Monday, June 24, 2013

Poverty and Solutions

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a breakfast meeting where Dr. Brian Fikkert, author of When Helping Hurts (economist and professor at Covenant College) was the speaker.  This is a book I read shortly after it came out in 2009, and have since recommended to many, many people who want to get involved in working in Africa or working with the materially poor.  It was great to meet and hear someone who "speaks my language" as well as be in  a room of 75 people or more who also resonate with the message he presented.  One attendee told me that he "found himself on the edge of tears for most of the presentation - a sort of shame, mixed with longing."  Shame mixed with longing - what a great phrase.  That certainly resonates with me.

Are these children poor?
The message of Dr. Fikkert that morning (as well as in the book) is to help us redefine how we view poverty and ultimately our response to poverty or solutions to alleviate such.  He stated that North Americans tend to define poverty as material, whereas the poor define poverty in psycho-social terms (shame, hopelessness, fear).  He points out that material poverty is only a symptom of the real problem.  Bryant Myers's (author of Walking with the Poor) definition of poverty is,
“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable. Poverty is the absence of shalom in all its meanings.” 
It's interesting to think through the idea that poverty is a result of broken relationships - with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.

Dr. Fikkert made the interesting suggestion that Republicans tend to view poverty in terms of individual brokenness ("that person is just lazy" or "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps"); Democrats tend to define poverty in terms of broken systems (economic, political, social environmental).  While I'm sure that these are generalizations that have many exceptions, there is a ring of truth to it, and BOTH individuals and systems need to be addressed.

Is this a poor church?
He went on to suggest that in order to come up with solutions to poverty, we need to look closely at the four foundations of community where we find our primary relationships, which are God, self, others, and the rest of creation.  He then contrasts how the wealthy (which he defined as mainstream America for this example) are viewed in terms of these four concepts, as well as those in poverty.  For the view of God, the wealthy tend toward Nihilism, or the denial of God's existence.  For the view of self, there is a poverty of being, where the wealthy tend toward having a god-complex in that they are not dependent or needy of anyone, but can be anything and handle all things on their own.  For the poor, the view of self is caught up in a marred identity of being"less than".  For the view of others, there is a poverty of community, where the wealthy tend towards being workaholics and the poor tend toward a predator/prey mentality, in which the poor tend to be the prey for the wealthy.  Fikkert points out that being a workaholic is the opposite sin to being lazy - however, society tends to reward the former and penalize the latter.  The last relationship is toward the rest of creation, or the poverty of stewardship.  The wealthy tend toward being self-centered, where the poor tend to have a zero sum approach, believing that the pie of wealth is only so big, and they just aren't going to get a piece. 

Dr. Fikkert then challenged us by saying that until we view ourselves as poor (because we are involved in broken relationships), we will only hurt ourselves and others if we try to address poverty from any other mindset.  In his mind the formula for harm towards the materially poor AND non-poor is this:
Material definition of poverty + god-complex of the non-poor + inferiority complex of the materially poor = Harm to materially poor and non-poor.

Is this business owner poor?
He gave the example of the well-meaning church that gives out turkeys to the materially poor each Thanksgiving and toys to the children of the materially poor each Christmas. After doing this for several years, the church members begin to think about how little they have seen changed since starting this gifting.  The same people are still poor.  There are no changes.  And they begin to think that the church is doing so much - what are these people doing?  Sitting back and waiting for gifts?  And an attitude may begin to develop.  Meanwhile, the materially poor find themselves feeling humiliated for not being able to provide food or toys for their children.  Men are leaving through the back door while the well-meaning church members come through the front to deliver gifts that the parents are not able to provide - inferiority complexes begin to develop.  The materially poor begin to depend or rely on the church to take care of some of these needs, self-esteem in terms of ability may begin to suffer, and dependency may begin to develop.

What is the point of all this for me and my work?  The first step toward poverty alleviation, according to Dr. Fikkert, is repentance.  This is an unusual statement - we don't tend to start there in terms of addressing poverty.  If poverty is primarily about broken relationships, then poverty alleviation needs to focus on the reconciliation of those relationships.  The first step in reconciliation is the need for repentance of the sin of superiority by the materially non-poor as well as repentance of the disproportionate emphasis on the material understanding of the world.

Much of my work involves addressing the materially poor.  And much of my work is often hand in hand with those who are the materially non-poor in doing this work.  The tension of how to address poverty is one that is near and dear to my heart.  I have definitely developed some opinions about what works and doesn't.  As I work on my MBA in Sustainable Development, I am looking closely at economic matters as it relates to poverty alleviation and the role of aid to Africa over the years.   This week I will be writing a paper on whether or not the idea of "Africa Rising" and becoming an economic power in twenty years is a legitimate claim.

This concept matters.  It matters a lot.  We must think this through, process it, and not rush into help without considering whether we will be hurting instead of helping.  And we must remember that it is not only the poor who may be hurt in the attempt to help, but the non-poor as well.  It does not mean that we freeze and give up.  No.  We are called upon to strive to find workable solutions that reflect the reconciling heart of Christ.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Summer Blog Schedule

As you know, since Bob's death I have been writing the blog pretty regularly on a weekly basis.  Both he and I viewed this as a journal of sorts for staying in touch with family and friends as we embarked on this adventure of being "Reeds in the Wind."  When I am back in the US, and among family and friends, the need to journal decreases somewhat, as do the interesting stories and pictures - no offense to my US family and friends :-). 

The work, however, does continue and seems to be picking up some interesting nuances which I am still processing, so I will continue to blog but will probably do so every other week instead of every week.

So just this brief message today, along with this delightful picture that Ron Irvine posted on Facebook.  It made me smile.

Monday, June 10, 2013

God as Conductor

Have you ever had an experience that suddenly shed light on something that you already thought you understood?  This light helps you understand in a much deeper way?  Much of my spiritual life has been like that.  Almost every time I go on a silent retreat, something is revealed to me that I thought I knew, only to discover I didn't know it all; or to be more accurate, my brain knew the concept but my heart had remained in the dark.  It often remains very private - between God and I - not because it is private in nature, but because it is very difficult to explain, especially if it is a well-known term or concept, like forgiveness, grace, God being our Father,and other like terms. 

So I thought I would share one of the concepts in my own "weak way" (as a Liberia pastor and friend used to put it).  I know others have described this particular concept similarly before so I'm not claiming anything profound; just a truth that suddenly impacted me, especially in light of my work - a concept that I probably should have gotten years ago.

There is a worship song that refers to us playing for an Audience of One.  It is a term that I have heard referenced in various contexts over the years.  It has been used to make sure that we are not seeking to please an audience of people, but to keep our eyes and attention focused on pleasing only God.  This phrase runs through my brain periodically as I work against seeking the praise and approval of man.

However, as I reflected on 2 Corinthians 5:9, "So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it,"  it struck me that the term is incorrect, even though I appreciate the concept.  Audience is much to passive of a role for God.  It assigns Him the role described by many as the "watch-maker," a God who is sitting back and not involved.  Additionally, it gives me too much power, implying that I am alone on the stage, performing only for Him, without my performance having an impact on others.  He is not my primary audience and I am not a lone performer.

Rather, He is my conductor and I am only one person of many, many people in the orchestra.  My role is still important because if I decided to become impatient and start playing before the conductor indicates, it will not go over well.  If I decide the conductor is playing the piece too slow or too fast, and want to set my own pace, the music becomes noise.  If I want to rest or play my own notes or in any way do my own thing, it screws up what could be a very beautiful piece of music.  In the end, it makes God look bad as well as the rest of the orchestra.

And the audience will be turned off and probably won't want to listen again.

It is so important that I keep my eyes focused on the Conductor.  If I take my eyes off, I will very quickly be able to miss my cue and screw things up.

The work that I am doing in Kenya is unique.  For many people, Business as Mission is not a familiar concept.  Marketplace Ministries in churches is not something that can be easily found, as far as I am aware.  I have not yet found others who have developed a strategy for reclaiming the redeemed Marketplace at a city-wide or even national basis.  There can be a sense of being alone on a stage, striving to play for an Audience of One.  But it is important that I remember that I am not alone on a stage, performing; rather I am part of a greater orchestra that is operating worldwide to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.  I need to pay very close attention to the Conductor - He knows the music that may be new to me.  I need to sense His rhythm, His movement, His cues to other members or sections of the orchestra; I need to rest when the Conductor calls for it, to wait for His section to join in. 

What a great comfort to be part of a larger orchestra and to be able to have full trust in the Conductor.  My role is to keep my eyes focused on Him.

Hebrews 12:2 says,  "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith..."


I am happy to be back in Grand Rapids, amongst family, friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ.  I thank God for traveling mercies, as well as the chance to connect with many other players in this grand orchestra in North America!

Monday, June 3, 2013

3rd Commissioning...and Going Home

Commissioning Prayer
Yesterday, Sunday, June 2, found us in the third commissioning service with 44 business graduates at the Friends (Quakers) Church of Kitale.  This was the site of the pilot project, and these business owners received the full 36 hour training, as well as other components of Marketplace Ministry.  I have to say that I have never had a class work as hard as this one at getting all their homework assignments in and requesting review and make-up classes.  It was such a great class and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know many of them.  There are a number of strong business owners in the group and I believe they will do well with the new knowledge they have obtained.  They also have deeply grasped the idea of being Marketplace Ministers and have spent the last month praying for their business neighbors.  We continue to hear exciting stories of how the Holy Spirit is working through those prayers.

Kitale Friends Graduating Class
With the last of the trainings and services behind me, I will now be returning to Grand Rapids to spend the summer with my children, meet friends and family again, and work on a number of things relating to ICM and the ongoing work in Kenya.  Last night (Sunday), I boarded a bus for Nairobi and drove through the night in order to make my flight to Grand Rapids on Monday evening.  I will arrive home on Tuesday evening.  I have arranged with ICM to work from Michigan during the summer when my children are home from college.  They have been out of Calvin for about two weeks now and I look forward to joining them again.  I will return to Kenya at the beginning of September.

There are a few tasks before me this summer.  I need to do some serious fundraising as my funds for this ministry are very, very low, such that I am unsure of receiving my salary in June and have not been reimbursed for about two months of ministry expenses..  There is a lot of interest in this work and the impact that it is having, and that needs to translate into financial support as well to allow it to go forward.  So I will spend time speaking to churches and individuals who may have interest in this work to see if they are willing to join it.  This is not my favorite thing to do, but a necessary component, which keeps me cognizant of how the body of Christ works together.
A dear sister in Christ, Teresa, had this dress sewn for me - I was spoiled with gifts by the students.
I am also happy to announce that I have been appointed as a partner missionary with the Christian Reformed World Missions.  I will attend their orientation in July and will begin working more closely with them.  This is also helpful in terms of support, as many of my supporters are Christian Reformed and like being able to give through the CRCNA.  There is a lot of synergy between CRWM and the work of ICM.

I also started working on my Masters in Business Administration in Sustainable Development and have been taking classes, with lots of readings and paper writing.  I hope to work hard in these classes this summer, and gain more knowledge and education to apply to the development work that I have already been doing.

Selina's maize farm...can't argue with the view!
Additionally, there is work to be done on the trainings that I have created, with opportunities to get them online for a wider range of access.  There will be some traveling this summer, but nothing outside of North America.

One event I'm looking forward to is Dr. Walker (founder and head of ICM USA) and Rev. Stephen Mairori (International Director of ICM, Kenya Country Director of ICM) will be coming to Grand Rapids to speak at Madison Square Church on Sunday, August 4 during the evening service and then having a chance to share about our work with ICM after the service with dessert.  Hope you will be able to join us!