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Help Poor People Help Themselves

  • Whitney Hopler Contributing Writer
  • Published May 17, 2007
Help Poor People Help Themselves

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.

* Move into the community you’re called to serve. Recognize that you can minister much more effectively to a certain neighborhood if you actually live there yourself. Don’t just commute from the outside; move in and build close relationships with your neighbors. If your church is in a poor neighborhood, reach out to the people who live in the immediate area and focus on them instead of building bigger parking lots for commuters.

* Encourage diversity. Help poor people move from being isolated in ghettos and barrios to becoming part of a diverse community, made up of neighbors with mixed incomes and backgrounds. Ask God to give you and others in the community a clear vision to work toward, and clearly communicate that vision. Work with city government officials, neighborhood leaders, and others to develop real estate, design affordable housing in the midst of more upscale housing, and help poor people obtain fair loans and good insurance so they can move from paying rent to owning their own homes. Be patient, understanding that building a diverse neighborhood is a long-term process. Invest focused and sustained effort into communicating with the others in the community and organizing shared activities. Make your love for your neighbors practical and visible. Help people in the community reconcile to God and each other.

* Work wisely with local churches, charities, and social service agencies. Before volunteering with them, don’t be afraid to ask questions like: “Will my investment make any real difference?”, “Am I really helping or is this just to make me feel good?”, “Will this be a personally meaningful experience?”, “Does this ministry really get at the root causes?”, “Will you value my time?”, “Do you just want my money or do you really want me involved?”, “Is the ministry cost-effective?”, “Are you open to change if I offer solutions or improvements?”, “Will you deal with me responsibly and follow through on your commitments?” and “Will I get feedback on how the mission is going?”. If you decide to volunteer, make sure that you’re contributing more than it costs the staff to train and support you in your work. Share your contacts with staff members to help them have greater impact in the community. Make a long-term commitment to serve, keeping in mind that quick fixes don’t last. Frequently take stock of your volunteer work to ask yourself how your ministry does or doesn’t strengthen the fabric of your community and enhances its capacity to become more self-sufficient.

* Build supportive relationships with the police. Invite the local police to meet with you to discuss how you can support each other to try to rid a bad neighborhood of its crime. Make pacts with your neighbors to report crimes promptly and honestly instead of hiding perpetrators out of fear. When police need witnesses to testify in court, be willing to go. Do all you can to help transform the neighborhood you serve into a place of courage and trust.

* Ask yourself key questions before putting plans in action. Make sure your strategies are focused well by asking: “Is capable, indigenous leadership behind the effort?”, “Is the plan neighborhood-specific?” “Does it focus on one and only one target community?”, “Is the effort comprehensive?”, “Is the primary objective the ultimate self-sufficiency of the neighborhood?”, “Does the plan emanate from local churches and/or people of faith?”, “Does the plan protect against displacement or concentration of lower-income residents?”, “Does the plan promote interdependency rather than continued dependency?”, “Does the plan attract, retain and/or develop indigenous leadership in the community?”, “Does the plan attract new achieving neighbors into the community?”, “Does the plan utilize grants and nonprofits as catalysts for development that can eventually reduce the need for external subsidies?” and “Does the plan lead to economic neighborhood viability, as measured by its ability to attract and harness market forces?”.

Adapted from Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor, copyright 2007 by Robert D. Lupton. Published by Regal Books, a division of Gospel Light, Ventura, Ca.,  

Robert D. Lupton has invested more than 34 years in inner city Atlanta. He is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through Family Consultation Service Urban Ministries, which he directs, he has developed three mixed-income subdivisions, organized two multiracial congregations, started many businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide variety of human services. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia. He speaks at conferences and churches across the nation, and consults with similar missions. His wife Peggy died in 2005.