For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘mission trips

Doing Good… Says Who? Stories from Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors, and Those They Want to Help by Connie Newton and Fran Early, Minneapolis: Two Harbors Press, 2015, 163 pp.

Doing Good Says WhoShortly after I turned 18, during my first year of college, I spent my spring break on a mission trip to the hills of Appalachia. With high hopes, I imagined that my unskilled hands and loving spirit were going to change the lives of the poor, needy, helpless souls we would serve in Jesus’ name. On my first day, I spent nine hours scrubbing the baseboards of an old tuberculosis hospital, alongside one other shiny young volunteer and an old local deployed as our supervisor. I had volunteered to depart from the group and go with him because he was said to be wise and full of stories, but he spent the day in silence in another part of the building. He made it clear that he knew exactly what we were good for–washing baseboards, and not much else.

He was right, of course. We had lots of enthusiasm, little skill, and enormous amounts of unconscious prejudice. By the end of the day, left with nothing but silence and chapped hands, my self-centered idealism had been cracked open. It was a lesson in humility, service and perspective that I have valued ever since.

I wish this book had existed then, and that someone had given it to me before that first mission trip experience. I’m doubtful that it would have pierced my fantasies of “rescuing the poor from despair” with one week of unskilled labor, but it might have settled my expectations down or at least given me a resource to fall back on once I fell from such a great height of naive arrogance.

As they write in the introduction:

How do any of us go about recognizing what we don’t understand in another culture? How can we know when our efforts are actually “doing good?” Does it matter? In the stories that follow, it matters. (ix)

Fran Early and Connie Newton have assembled a collection of stories based on their years of experience living and working among the people of Guatemala and those good-hearted souls who want to improve their situation. These stories are collected from hundreds of interviews, woven together into five themed chapters. Each chapter is a story in itself, compiled from the many interviews into a single narrative. The stories themselves are powerful juxtapositions and memorable misunderstandings, and they range from recovering a stolen toilet to a disastrous offer of a $10,000 gift to a women’s co-operative only made possible by cakes and tamales. You’ll meet arrogant doctors and amazing ones; hardworking yet clueless funders; local women whose expertise is invaluable; and a cross-section of volunteers and local Guatemalans you will come to love.

 

I was initially disappointed with the authors’ decision to condense and co-mingle the stories into a single narrative. It felt a bit concocted or processed to me, and I wanted the raw experience that I thought I would glimpse in a direct interview. However, upon further reflection, I realized that’s part of their point.  If we travel or talk or read about people who are poor or foreign or struggling, we imagine we can have real, unadulterated access to other people’s lives. We can’t. Their strategy refuses to let us indulge in the illusion that, by this book, we too are somehow getting the real story. While we can grow in compassion and understanding, chances are we won’t ever fully be able to part from our own lenses to see things as others do. Such depth requires years of listening, living and learning, much as the authors have tried to practice. What we get here is, in fact, more helpful–it is the critical lens we need to question our perspective and learn to listen more carefully.

 

(And if you, like me, still worried that the narrative was not authentic enough, or you are bothered that stories take too many liberties, or you care about research methods and this kind of looseness makes you uncomfortable, start with the appendix. The appendix gives a thorough accounting of their research methodology and documentation of sources. Start there, your questions will be answered, and you will be at liberty to appreciate the stories and their contribution.)

Early and Newton identify five guiding principles or key concepts that anyone interested in helping out another community should come to understand. Each of these principles makes up a chapter of the book, one of the interwoven narratives that illustrates the theme, as would a case study. These themes are:

  1. Respect and value people
  2. Build trust through relationships
  3. Do “with” rather than “for”
  4. Ensure feedback and accountability
  5. Evaluate every step of the way

These guiding principles would be helpful tools for local church mission committees; mission trip participants; university service learning centers and students; any congregation or organization interested in forming partnerships (whether international or interfaith or just intercity/suburb); social work students; ministry students; Teach for America volunteers; NGO and non-profit boards of directors; and so many more. Any of these groups of good-hearted souls would benefit from a group reading and discussion of the stories, the guiding principles, and how they impact their work.

I typically make frequent notes and underlines in reading a study text, but not this time. Each story deserves to be taken as a whole, like the people they represent. They are not a frozen image or an inspiring quotation. There is no anecdote that can capture the complexity of reality. Only relationship, mutuality and listening with care can begin to get you there.

This book is so helpful, so necessary. I’m disappointed my 18 year-old self didn’t have it, but I’m glad to have it now, and plan to share it widely.

 

 

 

 

Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It), New York: HarperOne, 2011, 191 pp.

Toxic CharityI had been both intrigued and nervous about this book since it came out a few years ago. I have long wondered how many social service agencies and charities are in the business of eliminating hunger, poverty and injustice versus how many are in the business of making good business–which means securing and even increasing the number of people eligible for services, therefore growing their organization and its importance. Likewise, I share with Lupton a skepticism about how much church volunteerism serves the needs of church do-gooders versus how much it serves the needs of those supposedly being served. However, I am leery of those (generally right-leaning, Republican) thinkers who believe that all aid creates freeloaders and therefore we should eliminate all social programs, effectively punishing people who are poor or in crisis. I worried that Lupton would fall into that category, or at least support those arguments. I was hopeful that he would offer a scathing analysis of the injustice of our current economic system, including our reliance on charity for our social support system. I was fearful that he would ignore systemic injustice and insist that poverty was caused by entitlement and laziness.

Toxic Charity split the difference between my hope and my fear about it. Lupton does not blame poor people for their plight, or make claims that they should be abandoned to their own problems or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” He acknowledges the injustice of major barriers like low wages, zones of urban blight and lack of childcare. He dismantles all our charitable endeavors and analyzes the culture of dependence they create, the submission they demand, and the way they often create more problems than they solve. This was excellent. However, the solutions he offers are all embedded in the same capitalist economic system that created the problems in the first place. Creating jobs and economic opportunity is a good thing, and I applaud Lupton’s work and writing–but I desperately wanted him to take it one more step and label our current economic system as unjust, to name the reality that capitalism depends on cheap labor and extracting value from some to send it to others. Instead, he rests with efforts to help people succeed in the system as it currently exists.

The greatest strength of Toxic Charity is its absolute take-down of our current system of charity. Lupton argues, convincingly, that few charitable institutions actually help solve the problems they were created to correct. Instead, they tend to perpetuate them or even make them worse. He criticizes this from a business and stewardship perspective, but more from the perspective of healthy relationships.

“Relationships based on need are seldom healthy. There is an implicit expectation (or at least hope) that the recipient of charity will use that assistance to better himself. … Unless the victim of misfortune exerts honest effort to regain self-reliance, the relationship between helper and helpee will tend to deteriorate. At some point accountability is required. The lack of full disclosure opens the door to suspicion and mistrust. … Relationships built on need do not reduce need. Rather, they require more and more need to continue. When one problem is solved, another must be presented in order for the relationship to continue. (60-61)

Healthy relationships require some equality between partners. Our current charitable endeavors encourage exactly the opposite–an ongoing pattern of giver and receiver, which means those relationships quickly become toxic for both parties.

His analysis extends especially deeply and well into short-term mission projects undertaken by churches. Whether it’s a day spent in a nearby inner city neighborhood, or an expensive trip overseas to build some needed house or well in a foreign country, Lupton names the reality that these journeys are far more about the needs and feelings of the givers than the receivers.  They foster a culture of dependence, remove economic development opportunities from local economies, and waste millions of dollars on unnecessary travel to bring people with no expertise to do a job they are less equipped to handle than the local population. So why do we do it? What Lupton says: because it makes us feel good. What I want Lupton to go on to say: Because it makes us feel better about our own wealth. Because it helps us sleep at night. Because it relieves our guilt about benefiting from a system that is destroying others.

Lupton doesn’t tell us to stop giving money and time to help poor people. Instead, he says that giving time and money is the cheap, easy solution to help us feel better about being good people–it’s not actually about helping people succeed. (Again, this is where I wanted him to really lay down the systemic critique, to name the reality that our charity is subsidizing an economic system that is taking advantage of people and leaving them in the dust. He doesn’t do that, but it doesn’t take away the validity and import of what he does say.) He recommends ideas like helping establish co-ops for food or childcare, creating micro-lending opportunities, and engaging in economic development. He offers a basic guideline for charity. A crisis, whether personal or communal, requires direct provision of food, clothes, cash and other basic necessities. A chronic poverty need, however, requires a different response of engagement in the communal and personal factors causing the poverty. Otherwise, he says, “when we we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, dependence, disempowerment.” (56)

The kind of true engagement Lupton proposes requires a long-term investment in relationship, a deep risk-taking on behalf of a community, and a personal and corporate investment in doing with people, not for them. Lupton summarizes his approach in an “Oath for Compassionate Service:”

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves. [I know this as Saul Alinsky’s Iron Rule–JMK]
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm. (128)

Lupton’s book, even though I wish it had gone farther and been more critical of capitalism and injustice, should be required reading for non-profit boards and directors, church pastors and mission boards, and philanthropists of all kinds.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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