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How to Help Without Hurting

Have you ever delivered turkeys to low-income households before Thanksgiving? I have. Did you know that such acts usually do more harm than good? I didn’t, until now. On March 9, 2013, Dr. Brian Fikkert, professor at Covenant College and executive director of The Chalmers Center, spoke to more than 500 people in Washington about his book “When Helping Hurts.” In many ways, his message fundamentally challenged how I have always approached poverty alleviation in the past—and I suspect I wasn’t alone in this. Brian Fikkert Short-sighted relief efforts, like delivering turkeys, are easily done and reward the giver with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment. One-time acts of charity or relief often come from a mindset that we should provide for people what they cannot provide for themselves. In some ways, these intentions are good, but they are often accompanied by an attitude of prideful superiority or a “God complex.” When we do these things, in a sense we are saying, “You can’t provide this, but I can. So I will provide it for you.” As Dr. Fikkert explained, the “for you” part is what’s most damaging. When Thanksgiving food is delivered, fathers often sneak out the back door in embarrassment. The turkey may provide a meal, but it also results in belittlement—and in the worst cases, increases the likelihood that the family will need a turkey again next year. Whether we recognize it or not, our efforts to help the poor can easily become paternalistic. Part of this is because our culture uses a solely material definition of poverty. If you do not have the material means to provide for yourself or your family, you are “poor.” But poverty is about more than income level—it is accompanied by brokenness, shame and a sense of inferiority. When we use only a material definition of poverty, the “help” we offer is often shallow and incomplete. According to Dr. Fikkert, poverty is truly about broken relationships—with God, with others and with the rest of creation. A lack of material goods is only symptomatic of deeper issues—issues we all have, which manifest themselves in different ways. How could this new vantage point transform our efforts at poverty alleviation? For one, it shows that humility is central to our work with the poor. If I see myself as equally broken and in need of help, I can stop trying to fix poverty with my own material assets. As Paul states in Colossians 1, it is only through Jesus Christ that we can be reconciled to God and restored from brokenness. In that way, it should keep us from falling into paternalism. When we help the poor, we should not offer assistance to or for those in poverty. Instead, we ought to relationally walk alongside those in poverty, as together we seek Christ’s reconciliation in our lives. The spotlight shifts to their development and away from my charity. Second, we can remind poor individuals of their inherent dignity and worth. Since poverty is psychological and spiritual, and not merely material, it is important that we lift spirits by reminding those in need of their innate worth. Finally, we can encourage those we are helping to participate, and to take ownership in the process of moving toward self-sufficiency. Real change will never be attained unless each person takes personal responsibility and initiative. By focusing on the unique abilities and gifts each person has, individuals can pursue dreams they may have long ignored or forgotten. Most of those who are poor in America can provide for themselves (in that they have the necessary abilities). It is a mistake to provide relief to those capable of working and providing for their families. As cliché as it may sound, true poverty alleviation is about the empowerment and development of our fellow human beings. Distributing turkeys may make us feel like we’re contributing or helping, but the best that we can do is to humbly walk with the poor as equals, mutually realizing our brokenness and dependence upon the power of Jesus Christ for any enduring blessing.