* Michelle Thoughts, Other Travels, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts: Context is Critical

The photos above were taken in Haiti before the earthquake by members of the Haiti Foundation of Hope Vision Team in June 2009

“The U.S. people don’t know us enough. The first thing that Haitians need from the American people is for them to know our history better.”

Roseanne Auguste, community health worker with the Association for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health from What Haitians Want from Americans (And What They Don’t) compiled by Beverly Bell

This quote by a Haitian woman summarizes, for Haiti, was is true in any situation where we are trying to serve people and improve their situation. How many times have we tried to “help” someone before we truly get to know them? Imagine trying to explain a problem to someone, only to have them jump in and tell you a solution that you know would never really work? Their intentions are good but they just don’t know you or the situation well enough. Imagine trying to describe your symptoms to a doctor, only to have them diagnose you with a simple ailment before going in depth into your complex medical history. By not understanding the full context, the doctor may gloss over critical symptoms in your past or other related illnesses that, when taken all together, would cause the doctor to prescribe a completely different remedy. I believe that in many cases, if we understood the context or the background of the people we want to help, we’d find ourselves helping in very different and more effective, responsible, positive (i.e. helpful) ways.

What do I mean by “context?” When we want to create a solution to a problem like alleviating poverty, we have to look at the root causes. The story commonly used to illustrate this point is this: Imagine you are standing by a river and all of the sudden you notice a baby comes floating down the river in front of you. Obviously, you should go in and try to save the baby from drowning. But then you notice another baby coming floating down the river, and another, and another. You realize that it is not enough to keep saving these babies from drowning, someone must go up the river and find out who or what is causing all the babies to be thrown into the river. (Side note: the students I worked with last year depicted this in a skit and deemed the cause to be the “Evil Baby Baron,” complete with an old-fashioned mobster mustache. Anyway…) It’s important to understand that there are many complex factors that cause poverty in order to start diagnosing solutions. To better understand the causes of poverty that pervade our world, I highly recommend Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (see chapters 7 and 8).

A peoples’ history, politics, and policies also make up their context and affect poverty in unique ways. I first saw this most fully during an immersion trip to Nicaragua (see video post here) with Witness for Peace and was then inspired to learn more about the background story in Haiti. I always thought history was kind of boring and to this day have trouble getting historical dates and names to stick in my mind. However, it became much more interesting once I discovered how the history of a country like Haiti explains much of why it is in such a sad state today and also helps inform ways to make improvements. If you didn’t know better, you might think that the state of Haiti today is because Haitians have just never managed to get their act together and that they’ve been tragically unlucky to be hit by a series of hurricanes and earthquakes. But if you search deeper, you’ll find much more. For example, Haitians actually defeated Napoleon’s troops to become the first independent, black republic in the world. Despite this great accomplishment, Haiti was consistently bullied by various countries of the Western world, including being forced to pay retribution to France for “lost property” (i.e. slaves) and, more recently, having a popularly elected president forced out of office by none other than the U.S. government. The lack of success in Haiti is not for lack of effort or capability. Western countries have throughout history interfered in Haitian affairs in countless, harmful ways. (More on this in another post.)

There is also the cultural context that must be understood. One of my favorite classes I’ve ever taken was Cross-Cultural Communication where we learned how we all hold unspoken cultural norms, or rules, that we are often unaware of but that help us interpret our interactions with others. Each culture has their own particular version of what is polite and what is rude, what behaviors communicate friendship, what is acceptable to do in certain circumstances and what is just not done. Some cultures require an elaborate series of greetings and questions before engaging in a discussion with someone. Not doing so would come off as disrespectful. In some cultures it is better to act agreeably and then not follow through than to tell another person directly that something can’t or shouldn’t be done. For them, “saving face” always takes priority. Other cultures have taboos about which hand you use to eat, whether you cover your mouth when you yawn, or whether you should open a gift in front of the person who gave it. When taking that Cross-Cultural course, I came to realize that when it comes to cultural differences, oftentimes you don’t know what you don’t know. All the more reason to educate yourself as much as possible. Before going into a community to help, it’s important to understand these cultural norms in order to work effectively with people and also not offend them! Additionally, cultural differences can mean that solutions to problems may need to be adapted- or may not transfer at all- from one culture to the next. One community may hold different values or practice customs that would prevent a program from being as successful as it might be somewhere else.

Failing to understand the context where you are serving can be not only disrespectful, but your service can end up causing more harm than good. For mission trips abroad, this means doing your research on the history, current events, political ideologies, and cultural customs you will be encountering. It means listening to the opinions and wisdom of local people and approaching the community with humility. Our Cross-Cultural Communication class described it as “inhaling more than you exhale.” Be mindful that you “don’t know what you don’t know” and you must do a lot of learning before you can do any teaching. While you may have a certain kind of expertise you bring to your service, you must also recognize that the people who belong to the community have their own expertise built on years and years of experience in that place. (Also remember that the same people will be there for years and years to come, and you may not, so they must be integral to your service if it’s to be sustainable.)

A reminder: Please provide feedback, questions, and suggestions for this post. Thanks!

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: CaringIntro: God and Poverty, Context Is Critical, Hung Up On MaterialWhat To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)

* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

When Helping Hurts Intro 2: God and Poverty

Before delving further into my new series “When Helping Hurts” about service to the poor, I wanted to offer some background about how the faith perspective fits in. Please add your own thoughts, recommendations, questions, etc. in the comments section. Here goes…

It wasn’t until one of my college classes invited a guest speaker to share about poverty in the Bible, that I first heard about God’s “preferential option for the poor.” I was shocked at how many Bible verses referred to taking care of the poor and the oppressed. How had I never heard of this before? Later as a volunteer intern with Children of the Nations in the Dominican Republic, while we spent our days working in poor communities, our leaders guided us through a book that revolutionized how I see the world. It is called: Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity by Ronald Sider, and I still refer to it often.

Growing up in a church-going home, the words “Good News” were always just a vague catch phrase. However, in my pieced-together education about poverty, these words took on real meaning as I saw the Bible in a completely new way. In the Old Testament, God intervened to liberate the poor from Egypt (Exodus 3:7-8; 6:5-7). He warned and even destroyed kingdoms because the rich were mistreating the poor (Amos 2:7, 5:10-15, 6:1-7; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Micah 2:2; Jeremiah 5:26-29, 7:5-7; Isaiah 1:10-17, 1:21-26, 5:8-10; Hosea 1:8-9). In Old Testament times, “the rights of the poor and disadvantaged to possess the means to earn a decent living [took] precedence over the rights of the more prosperous to make a profit” (Leviticus 25:15-17, 25:35-38; Exodus 23:6-12; Deuteronomy 15:1-18). Over and over, from the beginning of time and throughout Biblical history, God showed his favor for the poor  (Isaiah 58:3-7; Deuteronomy 10:17-18; Psalms 10:14-18, 146:1-9; Proverbs 14:31, 19:17…). I couldn’t believe I had never noticed this theme before. And the above references, which come from the Rich Christians book (chapters 3-5), don’t even touch on all the ones in the New Testament. I learned from Luke 4:18-19, Jesus states his purpose: “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…” Maybe I used to think that these were just spiritual terms, but I’ve since found that they are literal as well. Jesus- himself from a lower-class family and a refugee- paid particular attention to the poor, the sick, the despised, and the marginalized during his time on Earth. At that time, Jesus coming into the world was quite literally Good News for people in those categories- as it still should be today. What am I getting at with all of this? Simply stated, I discovered that God deeply cares for the poor and the oppressed; and so did His son. His care went beyond occasional charity. It was about Justice.

Image from ifbc.net

If something is important to God, shouldn’t it be important to His followers, too? I’ve found the Christian concept of the Body of Christ to be very important in talking about this: we should be like many different parts of one organism, each with their own role in the here and now to achieve Christ’s work. What is Christ’s work? Things like Restoration, Renewal, and Reconciliation- slowly making things On Earth As It Is In Heaven. “When people look at the church, they should see the One who declared- in word and in deed to the leper, the lame, and the poor- that His kingdom is bringing healing to every speck of the universe.” (When Helping Hurts) One of my favorite examples of people living out Christ’s example and God’s calling comes from the first Christians, as reported by philosopher Aristides in AD 125:

            They despise not the widow, and grieve not the orphan. He that hath, distributeth liberally to him that hath not. If they see a stranger, they bring him under their roof, and rejoice over him, as it were their own brother: for they call themselves brethren, not after the flesh, but after the spirit and in God; but when one of their poor passes away from the world, and any of them see him, then he provides for his burial according to his ability; and if they hear that any of their number is imprisoned or oppressed for the name of their Messiah, all of them provide for his needs, and if it is possible that he may be delivered, they deliver him. And if there is among them a man that is poor and needy, and they have not an abundance of necessaries, they fast two or three days that they may supply the needy with their necessary food.

Two hundred years later, Julian the Apostate- a pagan- admitted “that the godless Galileans [Christians] feed not only their poor but ours also.” That’s sounds to me like a great way to make our world a little more like it should be, like bringing heaven to earth. That is the way I believe we are called to act.

One of my favorite authors, Shane Claiborne, wrote some powerful, life-changing books like Irresistible Revolution and Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers. In an effort to demonstrate our call to serve the poor and oppressed, Claiborne depicts a conversation with God that goes something like this:

Us: “Dear God, our world is hurting and people are suffering. Please do something!”

God: “I did do something. I made you.”

Although convicting and- you might say- intimidating, I really appreciated hearing it put this way. We have a responsibility to our neighbors; and if we don’t act, who will? God is still the Mastermind with the Plan, but He relies on us to do the work on the ground. In this way, the burden of “saving the world” is off our shoulders and we have only to do the part that He has put in front of us. Although I feel I’ve only touched the surface of this subject, I’ll end with this poem/prayer on the subject from Archbishop Oscar Romero:

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision. 

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us. 

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything. 

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities. 

We cannot do everything
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest. 

We may never see the end results,
but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Other “When Helping Hurts” series posts:  Intro: Caring, Intro: God and Poverty, Context Is CriticalHung Up On MaterialWhat To Do When, How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 1)How To Be Positively Helpful (Part 2)

* Michelle Thoughts, When Helping Hurts

Are you still paying attention?


I made a commitment to myself after the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti that I would never forget about Haiti and that I would stay involved in one way or another. One way I’ve decided to do this, as I mentioned in my “Bucket List: From Now Until Take-off”, is that I am trying to educate myself and practice advocacy during my free time before we go into the Peace Corps. In my research, I recently came across this interview, above, with Paul Farmer (you may know him as subject of the book Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World ) which is a reminder that although the earthquake was over 19 months ago, we still need to pay attention.

As Farmer puts it in the interview: “Haiti has had a lot of difficulties after the quake, political unrest, the cholera epidemic, and then a lack of follow-through from some of the big development agencies and those who made pledges. So, it’s going to — so, as I said in January, it’s going to be a real long haul, a long row to hoe.”

How do you and I stay in it for the long haul? Just because we don’t hear about Haiti from the main-stream media anymore, doesn’t mean the need is gone. We can’t all go and serve in Haiti- even if we could, is that really what is needed? As I’ve been doing my online research and reading lots of books, I’ve developed a desire to share what I’m learning with others- especially Americans who tend to be privileged, like me, as well as a bit unsure about what to do with our privilege in light of the great disparity in our world. There are very important things we can do but I think we are often confused about what they are.

One problem we face in America is apathy. Another problem, however, actually comes from those of us who want to help. I think we don’t necessarily know how best to help. Many of us have gone on short-term “missions” to developing countries- or impoverished areas in the U.S.- and more often than not, we come home feeling that we’ve been changed more than we’ve made change for someone else. There’s something to that… Also, we’re often not aware of all the complexities that impact the community we’re visiting, so we don’t always realize how our projects truly impact people after we leave. Our intentions are great but our actions can end up doing more harm than good. No one wants that. This is the subject I hope to shed some light on.

I don’t claim to be an expert but I’m attempting some “independent study” in relation to this idea of helping without hurting, the situation in Haiti being sort of a case study. I think being an educator in this way (sharing with Americans who want to go serve) could potentially be in my long-term vocational path. I’ve thought about working on Youtube-type videos that are catchy and can easily explain important, yet often misunderstood, concepts (sort of like the Story of Stuff video but for different topics). Another idea would be to develop educational activities and programs that would be used to prepare groups who are going abroad to serve, or used for general consulting purposes with churches and non-profits.

Those are some long-term ideas. For now, my thought is that I’ll do a short blog series on related topics in an effort to practice communicating the concepts I’m learning. I hope you’ll bear with me! Also, I would really, really appreciate your interaction with these upcoming posts. Asking for clarification, sharing your own thoughts, pointing me to other resources, and giving feedback will help me refine my vision for this work. Please share!

So more on this subject to come… In the meantime, to learn more about the situation in Haiti, I urge you to read Farmer’s new book, Haiti After the Earthquake and consider signing up for updates and “action alerts” from the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti. As I’ll discuss in future posts, having a better understanding of the context of a place and its people is key to being able to serve there effectively.

* Michelle Thoughts

Intentional Politics

Eugene Cho

Recently, I came across this great blog post from Pastor Eugene Cho of Quest Church in Seattle. In a general sense, Jedd and I really like what he’s about, and this specific post about being a person of faith who is engaging in politics is one example why. It triggered the idea to write about my own journey into the world of politics. First, here’s an excerpt from Eugene’s post:

“I’m not interested in politics for the sake of politics.

But I care about politics because politics impacts policies which ultimately, impact people.

And by people, I mean that everyone matters. We’re all important but in a system where the poor are often without powerful lobbies, platforms, and megaphones, I believe that the Christian community has both the obligation and privilege to assist them and their needs to be heard. Let’s not be mistaken. God does take sides but they have nothing to do with the sides of liberals or conservatives, Republicans or Democrats, but rather, God takes the sides of the poor and marginalized.” -Eugene Cho (Blog: A Moral Budget…)

By the time I was in college, I was already highly skeptical of politics, mostly because I felt it was divisive, and aligning myself with one party or the other didn’t really fit. Plus, I didn’t really know how getting myself involved politically could possibly make a difference, and I didn’t understand how much American policies have an affect on people- especially the poor.

All of this changed when Jim Wallis came to speak at my school and shared a new way of viewing and participating in politics as a person of faith that I had never heard before. Wallis was sharing from his book, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It
And it finally made sense to me. “Values Voting” is about more than two issues. Alleviating poverty is a moral value- as is caring for creation, protecting human dignity against discrimination, fighting for the rights of workers, valuing life even in regards to war, and many other issues. Moral values are innately tied up in political policies.

Three or four years later I was actually able to attend a conference called The Mobilization to End Poverty in D.C., put on by Sojourners (of which Jim Wallis is CEO), where I learned even more about being an active citizen, a walk-the-talk Christian, and an advocate for justice on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Through the past three years in my (former) job, I was lucky enough to work alongside and learn from other folks who were pursuing this same Biblical call to social justice. The quote above by Eugene Cho is a great summary of what it’s all about. So if you’re a Christian but you shy away from politics, or if you’re really into politics but have been jaded by the “single issue Christians,” maybe take another look…