Sunday, May 25, 2014

When Helping Hurts

I'm sure most of you have heard the old adage "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime." This saying deals with the issue of short-term (immediate) help versus long-term (permanent) help. Living in a world and society that faces poverty in every corner, we must become more creative and careful than ever in order to effectively help people who are struggling economically.

In Ecuador, I lived in a rural town where economic poverty abounded. Although I cannot say that I have ever actually lived in poverty myself, I experienced it firsthand in my community and realized quickly that I had little power or resources to overcome it. So I invested my energy into developing relationships with people, loving them for who they are, and trying to be a genuine neighbor.

Now I am working with an organization in Alabama that directly addresses the issue of rural poverty through home repair. We work with families who have very limited incomes and connections. This creates extreme challenges in their ability to provide what we would consider "basic" needs to their family. Hospital bills, rent, and putting food on the table easily suck up their monthly check so that there is no money left to fix leaks or send children to college.

So, I have experienced both sides of the problem: being inside the community where people are struggling, and coming from the outside to try to help. The more I interact with families we serve here at ARM, and the more I see their living situations, the more the wheels start turning about the root causes of poverty and how we can solve the larger issue. Because really, giving people money or patching their roof is great, but it doesn't help them become financially independent or stable.  When the next big rain comes and blows away some part of their home, they will be back at our door asking for help again. The goal should be self-sufficiency.

How can we keep from creating dependency? By providing job training, drug rehabilitation, and pregnancy and childcare classes. I strongly believe that by teaching adults life skills and training them to have successful careers, we can prevent much of the poverty that is happening in the U.S. and abroad. That is why part of ARM's vision is to develop relationships with the home-owners, in order to empower them to improve their own situation (we also refer people to other social service agencies).

I am currently reading a book called When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. In it the authors address how sometimes our well-intended ideas of "missions" or "service" such as giving families food or gifts at Christmas, can actually harm people. We are also discussing this issue intensely in our summer training sessions for ARM's summer mission camps. So you can look forward to more reflections on this concept in the future!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Stuck in the Middle

 These days I often find myself stuck in the middle. In between two extremes, not wanting either to pull me completely to their side. Because if they did, I'd feel like I was betraying a part of myself. I don't want to be defined by someone's made-up labels telling me what I should believe. I feel like the man in this comic, "sitting on the fence."

I am stuck between Ecuadorian and American traditions and lifestyles.
I am stuck between liberal and conservative beliefs about how our government should contribute to social and economic issues.
I am stuck between experiencing God through contemporary versus traditional worship services.
I am stuck between an intentionally simplistic lifestyle and an inherited middle-class wealth.
I am stuck between wanting to help people, and wanting to empower them to help themselves.

I am stuck between two worlds, left wondering how I can live honoring both cultures, being true to my beliefs and values, while also respecting people who believe the opposite from me. How do I get the "best of both worlds" and at the same time not leave myself isolated from the culture I'm living in? The truth is, not matter where I am geographically now, I will never truly fit into one culture the same way I did before.

Being in Ecuador changed me. The Becky who left the United States in 2012 is not the same Becky who returned in 2014. I am realizing this more and more as I begin living in my own culture after so long away from it. No matter how much I may wish to go back to the person I used to be, I will never achieve it. And ultimately, I don't want that. I don't want the naivety, the sheltered contentment that I had as the young, college-aged version of me. What I want is to use what I have learned through my experiences, both abroad and at home. To be able to act on the convictions I developed, to interact with my community and surroundings differently because of the way I see the world.

At this point in my life, so many experiences have shaped me. I have been in groups of people where I am the most extreme (on both ends). I lived in Costa Rica with a group of passionate evangelical Christians who were trying their best to spread God's word and love to the world. I am now a part of a group of on-fire young adults focused on social justice issues and how to bring God's kingdom to earth through holistic ministry. Both of these communities brought me life and challenged me in different ways. I also have struggled with identifying with some individuals in all of the places I have lived (Indiana, Michigan, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and now Alabama). 

So I guess the answer to my question is this: it's okay to not choose sides. I don't have to put myself in a box to fit the expectations of society, government, or modern culture. I am who I am, and God created me that way. I am a unique person, and although I may be "stuck in the middle", that's an okay place to be when I know where I stand. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

View from behind: Cycle of Service

This past weekend I had the opportunity to be a part of the support crew for Alabama Rural Ministry's annual Cycle of Service, a 3-day, 300 mile bike ride across the state of Alabama. The hard-core cyclists ride 100 miles a day, traveling back roads to highways from the Georgia to Mississippi state lines. And the best part is, the ride raised money for our home repair ministry, to end the "cycle of poverty" in Alabama.

Being new to the organization, and not a trained distance cyclist, I opted for the chauffeur option instead of biking. Although not pedaling across the state, I still witnessed some eye-opening things over the course of our 3 days.

During the first day of riding, with me chugging along behind the bicycles at 15 miles per hour in the car, (flashers on, pulling over constantly to let cars by me) I saw some beautiful sights. Alabama is filled with a variety of trees, open spaces, and quaint country roads. The drive was a pleasant and scenic one, despite the countless hills (which were more of an issue for the riders than me!).

I also saw some heart-wrenching, emotional things. Almost to the Georgia line we passed by Crawford, a rural area that was hit hard by the recent tornado. Never before had I seen firsthand the homes totally wrecked by the sudden and severe attacks. It was shocking. What had once been a sturdy, safe dwelling was now a pile of rumble, its previous inhabitants wandering around not knowing what to do next. But there is hope. Thanks to the American Red Cross, the local United Methodist Church, and other disaster relief organizations, people were already receiving donations of food and clothing, and efforts were being made to find the victims temporary housing.

In light of these two observations, I began to think about the extreme disparity between the rich and poor, even here in the United States, in my own backyard. We passed a myriad of huge farmhouses surrounded by tens of acres of land, where just across the road would be a run-down shack or trailer. Why this inequality? How could these two families live in the same neighborhood under such different circumstances? This is an issue that I will be exploring more in-depth both at my work with Alabama Rural Ministry and personally, as I adjust once again to living in the U.S. and the privilege that comes with my middle class status.

Throughout the weekend, I was continually amazed and inspired by the strength of the 11 riders. I love riding my bicycle for fun, but had never even dreamed of going 100 miles in a single day! These individuals exhibited such endurance. I hardly ever heard them complain, and although I could see by the sweat, sore muscles, and cramps that it was a challenge, they persevered to the end.

For part of the ride, I got to chat with one of the riders, who due to her asthma and other health conditions, had to ride with me in the car for a while. I very much enjoyed the company, and quickly found a friend in this young spirited pastor. We discussed theology and poverty theory, shared ideas on how to be honest and real with youth about sexuality, and compared college experiences.

To top off this incredible three-day journey, our last day ended with a miraculous financial provision. Lisa, our director, had been told a week ago by one of our homeowners that we would receive a financial blessing from God. At the time she did not know what to think of this - prophecy, encouragement, call it what you will. The purpose of this entire bike ride had been to fund raise for our home repair ministry. The goal for donations was $25,000, and by the end of the three days, after adding up all the riders' sponsors and other donations, we had raised a substantial amount but nowhere close to the target amount. After finishing the ride, we were splayed out in the grass in front of a church, when one of the riders gave Lisa an envelope. She opened it to find two checks from a local church, totaling $25,000! What an incredible way for God to show his faithfulness. We indeed received the financial blessing, but even more so, an increase in faith and trust in Him.

Overall, this weekend was both a learning experience and lots of fun. Thanks to all the riders for being so incredible!