. 

In Wilson County, our churches have been blessed to apply these principles in Compassionate Hands homeless shelters. Our guests have needs, and we assist when they ask. We never force guests to accept our advice or gifts. They are adults, and they know how to manage their affairs. Sometimes the gift we might want to give is impractical; they might not be able to transport it or take care of it. Often the request is surprisingly simple – a ride to a doctor’s appointment, help with applying for benefits or web access to fill out a job application. 

Compassionate Hands leaders are intentional about using language that dignifies people who lack housing – they are “friends” or “guests,” not “clients” or “customers” or “bums.” We take this approach because of Matthew 25, where Jesus said he might dress in disguise as a person in need. It makes a difference. 

Genuine hospitality is one of the secrets behind five winters of safe shelters. We have been pleased to see that when you treat adults with respect, they act like respectable adults.

John Grant is a minister at College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon. Preacher’s Corner features a new local preacher each month writing a column.

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