I Would Help You But We Haven’t Built Our Program Yet
Maybe you have read, “When Helping Hurts” or “Toxic Charity”? I certainly hope you read those very helpful books with the desire to be merciful. I hope you have not read them either looking for excuses not to help, or coming away from them deciding not to help those in need. When all these good books have done been read we are still left with the Book that trumps them all and that of course is the Bible. The reader might wonder why I would think you could read the books mentioned and not be willing to be merciful. The problem lies not in their intent or the desire of their authors, but the confusion that may result when we think of what is good, better, and best when it comes to mercy. The trouble may be in attempting to do things perfectly so as to delay doing anything at all. My hope is that those who practice mercy in more than occasional moments, those that are seeking to build a Deacon’s strategy or an organized mercy program will remember mercy while they organize mercy. I know that you may read or hear, “it would be better…” and no doubt if you have the time, resources, training, intelligence or whatever you need to build a program or ministry that helps people be self sufficient, move from dependence to independence, etc. it will in the long run be better for the folks you try to help. The only problem of course is that the person who needs help might starve by then, or freeze to death, or fail to get the medication they need for their diabetes. One of the problems those of us who want to effectively help poor people over the long haul have seen is that well meaning but not well thought out programs have often fostered dependency, and that often leads to cynicism in both the giver and the receiver. We want people to aspire to something better for themselves, we want them to move from a culture of survival to a culture of life and stability. We want their value system to change so that they will become producers, owners, builders, makers, and ultimately generous people who share with others in need. While learning, thinking, and struggling to build such ministries and programs people can still overwhelm us with their immediate needs. Some of those needs are emergencies, some are real, some are legitimate, even life threatening issues. It is in this very space that Deacons and mercy planners have to build a strategy of response and not hide behind a community development strategy that only works for the long term. Let me put it bluntly, if you let children go hungry then you are not being merciful but mean. This is the place of ministry that I advocate for local churches, while those same local churches build deeper and wider strategies of mercy that leads to development. Some of those strategies are non-profits, 501(c)3 organizations, Individual Development Account programs, food cooperatives, savings schemes, job training, housing ministries, etc. This emergency response is tough because it always happens on someone else’s timetable, just when it seems most inconvenient for ourselves. If we think ahead we might actually be ahead by planning emergency response before it hits us. This is true for Disaster Response as well as for local church members and members of our communities that need someone to appeal to for help when in immediate, sudden, or emergency need. Now if someone has an emergency every month, say about the end of month when they have run out of food, and you keep responding like it is an emergency then you are hurting yourself and them. Pretty soon after meeting their real or first emergency you need a budget conference, then you might need to give some life counseling. Finally you need to build a long term strategy for them so you don’t become the “candy man” and they begin to get hardened to using you as their life preserver, and you begin to resent them. I confess that I think many of us are lazy, but maybe I am just projecting my problems onto others. At the same time we Christians often have sensitive hearts and want to help people, especially in those moments when we feel self righteous about those other Christians who don’t help anyone (OK, I’m getting a little sarcastic), but we have got to face some hard facts about ourselves, the reality of our busy lives, and the real needs of poor folk. I want us (not just you but myself as well) to be able to move on a dime, to respond quickly and wisely, and to have the resources ready to make that move and make that response without permanently screwing the people up we are trying to help. It takes some planning and foresight to make that happen while our laziness resists our getting that done. In addition our sensitive hearts will get us into a trap of guilt and bad response. This wouldn’t matter if we had the option of just building programs that did everything just the right way for poor people. My point here is that you will not always have time for that luxury, and you don’t have permission from God to close your ears to the cry of the poor either. When people need mercy they need mercy, not your educated opinion that what is best for them in the long run is a program that hasn’t been built yet. Do both, pray, think about what you are doing, work on doing it better, and remember to be merciful in the right way at the moment of need.