Being Overwhelmed With Circumstances

Normal is what we’re used to.  When things are going worse than normal, we complain.  At least, I complain.  But when faced with those less fortunate, it readjusts our thinking of what normal really is and makes us give pause before complaining.

I took the following two pictures on the same day, March 18th.  One in the morning, one in the afternoon.  Both define "normal," but for different people.  One is downtown Port-au Prince.  The other downtown Miami.



Some of the emotions I felt in Haiti are hard to describe.  Seeing a picture doesn’t capture the feeling.  Like the difference between getting shot at in real life and watching Band of Brothers while downing pop and chips.

When I tell people about Haiti, I give them highlights from my trip, because there isn’t time to recount everything.  But telling the highlights, the quick story, seems to cheapen the feelings somehow. 

Yesterday (Sunday), I spent several hours with a friend who shared with me in depth about a major experience he is currently going through.  This situation was a positive one for him, and he is excited about it, but it has also been an emotional roller coaster.  He told me he’s been overcome with feelings and wept freely in a way he never has before.  His wife, who’s known him for years, has never seen him affected like this.  In fact, we both got choked up as he told me about what all’s going on. 

My friends’ story was inspiring, touching, and I felt privileged to be one of the first people he told.  I won’t say more, because I don’t want to steal his thunder.  But my point is this, I know in the future a lot of people will ask him for his story, and I wonder if it’s going to be hard for him?  Hard to share something so personal over and over in a nonchalant, conversational way?  There are things that take time and a personal context to share.  And maybe some things we don’t even want to share, too personal to share.  Things we would prefer "treasuring in our hearts."

While some are rejoicing (like my friend), others are mourning. 

Yesterday, Emily Milroy wrote a post describing some deep, core-shaking experiences she’s just come through this past month in her visit to Asia.  She was brought face to face with desperate circumstances in an orphanage for mentally handicapped children, and is still reeling.  Honestly, what could be worse than children in abject circumstances, not loved, physically ill, and mentally ill besides?  It’s too much to take in:

I thought it would be Africa where I would hold a child moaning out because they were starving to death, but it was in C****…children living in a place where there is an 86% mortality rate, where [children] get 2 meals a day, and each meal 4 bowls of food to split among 14 children.

Where when you feed them you have to guard the food because the kids that can walk will come up and grab handfuls out of the bowl…where children eat other children’s throw up, poop off the ground, and sleep on a piece of wood with no mattress tangled up with two other children because there is not enough space…

Where their little arms and legs are so skinny and they are so incredibly malnourished you can barely make sense of what is in front of you. Where there are not real diapers but a stretchy string around their waist with a diaper material or just any plastic tucked into it as a diaper.

For the first time in my life struggling to pray for healing over a child… instead please Jesus just take them to be with you because the moaning coming from them because they are hurting is too much….

My teammates had a baby pass away they named Jude and struggled with his death but also knowing now this little one wont suffer starvation. The death of a baby who received no proper funeral service and no mother or father brother or sister to care…  the emotions of watching that happen are just impossible to type out.

…my world was completely changed… my heart completely broken.

I broke down crying sometimes looking at the food I was eating for dinner and the rights I felt that I had to eat whatever I wanted (in not liking the spicy food is what I am talking about) because I thought of those little children. Sure I may not have liked it but it was food and I should be more grateful. So the rest of the month I may not have liked the food in C**** but I never complained again and I was so grateful that God provided it.

The feeling of wanting to help so badly, seeing the forgotten children and people in this place, seeing pain like I have never seen before…not knowing what to think of it all and feeling like I wasn’t doing enough… learning that through it all God is still God. So much of my human thinking needed to be abandoned to not get overwhelmed and run away from things I didn’t understand, things that in a month I could not change. In many ways I had to abandon my past ways of thinking… (source)

Sometimes the breakers of life hit us, and we’re overwhelmed.  The friend I mentioned earlier was overwhelmed, in a good way.  Emily was overwhelmed, in a frightening way.  Both of them cried.  Life was too much to process.  Their emotions couldn’t cope with the circumstances. 

But I think it’s in these times we gain new perspectives, new appreciation for life, new awareness of God, and new resolve to fight for the future.

When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty

Introduction (and all that implies)

When Helping Hurts: Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself by Steve Corbett and John Perkins. I heard of this book through a required reading list of a certain Missions organization, purchased it, and recently finished it. 

Though written from a Biblical perspective, the highlights I took away were rooted more in common sense. I don’t mean that negatively, because I did feel this book added an important piece to the overall puzzle of life I’m slowly piecing together.

The following 5 points aren’t necessarily 5 points from the book, just the 5 points of this post (disclaimer). Since I’m currently reading Total Church, the wires are crossed in my brain between these two books.

Main Point 1 (poverty defined)

The first epiphany uncovered was that we (the rich) tend to define poverty in terms of lack of material goods, whereas the poor themselves (when asked to define poverty) do so more in terms of a poverty of “being." In other words: feeling inferior, trapped, humiliated, deprived of opportunities to make significant decisions with their lives – in short, having a lack of dignity.

Following these lines of thought, the author shows how when materially rich people try helping materially poor people through giving handouts, it only exacerbates the problem because of reasons including the following:

  1. Giving handouts makes the receiver a "charity case," and thus can be interpreted as condescending. This would result in the recipient feeling less dignity and, consequently, more impoverished.
  2. It subtly reinforces the “God-complex” of the donor, further widening perceived relational barriers and setting up a benefactor/client relationship instead of an "everyone created with equal worth and dignity" relationship.

At a more personal level, this anecdote from Total Church:

Mrs. Jones, a mother who has lived in poverty all her life, described the experience of poverty like this: “In part it is about having no money, but there is more to poverty than that.  It is about being isolated, unsupported, uneducated and unwanted.  Poor people want to be included and not just judged and ‘rescued’ at times of crisis.”  (pg. 79)

Main Point 2 (serving others vs. cash handouts)

This may sound like splitting hairs, but instead of asking, "How can I help?" perhaps it would be better to ask, "How can I serve?" The difference may be subtle, but serving can give dignity, whereas receiving charity often requires humility on the part of the receiver.

An example showing how serving can enhance dignity, think about how honored you would feel if someone thought so highly of you they offered to willingly be your servant, free of charge! What an ego boost that would be. And this type of serving is something Jesus did for people during his time here on earth. Jesus even said as much, "For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).

An example showing how receiving charity requires humility, think about how much humility even receiving God’s gift of salvation requires. Indeed, I speculate this is why most refuse, because it requires their acknowledgment of having a need for a Savior and Lord.  The first step into God’s Kingdom is to become, “Poor in Spirit” (Matthew 5:3).

Main Point 3 (cash handouts OK sometimes)

The point above segues to the following: there IS a time when handouts are appropriate.  As just mentioned, God extends to us the most amazing handout imaginable. Other examples we’re familiar with include times directly after a natural disaster (when a situation is still in the Relief phase) and caring for the very young, very old, and physically/mentally infirm.

Unfortunately, far too often we (well intentioned individuals/organizations) continue in the Relief response long after the situation calls for a Reconstruction response. Reconstruction helps regain pre-disaster conditions via empowering individuals to help themselves.

The final stage is Development.  Ideally this stage is entirely directed, led, and operated by the individual(s) originally needing help. Helping others help themselves is what promotes dignity (the whole, "teach a guy to fish," instead of "giving a guy a fish" concept, yadda yadda).

Main Point 4 (relationships more important than projects)

When Helping Hurts gets into the nitty gritty of Relief vs. Reconstruciton vs. Development and all that entails.  It was quite fascinating, but Tim Chester and Steve Timmis from Total Church get to the heart of the issue and provide real insight here:

…a central theme of the literature on development is the importance of participation.  As a result the development community has created … a collection of methodologies to facilitate community participation… but when development professionals talk about participation, they mean participation in projects.  It is all about working with the poor to identify their problems, to develop solutions, to monitor progress, to evaluate outcomes.  But the poor need more than that… they want to participate in community.  A woman told me, “I know people do a lot to help me.  But what I want is someone to be my friend.”  People do not want to be projects.  The poor need… community.  They need the Christian community.  They need the church.

Main Point 5 (rethinking assessments)

One last insight from the book When Helping Hurts, which I hadn’t thought of before, was the importance of going into a situation providing ASSETS assessments instead of (or at least before) providing NEEDS assessments.

When we approach people by asking what’s wrong with them, it immediately sets us up as “expert” and them as “helpless waifs” needing our rescuing. This reinforces negative poverty mindsets.

When I volunteered with our local Red Cross, I performed many Needs assessments. In retrospect, I see how this one bit of advice could save the Red Cross a lot of money. For instance, we frequently put people up in hotels after their house had caught fire when they probably had family or friends who could have housed them (we did at least check with their home insurance first).

Conclusion (wrapping up loose ends)

At the end of the day, the authors of When Helping Hurts feel that in order to rehabilitate an impoverished people group (or solitary individual), there is no "fast-food" answer. Rather, it involves getting in the trenches, helping them see their own worth, their own assets, and inspiring them forward.

Additionally, long-term solutions are only realized when the spiritual component is considered.  Being reconciled with God is the most important factor for long term success, in my opinion.  Only God can give true freedom.  And we can never grasp our priceless worth until we understand the priceless amount Jesus paid for us.