Help Poor People Help Themselves
- Thursday, May 17, 2007
Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Robert D. Lupton's new book, Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor, (Regal Books, 2007).
Caring for the poor is a noble undertaking. No matter how well intentioned you are, however, your ministry won’t be effective if you simply provide services for them. The more you give poor people what they can learn to do for themselves, the more you strengthen their dependency. But if you give them what they need most – opportunities – you’ll see real and lasting improvements in their lives.
Here’s how you can give poor people opportunities to help themselves:
* Change your perspective. Realize that your job is not to cure the poor from their poverty as if you’re a doctor and they’re your patients. Understand that you’re equals in God’s eyes because He has made you all in His image. Ask God to help you love poor people as your neighbors and genuinely get to know them. Treat them with respect and dignity. Instead of seeing them as projects to work on, view them as people to love.
* Work with (not for) the poor. Don’t just set your own agenda for how to help. Instead, listen to what the people actually need and want before deciding how to help them. Rather than doing all the work yourself, invite those the poor to join in by discovering their God-given talents and putting them to use in community improvement projects. Let poor people help you sometimes as well; let them know that they have something of value to give you in return for your efforts to help them. Help the poor develop their leadership skills so they can take over efforts to revitalize their neighborhoods rather than always depending on outsiders to do so for them. Don’t make it a habit of just tossing out money to poor people who approach you on the street. Give on the occasions that you sense God leading you to, but most often, direct your efforts toward ministries that allow you to build relationships with the people you’d like to help. Ask God to help you choose the mess of getting personally involved with the poor over the order and efficiency of impersonal programs, realizing that the greatest change comes through relationships.
* Turn services into businesses. Instead of just providing a service in a poor community, help the meet the need through a business that poor people can learn to operate themselves. Know that setting up a business will benefit the community in long-term ways, because it will give the poor opportunities to earn money and gain job skills. Turn a food pantry into a food co-op, nonprofit grocery store, or restaurant. Transform a clothes closet into a thrift store. Use benevolence funds to create jobs to perform needed services (such as a daycare and janitorial work) in the community. Avoid systems of dependency that ultimately breed greed, manipulation, resentment, and a sense of entitlement. Instead, create systems of exchange built on interdependency. Ask God to give you the inspiration to come up with creative ways for the poor to participate in honest business deals that will enrich their lives and neighborhoods in ongoing ways.
* Meet needs through relationships instead of programs. Understand that you can often help people more powerfully when you approach them personally instead of through a formal program. Instead of starting an employment program, share job leads with a poor friend and encourage your friend to use his or her new contacts to network and pass on valuable job information to other poor people. Rather than beginning a teen pregnancy prevention program, help supervise teens, build their confidence, and keep them from being idle by giving them productive and enjoyable things to do in their spare time.
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