When Helping Hurts: Part 2

Several years ago a woman called the church office needing a ride home from a job interview. Thinking that I wanted to be the kind of man and pastor that helped the needy, I grabbed one of our staff and went to pick her up and return her to her apartment. As we drove she explained that she was physically handicapped (I think that she had MS) but was trying to find a job. I gave her some money to help her with groceries and invited her to church.

For the next few months I (and others) continued to try to help this woman mainly by giving her rides and money. The problem is that I was naive and she was a bit of a con artist—a bad combination. Don’t misunderstand: she was poor and handicapped. But she had learned to work the system. She ended up taking advantage of several people in the church and using the money that I gave her to buy drugs. I found out later that The Crossing wasn’t the first church that she had worked over in a similar way.

But what do you do in those kinds of situations? How do you respond to the needs of those who are financially poor? Cynically? Naively? Is there another option?

Isn’t there always a risk involved in helping others? If before I give money to the poor I have to know that I’ll never be taken advantage of and that the money will always be put to good use, then I’ll never give money. But, on the other hand, did I really help the woman I mentioned by (unknowingly) giving her money to buy drugs? Obviously not. So does generosity demand that we don’t ask hard and even uncomfortable questions?

When it comes to helping the poor do we have to choose between our heart and our head? Do we have to choose between being compassionate and foolish?

When Helping Hurts is one of the more interesting books that I’ve read in a quite a while. It manages to be balanced, theological, and practical all at the same time. Plus it’s full of thought provoking examples that defy simplistic answers.

Last week I tried to show that our definition of poverty will determine our response. This morning I’d like to cover three approaches to poverty alleviation (Chapter 4).

Relief is the urgent, temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering. Rehabilitation begins once “the bleeding stops.” It seeks to restore people and communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions. Development is the process of ongoing change that moves all people involved (“helpers” and “helped”) closer to being in a right relationship with God, self, others, and creation.

“One of the biggest mistakes that North American churches make—by far—is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”

The authors state that many people who approach you, a non-profit, or the church will claim to need emergency help to pay for rent, utilities, food, or transportation. Do they need relief?

The book gives 4 questions to help determine if relief is the appropriate response.

1. Is there really a crisis at hand? If you fail to supply immediate help will there be serious, negative consequences?
2. To what degree was the person responsible for the crisis?
3. Can the person help himself?
4. To what extent has this person received relief from others in the past?

The contention of the authors is that there are is only a small percentage of the poor in our country or around the world that need relief. These would include the severely disabled; some of the elderly; very young, orphaned children; the mentally ill homeless population; and victims of natural disasters.

Most people are not in immediate danger nor are they destitute. And acting as though they are destitute does more harm than good. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do anything to help them though. Rather it means that the appropriate response isn’t relief but rehabilitation or development. This may include “providing them with financial assistance, but such assistance would be conditional upon and supportive of them being productive.

More next week. Thanks for reading.

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