Big Heart to Love the Abandoned

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton  

Shelley and Clay Corrigan have big hearts. When they saw the plight of thousands of abandoned orphans in Haiti, they simply had to do something. Something radical.

 

They packed their essential belongings, cashed in their very modest life savings, bought plane tickets, and headed straight into the most destitute place in the western hemisphere. They signed on with an orphanage, immersed themselves in the language and culture of the Haitian people, and took immediate steps to adopt one of the orphan children.

 

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During the adoption process, the director of the orphanage asked them if they would be interested in meeting the child's mother. The question stunned them. They had assumed that the child’s parents were dead or missing. In fact, the little tyke’s mother came regularly to visit him. Of course they wanted to meet her!

 

“Why do you want to give up your child?” they questioned the mother when she came for her next visit. “I don’t want to give my baby away,” the young woman responded emphatically. But she had no way to care for him, she explained.

 

She had no job, could barely find scraps of food for herself, squatted in a make-shift lean-to beside a disease-ridden dump. This was no place for a child, she said with obvious emotion. In the orphanage, at least he would be safe and fed and maybe have a chance for a decent life. But, no, she really did not want to give up her baby.

 

This was an entirely different reality than Shelley and Clay had pictured when they first arrived in Haiti. They had assumed that the many orphanages run by mission-minded westerners were overflowing with abandoned, parentless children who would likely die on the street from disease or malnutrition or neglect if someone didn’t come to their rescue.

 

That’s what orphans are, right? Children without parents. But the deeper Shelley and Clay explored the histories of the children in their orphanage – and in other orphanages around the country – the more disturbed they became.

 

Their research exposed that at least 80% of Haitian children labeled “orphans” actually had living parents! The overwhelming majority of the hundreds of thousands of children in Haitian orphanages were not orphans at all! They were children whose parents could not support them because they had no jobs.

 

Jobs! That’s what was needed! Not more orphanages or more adopting westerners. Shelley and Clay began to scour the area for any available means for a young mother to generate some legitimate income.

 

One resource that lay scattered in abundance was trash. If they could create beads from waste materials, perhaps they could produce necklaces and bracelets that would be marketable to their contacts back in the States. It was worth a try. Their experiments led them to a simple, labor-intensive method of fashioning attractive, brightly colored jewelry that had appeal to their American friends.

 

Corrigan’s first full-time employee was a mother who was desperate to keep her baby. She was soon earning enough income to rent a small room suitable for herself and her infant son. More experimentation. Then another mother hired. And another.

 

By the time the enterprise had registered an official name – The Apparent Project – 29 young mothers were crowded around tables and benches in the Corrigan’s home, producing saleable jewelry products, all reunited with their children. The project expanded into the Corrigan’s garage and then into a larger building.

 

Fathers who had been unable to support their families also joined the workforce. At last count, 220 parents were employed, some of them managing their own teams of workers. All were making livable wages and producing quality products being shipped to international markets. Shelley and Clay dream of employing 1000 parents.

 

There are still many true orphans in Haiti whose parents have died or disappeared. Good orphanages are certainly needed as are good adopting families. The Corrigan’s have adopted two of these orphans themselves.

 

But something is quite wrong when the prevailing non-profit orphanage system – mostly faith-based – “creates” orphans by mis-labeling them and markets them as abandoned, yet does little to correct the underlying problem that forces their parents to give them up. It is a classic case of rightly motivated people rushing in to rescue the perishing, establishing emergency ministries that do in fact save lives, but failing to shift to empowerment strategies as the crisis becomes chronic.

 

When poverty becomes an industry supported by misinformed donors that enables professional workers to maintain a western lifestyle under the guise of alleviating poverty even as they perpetuate dependency, that industry must be challenged. Shelley and Clay Corrigan are doing just that. And in the most productive, self-sustaining, family-strengthening way.

Photo credit: DVIDSHUB

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Failing with God

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton

I enjoy it when business friends invite me to join them for coffee. Business deals fascinate me. I would probably be a serial entrepreneur if I hadn’t received a calling to enter urban ministry.

On one breakfast occasion, I was listening with much interest to a conversation between two friends – a fishing equipment manufacturer and an investor – as they discussed a new product idea that promised to make millions. There’s money to be made in the angling industry if you can produce a lure that fish find irresistible. Fishermen know that bass love night crawlers. So did the owner of the manufacturing company. Plastic night crawlers were among his best sellers.

The only problem is that when bass strike from the rear, they bite off the back end of the worm leaving a short stub and an empty hook for the fisherman to reel in. The solution, said the manufacturer with obvious excitement, is to mold in a second hook at the tail end of the worm. Then no matter where the bass hits the worm, a hook would be waiting.

The idea was ingenious in its simplicity. K-Mart had already committed for a first order of five hundred thousand lures if they could be delivered in time for the coming fishing season. The investment was a good one, the business owner assured his potential investor.

It would be fairly easy to set up an automated mold that would infuse the plastic worm around the two hooks, the manufacturer explained. The challenge, however, was the time-consuming task of securely tying together the rear hook to the front hook at the precise distance apart for accurate insertion into the molding machine.

This would require tedious hand work. Finding a contractor to tie a million fish hooks together in the next ninety days would take some concentrated research. They would probably have to go to China or Taiwan, he said.

“Why don’t you do it right here in Atlanta,” I blurted out without much forethought. It was the disturbing prospect of shipping jobs overseas when so many of my inner-city neighbors were unemployed that brought me out of my silence. “We could set up an operation in my neighborhood right away,” I said with naïve confidence.

It would take some trial runs to establish efficient tying techniques and production speed, but I assured them we could make an accurate bid and begin production within two weeks. And so began one of the most exciting, stimulating, energetic ventures I had ever embarked upon.

My neighbors were eager to work. I rented some vacant warehouse space, set up long rows of tables, and started taking applications. Applicants sat across the tables facing each other. Each had a spool of line, a pair of scissors, a pile of fish hooks and a “jig” with two slots to insert the hooks into.

They practiced threading the hooks, tying a special non-slip knot, and transferring each two-hook harness onto a card that assured its accuracy. Not all the applicants had the manual dexterity for the work and did not make the cut. Those we hired were paid by the piece.

On the wall behind each worker was posted a large production sheet that tracked their hourly output. The competition was invigorating. Some with amazingly fast fingers tallied very generous paychecks. Needless to say, it was a very stimulating work environment.

In eight weeks our little operation had tied one million fish hooks together and delivered the contract ahead of schedule and under budget. The manufacturing company shipped out their initial order of double-hook night crawlers to K-Mart stores across the country.

Our employees eagerly awaited for the re-orders to flood in. They waited. And waited. But the re-orders never came.

It seems that one important element in this venture had been overlooked. The lure, though very attractive to retailers and fisher-folk, had not been vetted with the end consumer – the fish! The bass were simply not interested in night crawlers that had hooks protruding from their tails. Amid much disappointment, we closed up shop.

I wish I could tell you that this fishing lure venture was my only ministry misfire. But alas, it is but one in a lengthy litany of failed schemes I have attempted over four decades of serving among the poor.

There was the free clothes closet that turned into a grab-what-you-can feeding frenzy. And the toys-for-tots Christmas give-away that became a greedy entitlement program. And the chaos that my “jobs program” inflicted on some good-hearted friends when I sent them unruly urban teens to work in their businesses.

The list goes on – a pallet manufacturing operation, a sewing company, a lawn-care service, to name a few – all created for the noble purpose of providing jobs for unemployed folk in my community. Once in a while a venture did flourish but, regrettably, most fizzled over time. If failures can be considered “learning experiences” then I am indeed a very learned man!

Somewhere along this roller-coaster journey, it became clear to me that the rightness of one’s motives does not ensure the success of one’s efforts. The 80% crash and burn rate for start-up businesses during their first 18 months (according to Forbes) appears to apply not only to the for-profit world but to ministry ventures as well.

Just because we are diligently pursuing the will of God and seeking to “do justice and love mercy,” there are no guarantees that our self-sacrificing efforts will produce the outcomes we envision. Different outcomes perhaps. Outcomes like humility, or the relationships that are forged in adversity, or the deepening of faith when the bottom has dropped out.

In the end, God may be more interested in our faithfulness than in our successes.

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The Tricky Business of Giving

by FCS Ministries on

 

By Bob Lupton

"My husband and I have the gift of giving," a soft-spoken, grey haired lady shared with me following a speech I had just given on the unintended consequences of charity. I could tell something was bothering her. Probably something I had said.

"We love to serve," she said. "We enjoy helping our neighbors - like driving our handicapped neighbor to his doctor's appointments and mowing the lawn for the elderly widow lady next door. And we don't want to be paid for doing this. We try to refuse their money, but they always insist. We really want to give. Accepting pay robs us of the joy of giving. But we're not sure what to do."

The gift of giving - what a wonderful attribute! A generous spirit. Why would anyone resist it? Generosity is a virtue that flows from a rightly motivated heart. So why the resistance from this lady's neighbors? Why do they insist on paying her and her husband for car rides and grass cutting? Can they not see that this couple derives genuine joy from their selfless acts of service?

It's a baffling predicament. When this couple practices their gift of giving, the recipients of their gifts somehow end up the losers. Their disabled neighbor already feels the loss of mobility since he can no longer drive himself to the doctor's office, but being dependent on others to shuttle him - well, that's an even bigger loss. It's not too difficult to understand why he would insist on paying for the service. At least he retains the dignity of financially carrying his own weight. And the widow next door? You can see why she wants to pay for the lawn mowing rather than be her neighbors' charity case. No one wants to be the object of pity.

To give well, to give without diminishing the recipient, proves a bit more complicated than one would imagine at first glance. An ancient Chinese proverb puts an interesting twist on this dilemma: "It is the burden of the receiver to forgive the giver of a gift." 

It seems like a Catch-22 - damned if you do and damned if you don't. Certainly, we could denounce those who give with self-serving motives - like public praise or ego gratification. Jesus confronted this kind of giving when he cautioned his disciples to avoid doing their almsgiving publicly "to be seen by men." Temporary ego indulgence is all the reward that sort of giving yields. "Don't let your left hand know what your right hand gives." Jesus' hyperbole offers a corrective to impure motives. Give anonymously. Don't let anyone know.

But as best I could tell, it was not ego-gratification that motivated this woman and her husband. Their motives seemed purer than that. They appeared to have a deep desire - a calling almost - to genuinely care for others. But how to do it in ways that did diminish or obligate or demean - that was the challenge they wrestled with.

The lady was quite familiar with Jesus' admonition to do good deeds privately. But this didn't seem to apply in their case, given the very visible service she and her husband were providing to their immediate neighbors. I had to agree. And besides, it wasn't that her neighbors didn't appreciate the service. It's just that they always insisted on paying. And that took the joy out of it for the couple.

"So whose joy is this about?" I asked at the risk of offending this good-hearted woman. Well, she responded, she and her husband certainly intended to be a blessing to their neighbors. And their services did seem to be gratefully received, particularly when neighbors were paying for them. Yes, she affirmed, these acts of kindness seemed to be a genuine blessing, very convenient, and affordable. And there was no loss of dignity when their neighbors paid for the services. As a matter of fact, being able to hire someone to perform these tasks was rather empowering.

If service is primarily about enhancing those being served (rather than primarily for the joy of the servers), then mutual exchange rather than one-way giving becomes the higher value. Maimonides (1138-1204), known as the greatest Jewish philosopher of the medieval period, enunciated in the Talmud eight distinct levels of charitable giving. The lowest level of charity (to be avoided whenever possible) is giving directly to a person in need. This produces shame. The highest level is providing employment in a way that doesn't make the recipient feel subordinate. This is partnership. Charity at its best is mutual exchange that produces mutual satisfaction.

The joy of giving is more than feeling good about well-intentioned acts of service. It goes deeper than that. It finds its true fulfillment when it produces as much joy in the spirit of the recipient as it does in the heart of the giver.

Image credit: Brandon Warren

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A Pastor's Dilemma

by FCS Ministries on

by Bob Lupton

Her title is missions pastor. Spiritual nurture is her assignment. Her specific job is to educate, motivate and mobilize church members to engage personally in mission. She weaves mission content into the Christian education curriculum and preaches it from the pulpit from time to time. She orchestrates the church’s mission conference, forms small group follow-up discussions, leads mission trips, and coordinates service projects. She develops relationships with missionaries and pastors in remote mission fields, screens local non-profit ministries as suitable sources for volunteer involvement, and coordinates outreach and service programs. Her success is measured by the number of church members that become personally engaged in mission, and by the fulfillment they experience participating in these efforts.  She fills an essential role in a growing, dynamic western church.

She knows what it takes to create meaningful service projects and mission trips for her members. Probably better than most. First and foremost, she knows, the experience must address a pressing need. It is not enough to simply do make-work. A worthwhile experience must accomplish real and lasting good. Maybe cleaning up a vacant city lot or painting a Honduran church might work for youth, but adults with a life’s worth of wisdom under their belt, need something of much greater significance. Like establishing a medical clinic for a disease-plagued region, or digging a well for a drought-stricken village.

Thus, the activities the missions pastor promotes must be life-changing, both for the people being served and the ones doing the serving. Of course, it is exceedingly rare for a one-day service project or a one week mission trip to deliver life-changing results, but volunteers must be made to understand that even their small investments will produce significant results. Painting a picture of the importance of service is an important part of the missions pastor’s duty.

This is not spin.  This is a conviction.  The missions pastor believes in her heart that one-day service projects and one-week mission trips really do make a difference. She believes that in the economy of God every act of kindness, no matter how small, has redemptive impact. Even when you cannot see the results. She teaches her parishioners this. And she is right, of course.  God’s economy is different from man’s economy. The widow’s mite is more valuable than the wealthy man’s gold. In the Kingdom, the sacrifice of a Saturday or a week of selfless service has untold value. It is the missions pastor’s job – her calling – to affirm the compassionate motivation and genuine goodness of her people.

But she is caught in a tension. A number of tensions really. One is numbers. Numbers are important – number of volunteers, number of projects, number of mission trips, number of food boxes distributed, number of ministries supported.  Numbers are one of the criteria upon which her performance is evaluated.

But quantity does not necessarily equal quality. A hoard of youth descending on an inner-city neighborhood for a clean-up day may not be as effective as a select group of high school students who tutor grade-schoolers for a semester. Both activities may be good but their impact is significantly different. Activities are not the same as outcomes. And, in many instances, smaller is better.

Another tension she lives in is competing agendas. Her charge is to “educate, motivate and mobilize church members to engage personally in mission.” This is not the same as elevating the poor out of poverty (which is what much service claims to be about). These two agendas – mobilizing members and elevating the poor – may converge in a well-conceived service project or mission trip. But the missions pastor’s first and foremost responsibility is the spiritual nurture of her people. Service is a means to an end. The temptation, the tendency, is to plan activities that suit the needs of the servers rather than address the deeper needs (and often more complex) of those being served. Thus, leading a week of summer vacation bible school in Guatemala is preferable to starting business enterprises that enable Guatemalan youth to emerge from poverty.  Sometimes good becomes the enemy of best.  The missions pastor must live in this tension.

Yet another tension is finances. Service is expensive – especially mission trips.  Parents are usually supportive when their teenagers express compassionate interest in others.  Money for mission adventures is relatively easy to raise.  But raising money is not the problem. Return on investment (ROI) is. The missions pastor knows that the costs are high compared to the actual work being done – very high.  She knows that there is no way to justify that kind of expenditure except as the cost of spiritual development for her own people. But that is not how the trip is being sold to missioners and their generous supporters. It is billed as “spreading the Gospel” or “loving the unloved” or “rescuing the perishing” – none of which is completely truthful.

Perhaps the most troubling tension, however, is perpetuating a dishonesty for the sake of protecting the feelings of some of her most loyal members. She knows that her integrity is compromised when she applauds the service of volunteers, knowing all the while that their work may actually be doing as much (or more) harm as good. She sees quite clearly that the poor who get clothes from the church’s clothes closet and food from the food pantry are habitual “repeat customers.”

She knows in her heart that unhealthy dependencies have developed, that some recipients are using these benevolences to support destructive lifestyles. And she has witnessed first-hand similar outcomes among the poor of remote villages her mission-trip recruits have visited – how well-intended benevolence has fostered a culture of beggary and weakened the capacity for self-sufficiency.

But how is she to convey this concern to the dedicated servants who give selflessly of their time collecting and sorting clothes, boxing donated food, and distributing “necessities of life” to “the least of these” as acts of compassion and obedience to their Lord? Or to those who have given up weeks of their time and raised thousands of dollars to serve the poor in foreign lands?  How can she tell them that their good and righteous efforts are doing harm? Does she continue to protect their feelings with half-truths or does she risk telling them the whole story?

A sensitive (and smart) missions pastor knows better than to launch a frontal assault. The damage could be far reaching, far beyond the wounded spirits of a few dedicated saints. She will find a more politically savvy means to enlighten her people. She will discuss the matter with her senior pastor and secure his support to initiate a discussion with her missions committee.

She will introduce them to a book that has recently been recommended to her– one that has been stirring up a lot of discussion in churches of their denomination (When Helping Hurts or Toxic Charity will do just fine). She tells her leaders that she wants their church to stay on the cutting edge of missions. She leads them through a book study that surfaces all the issues that she has been quietly struggling with.

As her missions committee begins to grapple with these realities, she suggests to the chairman that it might be instructive to conduct an evaluation of current practices to determine the effectiveness of their outreach. Meanwhile she explores best practices of other churches that offer creative alternatives to hurtful outcomes of traditional charity. As candid discussions lead to questions about change, she has models to introduce and site visits to suggest. She knows the process will take time. She does not try to rush it. But it will be her gentle, persistent nudges (and those of her more progressive leaders) that will ultimately convert their missions program from toxic to transformative.

Image credit: Brande Jackson

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Make a Child's Summer!

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton  

“Idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

 

That’s what grandma used to say. And in a rural/small town environment there were many useful (necessary) tasks to fill children’s hours when they weren’t in school.

 

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Urban life today is very different. Fathers may be absent. Mothers depart early for work. Jobs for kids are scarce.

 

Long unsupervised days of hanging around on front porches and street corners can lead to mischief – or worse. That’s one reason why crime stats spike during the summer.

 

But the South Atlanta neighborhood is different. Here “idle hands” become “active hands.” Working on bikes in our South Atlanta Bike Shop, getting ready for challenging summer bike rides. Adventuring on God’s Farm, tending farm animals, riding go-carts, going on hay rides, catching fish.

 

Participating in an exciting menu of daily summer camp activities in the neighborhood and day trips to explore life beyond the ‘hood. And perhaps most important of all, a 10-week leadership development course for high school leaders in the community who are becoming positive influencers among their peers and younger admirers.

 

South Atlanta is different from other inner-city neighborhoods. Very different. That’s because we continue to invest heavily in the youth and families here.

 

And that’s also because we are blessed with committed partners like you who give generously to support a host of life-giving activities that make this community a healthy place for children to grow up.

 

A camp sponsorship of $100 will enable a child to attend an entire summer of stimulating activities. Of course, others will be sharing in the actual cost – volunteers, staff, in-kind donors, and the kids and families themselves.

 

Your sponsorship makes up the difference. It makes all the difference! Perhaps your company or Sunday School class might like to sponsor several children. Thanks for helping to make this a great summer for our kids.

DONATE TO SUMMER CAMP

 

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The Truly Worthy Poor

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton People who give to those in need want to be assured that their gifts are used wisely. I certainly do. I don’t want my alms squandered by the irresponsible or unscrupulous. Since I am often in the position to determine who will or will not be given aid, I’ve attempted to establish a set of criteria by which to judge the worthiness of a potential recipient.

 

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A truly worthy poor person:

is a widow above 65 years of age living alone in deteriorating housing; has no family or relatives nearby to care for her; has no savings; is disabled and cannot work; exists off her monthly social security check; is a woman of prayer and faith; trusts God to meet her needs; never asks anyone for help but graciously accepts what people bring to her; is not cranky.

 

A truly worthy poor family:

is close knit; has a working father who holds down two minimum wage jobs; has a stay-at-home mother who makes the kids obey, washes and irons clothes by hand and does not buy junk food; will not accept welfare; always pays rent and bills on time; has no automobile but is always punctual; kids do not cuss or tell lies.

 

A truly worthy poor person:

is a young man, out of school, not living off his mother; is unemployed but diligently applies for jobs every day; accepts gratefully any kind of work for any pay offered; does not smoke, drink, or use drugs; attends church regularly; does not sleep around; wears freshly pressed clothes (belted at waistline); is always clean shaven.

 

A truly worthy poor person:

is a young mother in public housing (only temporarily); has illegitimate children conceived prior to becoming a Christian; is now celibate; tithes her welfare check and food stamps; is a high school dropout but manages her finances well; reads books to her children and limits their TV watching to educational programs; prepares nutritious meals; walks everywhere to save bus fare; keeps her apartment spotless; insists on volunteering in exchange for food at the church food pantry; will not accept cash from family or friends that violates welfare rules.

 

I want to serve truly worthy poor people. The problem is, I can’t seem to find any. One of my fellow staff workers thought she recalled seeing one of them back in the early 1980’s but couldn’t remember for sure. She also reminded me that to be truly poor probably meant that one was desperate, clutching at every straw, impatient, manipulative, obsessed with immediate needs, little energy left for future planning. But truly worthy? Is any one of us, after all, truly worthy?

 

With tongue in cheek,

Bob Lupton

Image credit: Luis Felipe Salas

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Cause or Community?

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton The following presentation was made by Bob Lupton at the January 2015 board meeting of the Christian Community Development Association. The Ferguson racial eruption was fresh on the minds of board members, especially minority members for whom the pain was acute and very personal.  Immigration also stirred passionate debate, since many on the board (including our Hispanic CEO) were actively engaged in government policy discussions.  Lupton, a founding board member of CCDA, challenges the organization’s drift toward advocacy and away from its roots as a movement of reconciliation.

 

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There are many worthy causes that good people embrace – pro-life, gay marriage, immigration, to name a few. Causes stir passion, often in defense of vulnerable victims (like an aborted infant or an undocumented family torn apart).  A cause usually has protagonists and antagonists who take opposing sides of an issue. A cause has winners and losers, both claiming to occupy the high ground. Each side creates disparaging labels for the other, painting their opponent as heartless, immoral, or ignorant. Compromise feels like defeat, leaving both sides frustrated and dissatisfied.

 

Community is very different.  Community is about relationships, about sharing the same space, about learning to get along. A community may have great diversity of people and opinions, but the need for interdependency can take precedence over divisive issues. A community learns how to give and take. A community learns how to tolerate beliefs and behaviors of neighbors who don’t fit the norm. A community may well embrace a cause, particularly one that threatens their space (like a planned highway to cut through their neighborhood or a proposed closure of a neighborhood school).  Such issues tend to unify a community rather than divide it. Even divisive issues, that may cause temporary disharmony among neighbors, over time become absorbed into the tolerant fabric of the community. If a community is to survive (let alone thrive), neighbors must get along.

 

But causes – even divisive ones – are clearly important.  They can correct an injustice. They can change the course of history. But unlike community, their objective is to mobilize, to exert pressure, not to unify. Their aim is to win. Consequently causes often leave deep tares in the social fabric that may take generations to mend.  And sometimes this is necessary.

 

But community has a different goal. Community is about shalom.  Community is about mutual understanding, about listening, about allowing one’s self to be changed by the perspectives of others. Community is about valuing others, especially those who are vulnerable. Community is about the strong subordinating their strength to give room for the less-secure to emerge. Community succeeds when everyone wins.

 

So is the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA) about causes or community?  Are we about taking a righteous, one-sided stand and let the chips fall where they may?  Are we about correcting the injustices that certain unscrupulous police perpetrate on minorities while casting aspersions on all the other men and women in blue?  Are we a cause-oriented organization that stakes out the “right” position on divisive complex social issues like immigration? Or are we a people who strive to see all sides?  Are we an association of reconcilers who listen to the diversity of voices and bring would-be enemies together in dialogue? Are we the place where passionate adversaries are invited into civil discourse and discover the goodness in those they have unfairly labeled?

 

Causes and community.  Both are important.  So do we follow the reconciling Prince of Peace or the Jesus who said he “came not to bring peace but a sword”? Both approaches are legitimate and necessary.  My question is this: Is the Christian Community Development Association primarily, at its core, about building reconciled communities or are we a cause-oriented advocacy group?

 

Image credit: Alex Naanou

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The Poor Are Always With You

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton “The poor you will always have with you,” a man in the audience quoted. He was reacting to a talk I had just given on the need for more effective charity. I had heard his argument before.

 

Since souls are eternal and our earthly bodies merely temporal, should we not be about saving souls rather than alleviating poverty? And besides, Jesus himself said that the poor will always be with us.

 

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The passage from Mark’s gospel (which the man was lifting a bit out of context) was Jesus’ defense of a woman who was being criticized for anointing Him with expensive balm. Such an extravagant offering should have been donated to help the poor, the woman’s critics grumbled.

 

“Let her alone; why do you trouble her?” Jesus defends her.  “For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” The detractors in the crowd might well have faulted Him for supporting a misappropriation of valuable ointment. But there was certainly no hint in His response that caring for the needs of the poor was unimportant.

 

As a matter of fact, He was actually quoting from Torah a command which all Jews knew well:  “For the poor will never cease from being in the land. Therefore, I command you, saying, 'You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and needy in your land.'”

 

Caring for the needs of the poor was obviously a bedrock mandate for the faithful followers of Yahweh. The theme is dominant, woven throughout all of scripture. Where then did this idea originate that God’s primary interest is in disembodied souls rather than in whole people (body, mind, and spirit)? Or the whole of creation, for that matter?

 

I suppose the Gnostics had something to do with it – the group that believed that matter (the flesh) was of a lower, imperfect world whereas the realm of God (the spirit) was the upper world associated with the soul and perfection. This Greek infiltration into early Christian thinking convinced some that the realm of God is spiritual and not part of the physical.

 

Thus the material world is to be shunned and the spiritual world pursued. It’s not hard to see how such thinking could lead to the conclusion the man in my audience was making: God is primarily concerned about eternal souls rather than the temporal needs of people.

 

The God of scripture, however, seems to have a more holistic intention for humankind. Shalom. Peace, flourishing, wholeness. People rightly related to God and to each other. Shalom has a “here and now” orientation.

 

The Old Testament had little to say about the after-world. Mostly it concerned itself with how people were behaving in the present. When Christ appeared on the scene, He dramatically expanded “hereafter thinking.” His bodily resurrection opened an advent of understanding about the inseparability of soul and body.

 

His resurrected body would be the first-fruit of a theology His disciples, His Church, would embrace. “I believe in…the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting,” the Apostle’s Creed declares. The body is important. Feeding, clothing, healing were no insignificant issues to Christ. And the body – not just the soul – somehow has a connection with eternity.

 

Caring for those in need has eternal implications. Eternal rewards are conditioned upon it. Care for the hungry, the ill-clad, the alienated is synonymous with love for God, Jesus explained. It is worship in its purest form. Do this and we find ourselves aligned with Divine purposes. Ignore it and we are in danger of judgment.

 

“The poor you will always have with you.” Yes, there will always be those who need a helping hand. Which is to say: there will never be a time when our compassion, our generosity, our thoughtfulness is irrelevant. It is tied to eternity.

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Smart Charity

by FCS Ministries on

by Bob Lupton Our world is getting smarter.

We have smart cars that can drive themselves, smart phones that can answer all our questions, smart watches that bring the world to our wrist.  We have SMART planning (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-specific) that assures positive outcomes.

We have smart growth that turns our cities into desirable live-work-recreate environments. Seems like everything is getting smarter these days.

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We like smart. Smart reflects our creativity, our intelligence. Smart keeps us on the cutting edge of innovation. It makes life safer, convenient, efficient.

In so many ways, smart makes our lives better. But there is one significant arena that smart has yet to impact. Charity.

Sure, some social media enthusiasts take stabs at it, like cause-related flash mobs and media-ignited fund-raisers. But these mostly end up being little more than flash-in-the-pan slacktivism. (Slacktivism is a newly coined word combining “slacker” and “activism” that describes "feel-good" measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist.)

Smart Charity is something altogether different from slacktivism. It goes far deeper than Twitter hits and Facebook friending. BOGO (buy one give one) charity doesn’t even come close.

Smart Charity is complicated, maybe as complex as rocket science, and has not yet been adequately defined, let alone implemented on any scale. But the discussion has begun.

So let me contribute a few observations that may lend some clarity to the charity industry as it inches its way toward greater effectiveness.

• Smart Charity is about impact – how the served are effected, not just the servers. • Smart Charity is mutually beneficial – everyone has something to contribute • Smart Charity is about outcomes – activity is not the same as results • Smart Charity engages the mind – not merely the heart • Smart Charity is responsible – insists upon due diligence • Smart Charity is wise – rejects simplistic solutions • Smart Charity is comprehensive – understands complexities, the inter-connectedness of life • Smart Charity is holistic – resists piecemeal approaches • Smart Charity is personal – efficiency does not equal effectiveness

Unlike the smart movement that strives to make everything easier and more convenient for us, Smart Charity will likely do the opposite. It will require more effort, be more costly, and consume more time than either the traditional or slacktivist approaches to charity. This is doubtless why the smart industry is so slow in entering the charity market.

The good news is that a new generation of millennials is at least as compassionate as their parent’s generation, and they are beginning to ask the right questions. They appear to be less inclined toward lazy charity (writing checks to fund traditional programs) and much more interested in accountable charity (hands-on, personal involvement). And besides, they are really smart.

There is reason to be hopeful that Smart Charity will eventually become a dominate force in the charity market, edging out the lesser forms that tend to do more harm than good.

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In A Dream

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton It was a dream that quieted Joseph’s troubled soul. A Divine voice revealed to him that his fiancé Mary was pregnant by heavenly design, not through human infidelity. He should proceed with their wedding plans. It was in a dream that God told him to get Mary and the baby out of Bethlehem under the cover of night and head for the Egyptian border.

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Several years later, in a dream, God told Joseph it was alright to return to Israel, that the danger of Herod’s paranoia had gone to the grave with him. But cautious Joseph was still nervous about King Herod’s son who now occupied the throne. Once again God gave him directions in a dream, this time to take his little family north to rural Galilee and settle there.

Does God still speak to us through dreams?

Peggy frequently shakes me awake out of a nightmare at night – she says I’ve gone to war again. Such dreams hardly qualify as messages from God.

Actually, though, dreams can tell us a great deal about ourselves. Therapists often tell their patients to write down their dreams so they can be discussed in therapy. Perhaps this is one way that God still speaks through dreams. But dream interpretation in a therapy session is quite different from the crystal clear directions Joseph received.

I do remember one time when I was in college having a very vivid dream about traveling home for the holidays with some college friends. We were driving at night, the roads were icy, and the car was overloaded with passengers and luggage. As we came around bend in the road, the driver lost control and – I awoke just before the moment of impact!

The dream was so intense, so frightening, that I could not go back to sleep. I had actually lined up a ride with four college friends the following evening to take us (wife and infant son) home to my parents for a long holiday weekend.

So powerful was the impact of my dream that I could not shake it all day. I finally told my friends that we would not be traveling with them that evening and they left without us. I hated to miss the holiday weekend but I was greatly relieved that we would not be making the road trip.

The following Monday when my friends returned to school, one of them told me that they were very glad that my little family had not been with them on the trip. They hit a patch of ice, he told me, slid around on the road and nearly lost control. They were sure glad the car wasn’t loaded down with the additional weight. It could have been really bad, he said.

Does God still communicate through dreams?

Only once in my life have I had a dream so real that I could hardly distinguish it from an apparition. It occurred in the early morning hours on the day I was to marry Peggy York (my second Peggy). It had been less than two years since my first Peggy’s passing.

Though I was convinced Peggy York was gift of God’s graciousness to fill a deep void my life, I still had lingering concerns. Was this too soon? Was this somehow being disloyal to my first Peggy? The dream was so powerful, so real, that I captured it in words as best I could before it faded with the dawn.

December 29, 2006

Peggy, my first love, came to me in a dream early this morning. It was the first time I have dreamed about her since she left. I first saw her across the room, her back was to me, her hair very short and thin as it was when she was undergoing chemo treatments.

But I recognized her immediately and when she turned to face me she suddenly had a full head of hair, brown and beautiful with little traces of gray. It was curly, just like she always wished it was. She was younger looking, like in the days before cancer and chemo ravaged her body.

She was her beautiful self and I just stood there, unable to take my eyes off of her. She came close and I looked deeply into her brown eyes, those eyes that had always melted my heart. I gazed long like I wanted their imprint to remain indelibly in my mind. It was as though she had never left (but we both knew that she had) and we kissed and caressed tenderly. Strangely, our embrace was not sexual yet very warm and intimate.

I told her that I loved her deeply and would always love her. She seemed to know that but seemed both pleased and reassured by my words. She knew too about my relationship with Peggy York and our upcoming marriage and seemed peaceful about it. We embraced long and unhurried, so real and immediate, so comforting.

I do not recognize the setting where the dream took place but it was in a familiar house and neighborhood since we both interacted easily with familiar people who were there. She moved comfortably among friends, engaging in pleasant conversations. The conversations were easy and delightful.

She seemed totally self-assured, more at ease with herself than I have ever seen her. After a time I began to sense that Peggy’s time with us was getting short, so I gently pulled her away from the others and we went for a walk down a nearby lane (which was somehow in the country).

She told me how amazed she was at the way things worked in heaven. Though I was not able to comprehend very much of what she explained, it did involve a large diversity of people interacting in rich and delightful ways. She was so excited about it all.

Then she told me how wondrous from her vantage point was the earthly realm I still lived in, how it was full of hope and expectation, of planning and surprises, how not being able to see into the future was such a gift, so full of eagerness and anticipation. And then, after assuring me that both she and I were in very good places, she simply drifted away and was gone.

I awoke sobbing, not for sorrow at her leaving, but for the joy of seeing her, the sheer pleasure of being able to hold her and tell her I loved her one more time, at the joyfulness of her words. The only words that would come as I lay there pondering this incredible appearance were “thank you, thank you.”

It was a special gift of God, given to me on the eve of my wedding to Peggy York, a wonderfully reassuring, comforting experience, as real and as precious as if it had taken place in real life. But then, who knows just where “real life” ends and “real life” begins?

Perhaps it is enough to know that God does indeed reveal Himself to humankind – in dreams, in apparitions, in voices, in impressions, in coincidences, and in a thousand other unexpected ways. It is the message of the Christmas story – that God makes Himself known to us mortals. Emanuel – God is with us.

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A Universal Truth

by FCS Ministries on

By Bob Lupton I have discovered a universal truth.  Universal.  That means for all people for all time.  It is this: everyone loves to find a bargain!  Last Christmas season Peggy came home from a long day of Christmas shopping. She unpacked her bags and spread out her purchases across the living room couch and chairs for me to admire.  Good purchases, they were.  Fitting gifts for every family member.  And then she declared with considerable pride: “…and I saved more than I spent!” Image credit: David Porter

I’m not an economist so someone with a better grasp of high finance will have to explain the economics to me.  But one thing I do know – Peggy was very excited about finding all these bargains. Finding bargains is a universal joy.  So why do we think it is somehow a blessing to the poor to deprive them of this joy by giving them charitable gifts that deplete their dignity?  Or why would we think it a favor to lavish a poor man’s children with presents that expose his impotence in front of his family?  Where did such an idea ever originate? I understand the intent of angel-tree-type programs that provide Christmas gifts to the children of inmates and parents who have fallen on hard times.  I understand, yes.  The motives are good.  They come from the heart.  But surely, if we engage our minds as well as our hearts, we can come up with methods of giving that bring joy to struggling parents rather than emotional pain.

Image credit: Janis Stoneberg

This is the very reason why we instituted our Christmas Pride for Parents promotion.  It replaced our Adopt-a-Family program that had suburban families delivering presents to the homes of needy families.  Once we saw the hurt in eyes of struggling parents as they watched others provide for their children, we knew we had to find a better way.  Pride for Parents is about finding bargains!  And that ignites joyfulness. Pride-for-Parents logo Our South Atlanta Marketplace becomes a bustling toy store between Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Generous people from all around the city have toy parties, go toy shopping with their kids, plan toy drives at their church or business and fill the store with an amazing array of bargains – from dolls to bicycles, board games to basketballs.  Inner-city parents then experience the excitement of buying those special gifts that they know will delight their children – at wholesale prices and below!  They can even place larger items in lay-away. And the proceeds?  Well, some unemployed parents have no money at all for gifts so we are able to hire them to work in the store.  That way everyone has money to shop for bargains.  Some parents enter our retail training program and move out into the economic mainstream.  Thus, the donations of toys become gifts that keep on giving all year long.  What a child really needs, after all – even more than a Christmas toy – is an effective parent. Want to have fun this Christmas?  Go bargain hunting. Then bring some of your treasures to the South Atlanta Marketplace.  Share the delight of finding bargains with some families who could use a bit of added joy this season.

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Relationships That Make a Difference

by FCS Ministries on

by Bob Lupton Relationships. Two teenagers tossing a football. A couple falling in love, getting married, having kids. Business partners launching a new venture. Church friends sharing a meal.

Relationships all. Why do we have them? Fun, intimacy, profit, nurture? For social creatures like us, relationships have a whole range of benefits, all of which add value to our lives.

So when an affluent American church says they are building a relationship with a poor African church, what value are they expecting to gain? Relationship-talk is common among churches these days. It usually means something like: “We are not giving them money, not much anyway, not yet. We want to establish a relationship first, get to know them, build mutual trust. Then perhaps we will find healthy ways to invest together in ministry. But it’s the relationship that’s most important.” This is familiar, politically correct mission-speak that’s currently in vogue.

Something had to change when colonialistic missions fell out of favor. But simply channeling funds to indigenous leadership had its challenges. Long distance partnerships, we found, were difficult to manage.

So the alternative was relationships. If we invest time simply being together, learning from each other, experiencing the distinctives of each others’ cultures, then friendships will grow, trust will deepen, and we may find our way into productive, enduring mission together. We hope.

But how long will this take? How long before we can launch into a productive project together – one that will not end in misunderstandings or unhealthy dependency? And, of course, our African friends are wondering how long it will be before we trust them enough to let loose of our ample reserves.

It’s a delicate dance, this relationship building. We wonder when (or if) our relationships will become strong enough or our agendas align well enough to allow a true partnership.

Genuine liking. Mutual respect. Enjoyment of each others’ company. Appreciation of each others’ uniqueness. All important, yes. But is this all we want? At what cost? Cultural exchange is a pricey process.

Come on. Is cultural exchange really what we want? Don’t we really want to do something? Build something. Help someone? Don’t we really want to effect change, make a difference?

How long do we have to wait around pen-pal-ing and guest-swapping before we actually accomplish something of significance?

So what is it in Africa (or our other favorite place of need) that we are really interested in fixing? Saving souls? Africans are far better evangelists than we are and besides, they speak the local language and know the culture.

Building orphanages and schools? That may be fine so long as we make a heavy commitment to fund on-going scholarships and overhead. But, of course, we are well aware of the problems such dependency creates. We also know that education without a good job at the end is futile.

At the risk of sounding unspiritual and upending our mission-trip methodology, why don’t we just go ahead and invest our mission money in something that will make a lasting difference? Like a profitable business that will create legitimate local employment as well as produce a return that can be re-invested.

When local people are working, the need for subsidized social services decreases. A profitable company can provide health care. A business that shares profits enables employees to educate their children. Workers with disposable income can improve their homes, maintain their water supply, build their own churches.

Decent jobs do all of this. And more. Profitable businesses spawn other businesses that create additional jobs. Isn’t it time for us to admit that what works so well for us in our culture may be the very thing that will allow other cultures to flourish?

Legitimate business relationships – now there’s the kind of relationship that adds value.

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What's the Vision?

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton “Where there is no vision the people perish.” (Prov 29:13)  That was wise Solomon’s observation.  Without a clear picture of the final goal, people will head off in a hundred different directions.  A vision provides focus.  It is a vivid description of what the outcome will be.  Like the large, full-color rendering an Atlanta architect painted of the abandoned Civil War era prison sitting in the middle of our community. The vision he captured was the dramatic conversion of the formidable Atlanta Stockade into an attractive apartment community with wide, sunny front porch, neighbors chatting and children playing.  This living color portrayal inspired the Atlanta real estate community to rally around a massive transformation.  The Atlanta Stockade became GlenCastle – affordable apartment homes for the working poor.

Not every vision is revealed in its final form like GlenCastle was.  Often visions morph and mature over time.  The vision that propels me today is quite different from the one that first drew me into the inner-city.  Four decades ago my heart was captured by a small group of fatherless boys referred by the juvenile court.  Keeping those youth out of trouble and in school was a huge challenge.  The dream that drove me was motivating them to rise above their circumstances, graduate, get decent jobs, marry and become responsible fathers and men of strong faith.  The destructive influences of the ghetto, however, proved far too powerful, too persistent, to allow this vision to take root.  It eventually became clear that if these young men were going to emerge as healthy leaders their environment had to change.  But changing a crime-ridden neighborhood was a much bigger vision than nurturing a handful of adolescent boys.  To change that neighborhood meant becoming part of it, working from within.  My original vision became subsumed into a much more daunting vision – to transform an inner-city community into a wholesome place for children to grow up.  That vision eventually become the orienting compass of my life.  The mission statement of FCS Urban Ministries became: “We exist to partner with underserved neighborhoods to provide innovative and holistic development that produces flourishing communities where God's peace (shalom) is present.”

How does one take on a challenge as complex as community transformation?  The same way one would eat an elephant!  One bite at a time.  It may begin with a relationship with someone in need who captures your heart.  For me it was twelve fatherless boys.  In time, one-on-one relationship-building may prove to be an inadequate strategy.  The destructive forces are just too overpowering – schools that don’t educate, gangs that recruit, a drug trade that ensnares.  And so you are confronted with three difficult alternatives: (1) keep working one-on-one with the kids and hope for a miracle; (2) get the kids and their families out of there; (3) or change the environment.

For me, the miracles didn’t come.  I watched helplessly as one by one my young friends got pulled under by the survival ethic of the street.  So I began looking for ways to enable their families to move out of the ghetto into better housing.  Those efforts paid off for a few of them.  But it soon became apparent that what was good for these more capable families was bad for the neighborhood they were leaving behind.  This “move-em-out” strategy ended up exporting the best and brightest, depleting the neighborhood of its most stable neighbors.  That’s when it became glaringly obvious that an individual approach to helping the poor, though helpful to a few, would only worsen the breeding ground of social pathology.  If I wanted a cure, I would have to address the source.  That meant community transformation.

A vision to create a healthy neighborhood has a lot of moving parts – safe streets, quality education, thriving businesses, vibrant churches, home ownership, to name just a few.  Any one of these might justify a mission of its own and a strategy for accomplishing specific goals (like raising educational standards or getting rid of the crack houses on the street).  And any one might be an excellent starting place, an entry point. But a single-dimension mission lacks the breadth, the comprehensiveness, required to restore wholeness to a troubled neighborhood.  Community transformation requires a holistic vision.

A vision defines what belongs in the picture as well as what does not.  The architect’s rendering of the old Atlanta Stockade depicted a wholesome family-friendly environment. It captured the transformation in vivid color: an affordable, hospitable apartment community for families working to re-establish a stable life.  But a vision is more than a painted picture.  The real-time physical conversion of a monstrous concrete monolith was a daunting challenge, especially for a ministry with a limited budget.  So when three million dollars of government funds were offered to underwrite construction costs, we were ecstatic.  But upon reading the fine print we discovered that the grant was specifically for housing “homeless men”, not families.  It was an agonizing decision turning down a much needed grant but the vision had already been cast.  This was to be “an affordable, hospitable apartment community for families working to re-establish a stable life.”

A vision is different from a bright idea.  Bright ideas come and go.  A vision has staying power.  It is like a seed dropped into the soil of the human spirit that sprouts and grows and forces its way into the inescapable attention of the bearer.  Bright ideas get wisped away by Monday morning’s busyness but a vision will not leave one alone.  It may take root within one person or group but it requires capacities far beyond those of the initial bearer.  It is both born of faith and borne by faith.  It has a magnetic quality that draws others into its field-force.  That’s why it is not unreasonable to assume that a vision as complex as turning a formidable prison into place of hospitality or as daunting as turning a troubled neighborhood into a place of Shalom can actually be fulfilled.  It takes visionary leadership, yes, and the timing must be right (discernment), but its magnetism will draw in from unexpected places gifted people, essential resources, new risk-taking neighbors, and a host of other talents and connections needed to fulfill the vision.

So now when compassionate people, eager to serve, share with me their idea for helping the poor, I usually ask them: “What’s your vision?”  I want to understand their desired outcomes, the final results they hope to accomplish.  Sometimes they have specific objectives, like tutoring a kid to help him pass the fifth grade.  Other times their goals are less measurable, like helping poor people clean up their neighborhood.  They may have a vague picture in their mind of the possible good that might occur if lasting friendships develop but often they do not have a clear picture of an ultimate outcome with a roadmap to its fulfillment.  Serving for the sake of serving is like rowing with one oar – it may be good exercise but it is unlikely to get you to your destination.

“Where there is no vision the people perish.”  Or, without a holistic vision a neighborhood will languish.  Does transforming a neighborhood seem far beyond your ability or capacity?  Good!  Then it will require divinely orchestrated coincidences to converge, daily miracles beyond your network and available resources, constantly reminding you that you are not in control.  You are a steward of the vision, not the owner.  Your visionary leadership, your inspiration, are essential but not sufficient.  Visions are authored by God and it is God’s responsibility to see them fulfilled.

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People Over Principle?

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton Jimmy is gone.  Cancer got him. He was the anchor of his family.  Not too bright but hard-working. Kind-hearted and law-abiding.  Small in stature, with a tendency to exaggerate, not to deceive as much as to inflate reality to bolster an undersized self-image.  What strength Debbie lacked in controlling their four unruly boys Jimmy made up for in inconsistent discipline.  When one or more of the boys allowed drugs to get the upper hand, it was Jimmy who forced them to move out until they got cleaned up.  Jimmy kept the chaos to tolerable levels. But now he is gone.

Debbie is overwhelmed.  A charming, attractive woman before her teeth rotted out and lupus ravaged her body, she was the love of Jimmy’s life.  His childhood bride, both from the projects, she married him at 16.  She was smart enough, and caring, but lacked sufficient character strength to mother well.  None of her boys finished high school – most dropped out by middle school or before.  Debbie dodged school officials by claiming to home-school.  And now they are men, irresponsible, illegitimate children by multiple women, in and out of jail, abusing drugs, and taking shameful advantage of their mother’s weak and loving nature.

Debbie called me the other day.  Asked if I had seen the evening news.  Chuck, her third-born, and his wife Sharon had been arrested for child abuse and neglect and were hauled away in handcuffs.  Debbie was notified by neighbors and rushed over to the house to rescue their two toddlers.  The house was trashed, she said, dirty diapers and animal feces everywhere, not a morsel of food in the cupboard or refrigerator, stripped of every furnishing that could be sold.  The babies were filthy and not a stitch of clean clothes for them anywhere.  Debbie asked if I could give her grandbabies some clothes from our thrift store.

Our ministry is about development, not emergency relief.  But when you know someone personally, it’s harder to hold to those distinctions, especially when the need has risen to crisis level.  Of course we would help.  A few toddler clothes would assist with this immediate need but it would certainly not solve her problem.  Debbie’s family has degenerated around her into a clan of self-serving predators who have taken over her home, taken advantage of her good heart, and routinely manipulate her out of her meager government disability checks.  Her extended family has often tried to intervene, from time to time taking her in to their homes, but the never-ending stream of grandkids dropped off for her to care for eventually becomes too much.  The drama that seems always to follow her becomes intolerable and she ends up back in her stripped out house once again scraping money together to get her utilities turned back on.

What does a ministry committed to moving people out of poverty do with Debbie?  I know quite well that she will call for help again, and again – at back-to-school time, at Christmas, when crises arise.  Does our giving not perpetuate an unwholesome dependency, or worse, support an entire pathological family system?  And yet Debbie is doing the best she can, given her poor health and soft-hearted personality.  She has always loved her babies – her boys and now her grandchildren – but she has loved out of weakness and not strength.  Volunteers have tried for years to bolster her mothering – parenting classes, budgeting help, mother’s morning out, getting the boys re-enrolled in school – but nothing seemed to last.  Eventually the best hope was that the boys would pick up on their father’s work ethic and get steady jobs.  They did not.  Drugs ruined that. We can’t even give them a favorable reference for a job any more.  Without Jimmy to provide a semblance of order, Debbie is left with problems that overwhelm her.

So as friends, as a ministry whose purpose is to care for “the least of these”, how are we to respond to Debbie?  Pull the boys aside and give them a stern talking to about caring for their mother?  That’s been tried repeatedly with no lasting effect.  Or advise Debbie that she must not allow the boys in her house when they are on drugs.  But then, they know how to work around that decision by appealing to her heart to take in the babies, save them from being taken by the state.  And what kind of mother would deny babies the right to see their daddy, especially if he is trying to go straight?  So the drama continues.

The reality is we can’t fix Debbie or the dysfunctional family system that entangles her.  This is one of life’s tragedies that has no solution.  A miracle could happen, I suppose, that would change things for the better.  We can hope and pray for that.  But in the meantime our only alternative seems to be to continue providing a listening ear and periodically give her clothes for her grandbabies.  This will not change her plight, I know.  And it compromises our principle of exchange that opposes one-way giving.  I guess sometimes we have to put people above principles.

 

 

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On Keeping a Pledge - an Acts 5 Story

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton The young church was struggling.  Its membership was growing at an encouraging rate but most of those joining were people of lower and modest means.  The need frequently outpaced the available resources, which often called for sacrificial giving and the exercise of faith.  Which in some ways was good.  Miracles happen when people reach the limits of their own capacities.  And when God intervenes in supernatural ways – someone is healed of a debilitating ailment or food mysteriously shows up just when the cupboards are empty – such divine movement excites the soul and draws in increasing numbers of spiritually hungry people.  So it was with this new fellowship.

One particular couple who were attracted to the church were better off than most.  During one of the services where the Spirit was moving mightily and the outpouring of generosity was nothing less than astonishing, they both were impressed to offer a rather large gift.  In an emotional moment they stood and declared that God had told them to donate to the church some wooded acreage they owned on the outskirts of town.  The congregation applauded and praised God for His faithfulness.  It was yet another evidence of the amazing work of God in their midst.

The following week as the couple was in the process of listing the pledged property with a real estate agent, they made a startling discovery.  The land which they assumed was worth somewhere between $100,000 to $130,000 was actually appraised at nearly three times that amount.  Recent commercial development in the area had substantially increased the value of their land.  Was it was God’s way of blessing them for their generosity? they wondered.  The sale closed in less than 30 days for $325,000, another confirmation of divine favor.

The church was expecting at most $130,000 from the proceeds of the sale – the maximum amount the couple assumed it was worth at the time of their commitment.  So should the couple honor the dollar amount of their pledge or give the full selling price to the church?   $130,000 was certainly a most generous gift – the largest by far the church had ever received from a single donor.  The leadership would be more than grateful – even if they were told about the actual selling price.  Announcing this windfall publicly could serve as an example to the congregation of how God rewards those who give by faith – He returns threefold what you offer.  It could actually encourage others to give more to the church!

But it could also go the other way.  Church folk might judge the couple, accuse them of being greedy for keeping for themselves a portion of what they had pledged to the church.  The couple wished they had been more specific about the details of their pledge – not so caught up in the emotion of the moment.  What they should have said was they would give up to $130,000 from the proceeds of their land.  That way no one could accuse them of being selfish.  But this was before they had any idea that their property was worth so much.  Better to keep these details to themselves, they reasoned.  It would be best to say nothing about the sales price.  Just give the $130,000.  No need to take the risk of stirring up a controversy.

“But what if some busybody asks how much we got for the land?” the couple worried.  “We told them publicly we were donating the land, not a percentage of the proceeds.”  It was a perplexing ethical dilemma.  They were not about to donate the full amount of their windfall profits to the church.  No one was expecting a gift of $325,000.  $130,000 was more than generous.  And besides, this unexpected blessing was doubtless God’s way of rewarding them for their generosity.  He probably meant for them to keep it quiet and avoid creating divisive misunderstandings.  Let church folk assume that the $130,000 was the full sale price.  Hopefully no one would ask.  But if anyone did, it would probably be better just to side-step the question and avoid unnecessary controversy.  They both agreed.

A church that struggles month to month to meet its obligations does not forget the promise of a major gift.  It is spent before the gift ever arrives in the offering plate.  So the Sunday morning when the couple’s contribution was presented was no small event.  The congregation clapped enthusiastically and praised God as the husband was called to the front.  The couple had intended to present the donation together, but the wife was unavoidably delayed.  This left the husband, who was somewhat prone to exaggeration, to do the presentation on his own without the calm control of his wife.  The emotional affirmation of the congregation swelled his ego and before he could weigh his words he blurted out that the donation he presented was the full purchase price of the land.

The pastor, who had been as excited as anyone in the congregation, immediately stopped clapping.  He could hardly believe what he was hearing.  His jubilant expression faded to a sober stare.  He knew what the land had sold for – a clerk at the county courthouse had told him.  This church member was lying, lying to the whole congregation, lying to God!  Such deception could not be merely swept under the rug.  Right there, in front of the whole congregation, the pastor confronted the deceiver: Why have you let Satan fill your heart?  You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!”     

The man stood there in stunned silence for several long, agonizing moments.  His heart raced. His face burned.  He thought of bolting out of the church but his legs would not respond.  The world began to tilt and then turn dark.  He collapsed to the floor.  Several men rushed forward to help but nothing could be done to revive him. His heart had given out.

“Where’s his wife?” several of the women asked as the men debated what they should do with the body.   But she wasn’t at home when congregation members raced to find her.  Not until three hours later did she show up, totally unaware of the tragedy that had befallen her husband.  Everyone held their breath as she entered the church.  Very soon this woman would learn the awful truth that she was now a widow.  It would be even worse when she realized that her husband had deceived the entire congregation.  She would need much support, the pastor knew.  The congregation would be there for her when the crushing news hit her, especially when her innocence in this matter was confirmed.   “Did you and your husband sell your land for $130,000?” the pastor asked, giving her the opportunity to publicly correct her husband’s deception.

Yes, we did,” she lied without a hint of hesitation.

The pastor was dumbstruck.  “How could you and your husband even think of doing a thing like this—conspiring together to test the Spirit of God’s ability to know what is going on? Just outside that door are the young men who buried your husband, and they will carry you out too.”

Some said God struck them dead.  Everyone agreed that it was certainly more than mere coincidence that a husband and wife would both have fatal heart attacks on the same day in the same church.  One thing was sure: nobody was about to tell any lies at that church!

So what’s the point of this (modernized) biblical account?  Why were the tragic Ananius and Sapphira players included in the drama of early church history?  To put the fear of lying in us?  Maybe.  But perhaps the story of their demise is intended to show us the deadly nature of self-deception, how fatally delusional it is to rationalize as God’s will that which is clearly contrary to His revealed word.  Telling a lie is one thing, but deceiving oneself (and others) into believing that something is right when it is actually wrong – that is a very dangerous path.  As Solomon warned: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Prov 16:25 ESV)  And when it involves money, especially a lot of money, the temptation to hold onto it and claim it as God’s provision rather than release it by faith in a spirit of generosity – such temptation is nearly irresistible.  I suppose that’s one reason why Christ said it was so hard for rich people (like us) to enter His Kingdom.   Ananius and Sapphira were two that didn’t make it in.

 

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Gentrification: Displacement or Beloved Community?

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton “When young professionals move into an urban neighborhood and displace lower income residents, do you consider that ‘moving the poverty needle’?”

It is a fair question.  This is known as gentrification.  And in recent years it has become a national norm in our cities.  Long-neglected in-town neighborhoods have become attractive once again.  Proximity to revitalized downtown urban centers and the affordability of real estate prices make them appealing to an educated, upwardly mobile younger generation. Gentrification certainly does increase the income level of an urban neighborhood. And in that sense the poverty needle of the area does shift in an upward direction.  But at the expense, not the benefit, of the poor who are displaced in the process.

So, no, I do not view the gentrification of a community as a legitimate means to move the poverty needle.  Unless, unless gentrification is an intentionally planned strategy of mixed income redevelopment that protects the interests of the poor.  Then gentrification can have a direct and positive impact on poverty.  When low-income residents are included in the planning, implementation and on-going life of their reviving neighborhood, they become the beneficiaries rather than the victims of gentrification.  The inflow of new, resourced neighbors attracts new businesses (restaurants, banks, grocery stores).  That means new job opportunities, improved services, and competitive prices that benefit all residents, especially those with limited incomes.  Connected neighbors have access to political leaders who control government purse strings.  The results can be significant – improved police protection, stepped up code enforcement, paved potholes, repaired sidewalks.  Educated neighbors insist on quality schools, and if the public system can’t deliver, they will create alternatives that can.  The net effect of shared community benefits – better employment, better food prices, better housing, better education – actually does move the poverty needle in a positive direction.  This is gentrification with justice.

Gentrification is essentially an economic phenomenon.  It is not a sinister plot against the poor or minorities.  It is merely a function of the market.  As such, it has no conscience.  When allowed to run its course unbridled, it becomes opportunistic and will exploit every financial opening with little regard for principle or social consequences.  That is where people of principle, of conscience, of compassion enter the picture – an appearance that is not always welcome.  The initial knee-jerk community reaction is often obstructionistic.  Well-intentioned activists may resort to organized protests to block development.  And sometimes this is necessary.  But it requires minimal imagination to rail against real estate developers and denounce their deals as heartless money making schemes.  Criticizing is easy and organizing protests may even be energizing.  But an adversarial role seldom produces productive partnerships.  Collaboration, when possible, is much more likely to yield positive outcomes.  Healthy alliances between developers and communities, however, require a lot more work.  Inserting a constructive voice into the development process to accomplish healthy economic balance, using one’s influence to gain government support for a project well-conceived, investing time and effort to engage productive community dialogue – these are much more complex involvements.  Yet it is this kind of leadership that is required if gentrification is to become a blessing to an entire community rather than a curse upon the poor.

So what about the displacement issue?  There certainly have been unfortunate instances when entire low-income communities have been bull-dozed and their residents indiscriminately scattered.  Hopefully those days of “urban removal” are forever past.  Mixed income development currently has broad acceptance in the real estate development industry as well as in city urban planning departments.  One-for-one replacement housing is required by many local governments (and certainly by HUD) when affordable units are torn down.  But the reality is that any development is disruptive.  Necessary, no doubt, but disruptive.  The concentration of poverty is unhealthy for everyone.  (Case in point are public housing projects.)  However, when residents have choices, when they are invited to the planning table, when their needs are taken into consideration, the process of change is less painful.  In fact, done well, it can actually be exciting.

So can gentrification move the poverty needle?  Absolutely.  But only when it is wed to justice.  When intelligent minds join with sensitive hearts to assemble economically viable community development strategies, foundations for Shalom are being laid.  And when new, energetic neighbors join in community life with those who have endured long years of hardship, opportunity for the “beloved community” is within reach.

 

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The Happy Poor

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton “They are so poor but they are so happy!”  I hear it from returning short-term mission trippers as they report on their experience serving in poverty-stricken villages scattered about the under-developed world.  They expected to find sad-faced people, severely deprived, toiling to barely survive.  Why do these destitute people seem so joyous?  Singing, clapping, smiling, dancing.  It must be that happiness is not dependent upon one’s standard of living, right?  Or another way of interpreting it, possessions do not make people happy.  That’s an important message for our materialistic teenagers to absorb. Adults too. That’s one of the reasons why the western church spends millions sending its members on mission trips.

The message is a good one.  Indeed, amassing material things is not what produces happiness.  But there is another issue here – one that is often overlooked.  Just because poor people appear to be overjoyed when we have dug them a well or built them a church or handed out suitcases full of western clothes, it does not mean that they are living fulfilled lives.  Momentary jubilation, though genuine, does little to relieve the persistent stress of survival.  When the celebration is over and the benevolent volunteers have departed, locals are left with the realities of insufficient food supplies, meager incomes, poor medical treatment and the other scarcities common to a life of poverty.  Babies die young, children drop out of government schools to hustle goods on the street, men abandon their families in search of work in the big city.  Poverty is no blissful state.

When visions for a brighter future are perpetually suppressed by the struggle to survive, hope eventually burns low.  And low hope has a profound impact on human behavior.  In an economic simulation game I once conducted with a group of affluent Junior League women in Atlanta, this point became strikingly obvious.  Each of the women was randomly given a differing amount of assorted trading currencies and told to make deals with others to increase personal wealth.  They were not told, however, that the trading rules were rigged.  As the bargaining began some of the group easily accumulated a disproportionate amount of wealth, while others struggled to maintain the money they had.  A third of the group lost most of their assets through no fault of their own.  Like I said, the game was secretly rigged.  As the exercise progressed and the distribution of wealth became increasingly stratified, the behaviors of each group began to noticeably change.  The wealthy group isolated themselves from the less resourced members, conducting “business” primarily among their own wealthy group.  The “middle-class” group grew frustrated by their inability to move up economically but remained actively engaged in the trading process.  The “poor” group eventually resigned themselves to their lower status, gave up trying to trade, and began losing interest in the game.   During a scheduled break, the “poor” group left en-masse, went into the restroom, and re-emerged laughing and chanting with towel paper “feathers” taped to their foreheads.  If they could not be winners in the game, they could at least create their own counter-cultural fun.  These class behaviors that evolved spontaneously in the course of a two hour exercise, among affluent peers no less, proved strikingly similar to those lived out among the classes of the larger society.

My point is this. Just because the poor may be singing, clapping, smiling and dancing, it does not necessarily mean they are experiencing a fulfilled life.  It may mean they have resigned themselves to a low-hope existence.

“So can the poor be really happy living in poverty or are they destined to simply resign to the inevitable?” I asked Geralyn Sheehan, our community developer who has lived and served for the past decade among the poor in Nicaragua (the poorest of Central American countries).

If a family has clean water, a dignified home, access to education for their children and are able to eat and make a living (which many families can achieve in our model), the poverty needle has moved.  They will still be classified as “poor” because of their income.   But so many of these families are proud of their accomplishments, feel blessed with the improvements in their lives, and are content in their communities, with their farms and future for their children.  So, I talk with families about “improving the quality of their lives” rather than moving them out of poverty.  It makes more sense to them. That’s what they work for every day.”   

What makes the difference, then, between “blessedness” and resignation?  Hope.  Hope that arises when discovering a viable path toward a better life, especially for one’s children.  Hope that is built on a foundation of small, incremental steps toward self-sufficiency.  Hope that is buoyed by personal achievements.

Does income have any bearing on happiness?  According to a U.N. commissioned “world happiness” survey, it does.  The poll found that the world’s happiest people ranked high in these six factors: real GDP per capita, a healthy life expectancy, having someone to count on, freedom from corruption, perceived freedom to make life choices, and generosity.  Real GDP (gross domestic product) is a measure of the productivity of a people (though not necessarily their affluence).  Which points again to the issue of hope.  Hard work must lead to upward mobility or hope will begin to flicker.  Productive work, not dependency, produces personal satisfaction.  Which is also a very good insight for our young mission-trippers to learn.

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Revisiting Wealth

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton  

Wealth.  A sign of God’s favor. At least that’s how it was viewed in Old Testament times.  Wealth was equated with prominence, influence, leadership, and yes, even righteousness.  Consider Job and Abraham.  Oh yes, there were evil and corrupt rich men to be sure.  The prophets took them on.  But generally riches were seen as evidence of God’s blessing.  That’s why the disciples were so puzzled by Jesus’ pronouncement that it was harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. “Well who can get in, if not the wealthy?!” they questioned.  It was clear that they viewed wealth like most other devout Jews – as a sign of God’s favor.  Their Teacher was casting an entirely new (and dubious) light on the nature of riches.

 

Money, power, prestige – these would no longer be the measures of prominence in this Kingdom Jesus was introducing.  Meekness, humility, compassion – these would become the defining attributes of greatness.  Rich people could certainly join, He said, but this new order of things would be difficult for them – difficult to divest their personal assets rather than contine to accumulate more, difficult to subordinate their privileged status to those of lesser social standing, difficult to place their security in God rather than in their wealth.  It would not be impossible, He said, just difficult.  Matthew the tax collector was case in point, and of course the very wealthy Zacchaeus.  Luke the physician was another.  But by and large the wealthy were relegated to lower standing in the pecking order of the Kingdom.  It was all upside down – the first being last and the last first.  Big change from Old Testament to New.

 

And so the value of being wealthy was turned on its ear.  The well-off became suspect.  It was a rich man who treated poor Lazarus poorly and was condemned to eternal damnation.  A rich young ruler too tied to his wealth to become a follower. A proud rich man in the Temple whose offering was unacceptable.  A successful farmer who took early retirement who was declared “a fool.”  Deceitful Ananias and Sapphira, tragic examples of rich folk who held out on God.  Wealth became associated with self-indulgence, with mercilessness, with arrogance, with fraudulence.  As a matter of fact, one is hard pressed to find a single reference in the New Testament affirming wealth as God’s blessing.  Warnings, yes, but no recognition of its essential role in Shalom.

 

But just behind the scenes, unmentioned but clearly present, were wealthy supporters of this Kingdom.  Zacchaeus was still one of the richest men in Jericho even after he made restitution and gave half his money to the poor.  And what about Matthew’s tax business and Luke’s medical practice?  And the women of means who supported the Messiah campaign?  And members of the early church that sold property to underwrite the church budget?  Oh yes, wealth was there alright.  It’s just that generosity and self-sacrifice and living by faith were the themes that got the sermon coverage.

 

But then, how could it be any different?  Everybody in the early church was readying for the eminent return of the Messiah.  Everyone was on a short-term schedule.  Don’t even get married, the apostle Paul urged.  Put all your energy into preparedness for the second coming.  But Christ didn’t return as expected.  (Not yet.)  And so in time everybody began settling into a new normal of church and community life, some thriving, others surviving.  The themes of generosity, self-sacrifice and living by faith imbedded themselves in the culture of the church.  Wealth remained suspect.  The apostle James made quite sure that the rich were not shown deference.

 

And so the issue churns.  Those who create wealth continue to receive the warnings while those modest souls who live off the benefits of the economy that wealth-producers create receive the affirmation.  John Coors, a very wealthy and very devout Christian, calls it an “industry of making the rich feel guilty.”  Billionaire Robert Kern, who loves the church but endures the judgment, has allocated a large portion of his estate to educating ministers in the fundamentals of how the economy works.

 

“Give it all away,” Jesus said.  Even your second coat.  Don’t concern yourself about tomorrow.  Budgeting?   Trust a miracle.  Hmm.  Does the One who holds the economies of the world in his hand not realize that thoughtful planning and responsible investing are essential for stable societies?  Was it not He who gave the promise of prosperity to Israel if they would keep His commands?  Was He not the One who warned Joseph in a dream about seven years of famine that would befall Egypt, and positioned him to plan ahead during seven years of plenty?  How then are we to understand this radical “take-no-thought-for-tomorrow” departure from divinely guided resource management?

 

He came to fulfill the law, not do away with it, He said.  Don’t abandon the God-given teachings and principles of the past – take them to a deeper level.  The blessing of wealth is meant for the Shalom of the entire community, not to be hoarded for personal sumptuousness.  Managed well, it provides a stable lifestyle for a workforce and their families, stimulates ancillary enterprises, contributes to the prosperity of the whole village or region.  No, He did not come to destroy Shalom but to inspire it.  Admittedly, He did use some highly provocative words and actions to shake up a religious culture that was misusing wealth to amass personal power, privilege and possessions.  Scattering stacks of money-changers’ cash all over the Temple portico floor was a bit extreme perhaps.  But sometimes dramatic intervention is required when greed and self-indulgence become acceptable norms within the Temple community.  And He certainly did that!

 

But perhaps the time has come to bring theological balance back to our understanding of wealth.  2000 years of cautions for those who have the gift of wealth creation may be an adequate length of time to make the point that mammon is seductive, that one’s heart must be carefully guarded against its enticements.  At a time when the entire world is awakening to the reality that healthy economic systems are fundamental to the elimination of extreme poverty, perhaps this is a moment for resourced members of the Western church – who have unparalleled capacity to create profitable businesses – to step forward.  Perhaps this is the time when the church begins to see itself as more than a purveyor of compassionate service, but as a catalyst of just and fruitful economies.   Might this be a turning point when the wealthiest church in history awakens to the reality that their job creators are the very ones gifted by God to bring economic wholeness to struggling souls too long resigned to unending poverty?

 

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Micro-enterprise – to Survive or Thrive?

by katiedelp on

By Bob Lupton You’ll never meet a group of five more committed, compassionate volunteer women in any church in the land.  They have been on dozens of mission trips, formed personal relationships with poverty-stricken peasants in a remote Nicaraguan village, started a sewing micro-enterprise to help village women earn money to support their families, hired a part-time local Nicaraguan woman to oversee the operation.  But after four years of lugging suitcases full of embroidered dishtowels, using their spare bedrooms as warehouses, selling hand-sewn items to every family member, friend and mission-minded customer they could interest – they were worn out.

“Is there a way to hand this business off to some other group that will run with it?” they asked.  The relationships they had forged with the peasant women were important to them, they were clear about that.  They were not looking for a way to disengage personally.  They just needed to get the weight of carrying the sewing business off their shoulders.

I understood their dilemma.  The board of our Nicaragua ministry was engaged in a similar discussion.  After eight years of attempting to market pottery, wooden bowls, hammocks, purses, woven baskets, Christmas ornaments, aluminum crosses made for melted-down Coke cans, and dozens of other artisan creations, our craft business was far from self-sustaining.  We had trademarked a brand name (Ojala), set up a website, made inroads with shops catering to the tourist trade, even ventured into the US market at the Atlanta Merchant Mart where national retail chains place large orders.  But there were problems.  Only a few of the products had appeal to the tourist market.  Fewer still to the US market.  And then there were the challenges of filling larger orders in a timely manner while maintaining acceptable quality standards.  It’s hard to deliver big quantities when artisans are scattered in different locations doing piecework out of their tiny homes.  But we have tried diligently to make it work – for eight years.

We conducted market research to determine the tastes of tourist and US domestic consumers. We narrowed the product line to the items most in demand.  We organized artisans into guilds so that best practices could be shared. We joined forces with international craft distributors.  But for all our efforts, it was becoming increasingly clear that the cottage-craft approach simply was not progressing into a sustainable (let alone profitable) operation.

It had been our sincere hope that we could connect the considerable talents of peasant artisans to markets that would turn their micro-enterprises into profit-generating businesses.  Nicaraguans survive on these little micro-businesses – everyone hustles to earn a few córdoba a day. They survive but they do not thrive.  In order to prosper, their micro-enterprises must be brought to scale.  That means enlarging their space, hiring workers, mechanizing their production, increasing their output, connecting to international markets – in other words, entering the for-profit world of legitimate business.  For the average artisan, this is a foreign and intimidating world.

So how do five committed volunteer women from an affluent US church convert the sewing operation they have started (and are carrying) into a self-sustaining business that supports their Nicaraguan friends?  How does Ojala enable peasant artisans to prosper?  Well, for one thing, we have probably been asking the wrong people these questions.  We have been asking our ministry-minded friends for their ideas, not business-minded people.  We have been asking our wealth-creators to donate to our charity-driven enterprises, not invest in them.  Investors ask the hard questions, questions about business plans, management experience, marketing research, production capabilities, burn rate, ROI.  Unlike social service types who find heart-warming stories irresistible, investors are invariably drawn to the bottom line.  But then, if our goal is to alleviate poverty, does it not make sense to invite into the mission those who are gifted in profit-generation?

Successful business people understand job creation.  They know that good jobs depend on stable businesses that turn good profits.  But if we ask for their help, they are likely to point out the inefficiencies of our cottage industry approach.  They are likely to mention scale and assembly- line efficiencies.  They will explain that a successful manufacturing operation must have experienced leadership, an adequate facility, proficient production processes, effective inventory management and meticulous quality control.  They will probably advise us that without aggressive marketing and unrelenting R&D a business will not long survive.

That’s the reason we don’t ask them. They complicate things.  They don’t understand that peasant women would rather work in their homes where they can watch their children and adapt their work schedule around household duties.  They don’t see the value of slower pace communal village life. They are always pushing to get things done faster, more efficiently, more cost effectively. They would think nothing of introducing western business practices into an established culture that has survived for many generations.  Yes, there are reasons why we don’t ask business-types to invest in the mission.

So what are the five committed women to do with their sewing operation?  And does Ojala have any future as an economic engine to move peasants out of poverty?  Compassion fatigue has brought us to the moment of truth.  Are these efforts really about poverty alleviation?  Or are they primarily about community building?  Both are legitimate, I suppose.  But when prosperous Americans have the capacity and connections to create businesses that lift people out of a life of grinding poverty, I find it difficult to understand how we can be satisfied doing “relational” ministry built on an artificial economy that offers no way for the poor to rise above survival.

Are there ways that to accomplish both – respect for the indigenous culture while building a profitable business?  I think so.  But it will doubtless be more balanced if both “relational” community developers and business-driven entrepreneurs are teamed together.  (Traditional missionaries historically have a poor record of economic development.)  A well-conceived company can foster a sense of community among its workers.  It can offer on-site daycare for infants and pre-schoolers.  It can provide health care for employees and families.  It can develop skills and leadership that increase employee marketability. It can establish methods of profit sharing that in time can lead to shared ownership.  It can stimulate the creation of ancillary businesses like jitney services and lunch stands.  It can inspire dreams for a brighter future.  In short, a well-designed business can move a culture from surviving to thriving.

How does this happen?  To begin with, there are already some great models out there to inspire the imagination.  Like Bill Malloy’s home furnishing plant in Sabu, Philippines, that began small and has grown to 4000 workers.  It has ignited the economy of an entire region.  And Rob Smith’s Earthwise Ferries business that is reviving a dormant economy around Africa’s Lake Victoria with high-speed, energy efficient ferry boats.  There are countless others.  It is difficult to predict what opportunities entrepreneurs from our churches might uncover if we invite them to go with us on mission trips (let’s call them investment trips).  But first we must recognize that our wealth-producers are not simply funders but are people uniquely gifted with entrepreneurial talents essential to God’s plan for flourishing societies, for Shalom.  They are needed in mission work every bit as much as we need doctors and teachers and, yes, evangelists – in fact they are evangelists (the bearers of good news).

No one is better at creating successful small and medium businesses (SME’s) than Americans.  It’s in our DNA, our cultural make-up.  Which is not to say that other countries, even under-developed ones, are devoid of talented entrepreneurs.  Evan Keller, founder of Entrust Enterprise Development, demonstrates that by pairing up budding small business owners in poverty settings with successful American business owners, the mentoring significantly accelerates growth and profitability.  Keller prefers mentoring relationships over the “business as mission” approach.  “I’m partial to building up the business acumen of people already making a difference in their own communities,” he says. “Intellectual capital transfer (in a long-term relational context) can have an amazing impact, but only with the right people.”  The right people, he states, are those with standard entrepreneurial personality traits, demonstrated business acumen through the creation of a business with five or more employees, and a teachable temperament that embraces change.

If the visions of five committed volunteer women and the Ojala staff are to ever see their efforts bear the fruit of prosperity, wealth-producers must be invited into the process with more than their donations.  Entrepreneurs, whether mentors or business creators, are essential to a successful mission.  The creative tension will be worth the hassle.

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Colonialism or Partnership?

by katiedelp on

by Bob Lupton Colonialism is out.  Independent rule is in.  Colonialism was once a good word.  European countries invented it back in the 1500’s.  Send an explorer, stake a flag, lay claim to a land.  That’s how it began.  Colonize it with your own people to establish a government and assert control.  America was one of those colonized lands.

But eventually occupied people grew tired of foreign domination and one by one they rebelled.  The United States declared her independence in 1776.  Other countries followed suit.  By the latter part of the 1900’s almost all colonizers had been thrown out.  Today colonialism is a bad word.

At first colonialism was about economic expansion.  Sugar cane, cotton, furs.  Religious colonization was not far behind.  Evangelization, converting the natives, establishing churches.   By the late twentieth century, however, most indigenous (or indigenized) people wanted full control of both their own economies as well as cultural and religious institutions.  A lot of chaos ensued.  Plantations were broken up, foreign corporations expelled, and businesses nationalized.  Proselytizing missionaries were asked to leave and church leadership shifted to local control.  It was all part of a global movement that recognized the importance of respecting indigenous cultures and protecting the right of self-determination.

And so the western church stopped sending out full-time missionaries.  The indigenous church must take control of its own destiny, we agreed.  Instead of sending professionals to lead, the western church determined to affirm and support the indigenous leadership that would surely emerge to fill the vacuum created when we stepped back. “Partnership” came into vogue.  Partnership implies parity, equality, friendship.  As partners we may serve, we may train, but we do not take control.  We send money to support our partner ministries, send volunteers to help build their churches, send doctors for short-term medical junkets.  But we go at the invitation of indigenous leaders.  Consequently our mission budgets are at an all time high but our full-time missionaries are at a hundred year low.  So how is this new partnership arrangement working?

In terms of cost-effectiveness, the present system is abysmal.  The two million short-term missionaries the western church deploys annually consumes somewhere between $3.5 and $5 billion of our mission dollars.  A Delta Airlines official recently told me that a full half of their Central and South American flights would have to be terminated if it were not for the mission trip traffic.  Our mission budgets may well be at an all time high but Delta Airlines is getting the lion’s share of that money.

And how are the partnerships working on the ground?  Juan Iello, president of one of Nicaragua’s most successful micro-lending ministries, revealed to me that there are entire sections of his country where he is unable to provide any micro-loans.  These are the areas where there is a concentration of U.S. church partnerships.  “My people say ‘Why do we want to borrow money?  The churches give it to us.  Why do we want to borrow money to build a church?  They build it for us.’”  And then Juan declared with great emotion: “They are turning my people into beggars!”

The more mature U.S. mission partners understand the danger of dependency.  They emphasize the importance of mutual relationships.  Though still spending the majority of their mission dollars on airfare, they refrain from giving money directly to their indigenous partners.  They feel good about training and volunteering but prefer relationship-building activities over financial support.  In time, loans or matching gifts may be acceptable as start-up investments for orphanages or health clinics or schools or seminaries.  Such grants may be on a multi-year basis but on a declining scale to ensure local self-sufficiency.  And sometimes this works.  But more often, when the missioners have returned home, there develop misunderstandings over how the money is being spent, concerns over inadequate financial management, disagreements about mission priorities, dissatisfaction over leadership capabilities and communication.  There is a fine line between accountability and control.  It is hard to maintain a good partnership when you are half a world away.

Value differences may be the most difficult challenge to forming mutually satisfying partnerships.  In our culture when a manager or trusted employee uses the resources of an organization for his own personal gain, an ethical red flag immediately pops up.  Approved perks, like a company car, may be perfectly acceptable.  But unauthorized mis-allocation of funds could be crossing the line.  Embezzling or outright theft is cause for immediate firing.  That is American business ethics.  But in other lands the ethics may be quite different.  In some cultures there is no ethical issue at all in pocketing unguarded assets of a wealthy company (and in developing countries all western-funded organizations are considered wealthy).  When we fired the bookkeeper of our Nicaragua food processing operation for embezzling funds, the local staff was incredulous.  “He’s a good guy,” they insisted.  There seemed to be no ethical issue in their minds with an employee taking money from the company.  A rich company can always get more money.  What’s the big deal?  Value differences can make cross-cultural partnerships a real challenge.  They are difficult enough to negotiate when you are working side-by-side every day.  But successful long-distance, cross-cultural partnerships, without highly accountable systems, are really quite rare.

Could it be time to reconsider our rom Coantic notions of partnership?  Most of us would agree that returning to the practice of colonialism – economic or religious – would be a step in the wrong direction.  But international business practices have taught us that careful oversight (call it control if you will) is essential.  France′ and Michael Allen spent two years living on site in Mexico to launch the first international branch of their U.S. based Ventura manufacturing company.  And now every morning at 9:07 they have live Skype report-in from each of their domestic and international managers.  They have learned that detailed reporting, daily communication, tight controls and frequent visits are essential for good business – and especially so when it crosses over cultural lines.  Would we call this economic colonialism?  I don’t think so.  I think we would call it sound business practice.

Should healthy co-venturing with international ministry partners be any less rigorous?  Why then do some fault investor oversight as colonialistic?  Is it not healthy ministry practice to have trusted, capable managers on the ground to ensure that the ventures we fund will be well conceived, well planned, well structured and well led?  Careful management need not imply “We know what’s best for these people” or “We can do it better than they can” or “We don’t trust them.”  Rather, it communicates that we are serious enough about the work to invest not only our dollars but our best talent and expertise as well.  Call it colonialistic if you will.  I call it responsible investment.  I for one think it is time to replace the short-term mission trip fad with a longer-term missionary strategy and convert our so-called partnerships into true teamwork rather than minimally accountable one-way giving.

And if we are really serious about moving the poverty needle, we will institute a new type of missionary – the economic missionary.  The pews of the western church are filled with business people whose expertise is creating successful, profitable enterprises.  They are the ones uniquely qualified to create jobs in under-developed places, jobs that would enable families struggling to survive to begin to thrive.  These entrepreneurial members to whom God has entrusted the ability to create wealth are seldom asked to use their best gifts in direct Kingdom work.  We ask them to fund our service projects and mission trips but rarely do we ask them to use their business ability in mission.  Yet, in fact they are the only ones equipped to ignite a self-sustaining economy that enables a community or region to thrive.  It’s time to change the paradigm.

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