My ministry to refugees was hurtful when I began 3 years ago.
Once during my earliest days as an intern on the field, I stopped by a newly settled family’s home to check in. They’d been in the States for just a couple weeks at this point, and the woman told me she needed some tomatoes. That’s what was pressing to her. She needed tomatoes. It could have been worse.
Mostly, she needed a way to get the tomatoes. She had the money, but no car. Wanting to be helpful and meet a need, I drove to the market less than a mile down the road to buy her tomatoes. She stayed home. I think I used my own money to be reimbursed by the agency, since her money was on a card and she didn’t tag along.
I chose the tomatoes, waited in line to purchase, bought them and dropped the tomatoes back off to her within 15 minutes. When I got back to the office, I thought it was strange when my supervisor told me that the woman could get her own tomatoes next time.
Ouch. I thought to myself, “But wait, I thought we were here to help? What’s wrong with buying tomatoes? She’s been through so much, surely just a few tomatoes didn’t hurt that much?”
I’ve watched other leaders serve refugee families on the field better than I did (and still do). I’ve learned from them. And one thing they all have in common: they don’t buy tomatoes for their refugee friends when it could do more harm than good.
When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert has been recommended to me by multiple people in the nonprofit sector.
It didn’t take long once I started reading to learn why this book is revered in this line of work.
When Helping Hurts defines poverty, and then lays a foundational understanding of how to alleviate poverty. The book teaches best practices for long-term poverty alleviation, restoration of human dignity, and propelling leaders into culturally relevant, long-term modules of work.
This book challenged and changed my perspective about poverty. It gave words I didn’t have to describe the hope of my work with refugees. It also gave framework for many of the practices and philosophies I have learned to practice. And yes, it showed me why buying those tomatoes that day wasn’t the best choice.
There were many points to take away from this book, but let me share the top 3.
001: we work to restore human dignity, and yes, it takes a long time.
The point of helping others is not to fix it for them. The point is to seek solutions with them.
Your role is to work together with them. They are called to participate in their own rebuilding. Why? Because there is a sweet reward in allowing someone to accomplish something on their own. We are made to work and be satisfied.
Deep down, no one really loves things to simple be done for us. Actually, we crave the satisfaction of providing for our families and accomplishing tasks ourselves. We are wired this way. This is dignifying and shows us a better way of helping others.
Because of this, there are no quick fixes. One of the stories in the book talks about a church that spent years working to get its feet on the ground in an inner city community. One of the church’s first projects was to build a house. A single house. And it took years.
But by the end of it, you know who was leading the congregation? You know who had grown into the facilitators? The people in the community – those who had originally been helped. They were now leading and working in the church body, growing as individuals and meeting unique needs in their community. It took longer, but the fruit was richer.
002: You might think you have the best idea, but look again.
What works in America won’t work in other countries. Actually, what works in your neighborhood may not work in the neighborhood you are reaching out to. It is so important to recognize the role that culture plays; it affects our entire worldview.
The most powerful thing you can do when stepping into new places is to invite your neighbor into their own rebuilding. Give a voice to the voiceless. Recognize that the very people you are helping have ideas and skills that are perfect for their situation, and the most empowering thing you can do is to point that out to them.
I cringed throughout the book as I came to face to face with my privilege. So many times.
This point is only one way that reared its ugly head. I had to confess that I don’t always have the best ideas, and it’s my responsibility to hear what my refugee neighbors have to say too. They are thinking, living, breathing individuals too. Why should I think my ideas are law? I can’t help but wonder what ideas they’d share if I gave them the voice and listened.
003: I am just as broken as the neighbor I’m helping.
Above all, I am no better than my poor, addicted neighbor.
I am broken too. I’ve got my own wild views of the world and experiences. When we learn to see ourselves on this same level as the people we are helping, it completely changes the way that we approach them. It banishes the idea of “us and them.” It gets rid of my pride to do it for, but to instead rebuild with.
Recognizing this key commonality re-centers me to focus on the heart of my work: to lead others closer into living in right relationship with God, others, self, and creation. I can supply physical needs, like tomatoes all day, but at the end of it there is a deep spiritual need within us all that can’t be satisfied by tomatoes. That’s the impact I want to have in others’ lives.
Now I understand why buying the tomatoes was not my best move.
The woman was capable of going herself. Maybe she was nervous about going to the market herself, but I did not help her overcome that fear by doing it for her.
Instead, I affirmed her mindset that she is incapable of overcoming, and too weak to adjust to life in America. Obviously, that is not what I wanted to communicate to this woman. But, now that I’ve read When Helping Hurts, I can see how I did do that.
If you are a person who wants to help other people, this is the book for you. Whether you are a pastor or missionary, social worker or teacher, or preparing for a short term trip, this is a must read.
The authors provide invaluable insight, and each page is packed with so much information. You might not agree with every principle or approach outlined, but the main point remains: we seek to restore humanity back to the broken, of which we are too.
As I read, I found it most beneficial to have my journal handy. Each chapter starts and ends with discussion questions, and as each chapter moves, different thoughts and ideas popped up. Because there was so much for me to reflect on as I read, it took longer to read; I couldn’t just fly through it.
But really, those are the best books. The books that shake our norms, and correct gaps in our thinking on a certain topic are not to be ignored. When Helping Hurts is not to be ignored because dealing with poverty cannot be ignored.
And if we’re going to step into the lives of others, helping and teaching along the way, we better have a solid foundation. I’m deeply appreciative of the painstaking efforts the authors went through to lead us through When Helping Hurts. There are lots of facts, stories and statistics, but hold tight.
This is the practical playbook we need as we seek long-term restoration for all people. I highly recommend reading this with a curious perspective about the true reality of poverty, and an open heart about the true cycle and response to helping people.