Helping the Needy in a Developing Country
When you are a Missionary ministering in Papua New Guinea, poverty is personal. Typically, an expatriate worker will come into PNG, live behind fenced compounds, be escorted by security guards to work and back; it is all very protected. However, as a Missionary, poverty confronts you every day and it affects all the work you do because you have come to ‘help’ the people and work with them at a personal level. In our case we were asked by the Reformed Church of PNG church leaders to come, train leaders, and help bring the churches to maturity.
But how do you deal with poverty? What help do you give when you know that the disabled person sitting begging in the street has been placed there by a relative who collects all the money? Or when children at the traffic lights ask you to give a donation to their soccer team with sponsor sheets and all, but you know that it all goes to the older brother? What help do you give when you know that people have given up good paying jobs because they are tired of family coming and freeloading off them without contributing anything to their stay? What aid do you give in helping a village hospital get a TB diagnostic machine costing some 8,000Kina when you know that the village has just fund-raised 40,000Kina for a bride price? How do you decide whether building permanent toilets will help or actually hurt? How far do you go in helping someone set up a small donut making business when they spend all the money rather than buying new ingredients for the next batch of donuts? How far do you go in helping someone find a job when they decide to go on a holiday rather than attend the interview? How do you discern when it is appropriate to help when the people see you as a “White skin” with money and you are obligated to be their patron and “look after” them? How do you give aid to one person when you know that others are extremely jealous?
When we first came to minister in Papua New Guinea, the RCNZ National Diaconate Committee asked us if we had any ‘diaconal projects’ we could suggest for the Compassionate Catalogue. At the time we were so overwhelmed by the poverty and trying to come to grips with the culture, which gives rise to much of the poverty in PNG, that we were not able to make any suggestions! Below is where we are now at in our journey of developing an approach to “helping”.
The greatest poverty is the spiritual poverty of needing Christ
Many factors to poverty are spiritual in root cause. When there is a Gospel transformation in thinking and values there will be resulting changes in lifestyle. It is not enough to deal merely with the symptoms (physical) and not address the cause (spiritual). Therefore, as Christians helping with ongoing poverty issues (ongoing aid as distinct from “immediate” relief needs) our help must be gospel based and centred. I believe that poverty in PNG is largely a result of cultural causes: a Prime Minister of PNG once remarked, “No one in Papua New Guinea needs to go hungry.” He was ostracised by the media but his point was that a large factor to the cause of poverty in PNG is lifestyle choice. Of course the issue of poverty is more complex than that, but it should not be overlooked when giving aid! Above all things, people need Christ!
A holistic Gospel ministry meets the needs of the whole man
To put it simply, Word and Deed should-go together. In James 2:14-17, James writes that if we minister merely by word without caring for physical needs – then what good is that?! The Apostle John writes that if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:16-18). When Jesus was on earth in His three years of ministry, the Disciples of John the Baptist came and asked if He was the One who was to come or should they expect someone else (Luke 7:19), it is interesting that Jesus answers them,
Go back to and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the Good News is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of Me.Luke 7:22-23
Here we see Jesus providing evidence of the Kingdom in both the hearing what He says and the seeing what He does. The Gospel brings transformation to the whole man; the kingdom is more than merely the forgiveness of sins; the caring of souls. Redemption is about body and soul. Christ came to renew the whole creation. In our Reformed World and Life view we believe that all things are to be brought under the kingship of Christ: the Gospel renews all of life. And so, Word and Deed go together; ministering to the whole man: Body and Soul. Therefore, diaconal aid should be worked out through the local church.
Poverty is not measured by the fact that others do not have what you have
Often when we come as Christians from a western culture to PNG and see the poverty and squalor, we feel guilty! How can I live in my country with so much and these people live here with so little? And out of immediate impulse we want to give money to help relieve the poverty as we perceive it; which often does more harm than good! However, our own context is not the measure of someone else’s poverty! Living with less does not mean people are in poverty (how often do we not relate stories how we were happier in the ‘old days’ when we were poor without all the stuff we have today?). God gives His gifts in His good pleasure and there will always be the rich and the poor. The Bible needs to provide us with the measure of poverty. What does the Bible teach about poverty? In summary, the “needy” are those oppressed by circumstances which brings them into a state of helplessness and misery. The “poor” are seen to be a class of people who lack in basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Both of which result in being vulnerable and open to exploitation – that is why money alone won’t fix it!
Conversely, equality does not mean that everyone has the same
2 Corinthians 8:12-14 teaches us that equality is not in having the same material goods, rather, equality is when each gives gifts according to what he has as God has gifted it to him. And so equality is in each being willing to share and learn from what God has gifted to them. When we give, say 100 Kina, from our blessings as Missionaries and the nationals give 10Kina from the blessings they have received from the Lord; both of us can hold up our heads with dignity as we work together. A “poor” person is no less a person than a “rich” person and a “rich” person should not be in control because he has the money. We know that in providence, it is God Who gives and God who takes away.
Relief and Aid/development needs to empower and promote the dignity of the receiver
In helping others we need to work “with” the people instead of “to” them. From our Western Culture we still tend think we need to go in to “fix” the problem (that is just in our western DNA!); often by sending a whole heap of money and stuff, or by thinking our way is the best way. Sadly, by doing so we actually reinforce the feeling of inferiority and helplessness of the poor.
Once a building team came to help and it was interesting to witness the cultural differences as they wanted to do a great job by their (western) standards but were encouraged simply to follow the directions of the missionary who was working within the national cultural standards. As a (former) tradesman I can identify how the finished job is a reflection of our skills and reputation! However, the question is, are we prepared to be servants? Are we coming to help for the good of the people in their context or (unwittingly) to impose our own ways? Will our help actually add to the hurt of poverty or bring the relief and encourage the receivers?
How do we approach the relief and aid for poverty in a developing country? In summary:
- Come to listen and establish a relationship – give the nationals dignity as people – do not see them as a problem that needs to be solved.
- Come to learn from our national brothers and sisters, and so serve them according to their real needs and not through our (western) perceptions (our western way is not always the best way or even work in that national cultural context)
- Discuss the needs with the nationals and ask what they can contribute: what gifts has the Lord given you to help meet this need?
- Make decisions together! It is their place we are coming into. We are Christ’s servants not bosses: wealth does not mean we have the right of control.
- Be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them. It is easy to become paralysed by a fear of hurting, but doing nothing is not an option as Christians.
What could this look like in a Guideline for Diaconal giving?
- As people that have been well-blessed by the Lord we have resources to share with our PNG neighbours. How then can we do this?
- Diaconal help to communities needs to be given through relationship via the churches and in consultation with appropriate local authorities (chiefs, elders, government, etc.)
- Any project must be a cooperative effort, with contributions from both nationals and overseas aid.
- Consultatively, a plan needs to be developed that has checks and balances, and measurable results.
- A time needs to be set for the time diaconal aid will be given and/or a clear goal reached.
- Diaconal aid should not be separated from the big picture of Gospel, culture, infrastructure, and personal/ community responsibility.
When I think back to some of the help I have given as a missionary, I can see how I have fallen into the “fix-it” mode that in fact hurt those whom I have strived to help. One of our biggest failures was, under the supervision of United Nations, building permanent toilets at the Reformed Church of Nine Mile to aid the Refugees who were living there (some fifty people under canvass on a house section). We moved ahead with the “fix-it” mode: United Nations sponsoring the costs of materials and the missionaries supervising the building work, without consulting the refugee people and making them participants in the planning and agreement to work, etc. As a result we were left with a huge unpaid water bill and having to evict the people from the church grounds. It is interesting that when I was consulted to come with a plan in a similar situation involving refugees and sanitation, the United Nations did not organise the building of permanent toilets as they considered the Nine Mile toilet project “not to have worked”.
A powerful lesson is that even though as Christians our hearts our genuinely moved to compassion, our typical western mindset to get in there and “fix-it” often hurts more then it helps. Even simply asking, “What projects can we fund?” often betrays our western mentality to ‘fix-it’ and can unwittingly overlook the dignity and worth of the people in PNG; they need to be givers/ participants as well as receivers.
However, our shortcomings should not hinder us from showing the compassion of Christ to the poor and needy. Let us learn to do it better and become even more diligent in serving others so that we may bring honour to the Lord and bring the full effects of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world!