The Poor and the Powerful (Part 2)

ImageIn my last blog post I talked about the powerful position we find ourselves in when we set out to care for “the poor” and I asked the question: What would it look like for your Church to work WITH the people who live around it in order to bring abundance and wholeness to the lives of the whole community?

One thing is for sure and that is that any works that bring abundance and wholeness are not works that can be conducted from the side lines- they require us to get up-close and personal.

As churches we have an inerrant wariness of this up-close and personal approach.  And the more damaged by poverty the person/people are, the more wary we are.

This is one of the reasons we have institutionalised most of our care arms (that and the capacity to access government money) BUT we have institutionalised to the point of total separation in most instances- and now we are worried that our care arms are doing okay by themselves and in many cases they neither need nor want us anymore!

But if Churches want to be restoring communities we need to get up close and personal.  (We need good referral networks- we most certainly do!  And we must commend our care arms and other caring professionals for doing some of the things they do incredibly well.)  But what the professionals in our community cannot offer is the up-close and personal… and more importantly what they can not offer but what the churches CAN offer is the wider care, not just of paid professionals, but of a whole community of people making themselves personal and available to each other.  It takes a community to truly reach and transform a community and no professionalised system can offer that.

We have an amazing gift and yet too often I see churches also trying to create what I called in my last post “love safety nets” … creating “levels” of neighbours… those who we actually care about (our families and friends) and those who we are commissioned to care about.

Soup kitchens are a super easy example of this.

At the soup kitchen I’m proving a hot “meal” to unfortunate men and women who have fallen among the various robbers in our society whether they be the kind who beat you up in dark streets or those hidden behind the shiny lights of pokey machines or disguised as bar tenders… either way the meal is provided, cooked perhaps by some kind soul in the safety of his or her own kitchen and ladled out by well washed and manicured volunteers with the safety of a bench between them and the great unwashed.

It is not quite up close and most certainly not personal.  Perhaps the workers ask the names of these unfortunate souls, ask “how they are”, but the long and short of it is what I like to call “sexy-volunteering”.  Because at the end of the day you can go back to your clean and warm home, have a shower, climb into your warm bed and feel as if your soul has been made a little shiner for your good deed.

There are plenty of opportunities for “sexy-volunteering” both here and abroad.  Which is why the number of orphanages in Cambodia has risen by 65% since 2005.

After conducting “sexy volunteering” you are left feeling good about yourself.  You feel uplifted, perhaps your life is changed?   But what about the man on the other side of the soup ladle?  Does he experience the same “sexy” uplifting feeling?  His belly is warmer …but does he feel better about himself?  Is his life closer to thriving- is it more abundant … than before?  Quite probably it is the exact opposite.  He has been put even more fully in his place as a result of this encounter.  He knows where the power lies.  He does not feel like your equal as a result of this encounter.

Feeding bellies is important… especially when times are hard and New Start is so chronically impossible to support a family with.  I am a part of overseeing a very successful meal program that would feed something like 60 people per sitting… but it is not a soup kitchen and it is not “sexy volunteering”.  People contribute.  Those who enjoy this tasty 2 course meal off proper crockery and cutlery are those same people who also set up the tables, spread the table cloths, put flowers on the table, cook the meal, eat the meal alongside each other, share their music skills, perform magic acts…. and contribute whatever they can to cover the cost of the meal (without anyone else knowing what they are or are not contributing).  I knew this program was succeeding in its “up-close and personal mission” when a relatively new participants asked me “if this is your first time at the meal, would you like to sit with me?”

I can promise you that, this up-close and personal stuff is A LOT harder work than a soup kitchen… and a lot messier because it breaks down the power hold, it breaks down the control… and if I’m not in control… who knows where this might lead?

When working with our communities we always need to be super aware of power imbalances; of control imbalances (another great article on that here).  “Sexy volunteering” always has a power imbalance because you are in control.  In fact if we are realistic pretty much everything we do with our communities does- we run program FOR our community we serve THEM.  WE’RE in control.  But the fact that WE can delineate a line between “them” and “us” means that “they” can feel that too!

My favourite explanation of the alternative to “sexy volunteering” … of POSITIVE community engagement and care comes from that ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who is reported as saying:

“Go to the people.
Live among them.
Learn from them.
Love them.
Start with what they know.
Build on what they have.
But with the best leaders,
when the work is done,
the task accomplished,
the people will remark
‘We have done this ourselves.”

In fact I love that little image so much it sits above my desk and if I had my way it would be MarionLIFE’s mission statement!

Too often, however, our approach looks more like:

Go to the community with an agenda
Find out what is wrong with them
Tell them what to do
Enable and fix them
Start with what they don’t know
Tell them what you think they should know
But the worst of leaders
when the program is finished
The people will ask
“What have they done to us?”

We must be so aware of the power imbalance already present in even the most dysfunctional church family when we try, as a collective, to do something to “fix” the local community.

In international development we seemed to have finally come to understood that damage that we have done in the past by sending rich white men into poor African countries to fix the people there.  We are now all about empowering those people to lead their own community transformation.  However the message hasn’t translated to the work we do in our own communities.  We still send rich white men and women to fix the poor.

As what is the result.  Disempowerment leads to disenfranchised people.  Constant power-imbalance leads to aid-culture/ welfare-culture- people with a hyper developed sense of entitlement as a defence against the constant ego-bruising of being the ones “provided for”.

But the good news in there are alternatives.  And it is those alternatives that I want to discuss in this space, on this blog.  It’s those alternatives I am trying to find using the techniques I have already detailed in previous entries and will continue to explore.  More than anything else, however, I really just want to continue to be aware of this struggle in my work and help others to wrestle with it too.  So that we can stop going about trying to “care for the poor” and can start working out what it means to love our neighbour!

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