by Bob Lupton Geralyn came up for air during an intense schedule at a global conference on “Schools that Pay for Themselves” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She retreated to a nearby pub with several of her peers – educators and service professionals from around the globe. Relaxed easy conversations meandered from policies to practices to personal experiences, the variety of unique cultural backgrounds adding color and flavor to the interaction. One topic of particular interest to this group of socially conscious practitioners was the disastrous impact of charitable aid that has flowed for decades into sub-Saharan Africa. Geralyn, a community developer from the United States, recounted her frustration with church mission groups that travel to developing countries, suitcases bulging with presents, eager to perform “work” in poor villages in the name of Christian service. “At the sight of Americans, small children come running from everywhere with their hands out. We produce a culture of beggars,” she lamented.
An African educator sitting at the table was noticeably silent during Geralyn’s comments, deep in thought. “I never understood why Americans who came to our school loved to paint so much,” she finally said. And went on to describe the bizarre routine that students in the high school in her village went through each time a mission group from the States was about to arrive. The students were instructed to besiege the school building with sticks and stones and handfuls of mud, making it appear to be in serious need of a paint job. She could never figure out what it was about painting buildings that Americans loved so much. But if painting is what they wanted to do, then the need for painting is what the students would create. In the four years she was at the school, their entire school building was repainted five times by mission groups from America. “All we cared about was what they had in those suitcases,” she said.
So what is it about painting that we Americans love so much? It’s not really painting that we love – everyone knows that (except African children). We do love to serve, however. We want to meet the needs, the real needs, of people for whom life is very difficult. This desire comes from somewhere deep within our soul. It is an imprint of the Divine. Yet, as pure as our motivations to help may be, those heavenly impulses when practically expressed inevitably become entangled with less noble earthly realities. Contaminants seep in and taint the goodness of our intentions – such polutants as pity that diminishes dignity, dependency that discourages enterprise, deception that undermines relationships. We paint because we pity. We paint because we believe that the poor cannot help themselves. We paint because we have been led to believe that painting is really helping.
I have led more than my share of painting projects over the years. I’ve recruited hundreds of weekend volunteers, hustled up paint, rollers, brushes, drop-clothes and ladders, and lined up needy homeowners whose houses needed a facelift. The fellowship was always fun and the satisfaction of helping a family in need was its own reward. But the one complaint I heard repeatedly from the volunteers was: “Why isn’t the family out here working with us?”
Lazy? Unappreciative? Embarrassed? It took a few years and a few trusting relationships to figure out the answer. It is hard on one’s pride when a hoard of pitying painters descends on one’s home – even worse when the neighbors observe it. It broadcasts a message that this family isn’t capable of keeping up their own home. And is a painted house really a top priority for a family struggling to keep their utilities turned on?
Painting is good. Let’s be clear about this. But it’s how we go about our painting that determines whether it is a blessing or a blight. Is painting really needed? Obviously not for the rural school in Africa. But if it is needed, do the owners see it as a high enough priority to be the first investors, to provide on-site leadership for the project? The outcome is far more positive – for both givers and recipients – when homeowners supply the paint (and maybe even a lunch) and invite supportive friends to assist in applying it. This feels more like a partnership than a pity painting party.
Americans do love to paint. But as any experienced painter knows, the preparation is as important as the application.