Would You Give $8 To Save This Woman’s Life?

You are an American Christian deep in the heart of the slum in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. The purpose of your 5 month trip is to teach a Christian based small business curriculum with the goal of helping people start small businesses and escape the bonds of destitute poverty.

In your class is a woman is who is both a feared witch doctor and alcoholic. At the start of one of the sessions she announces that she wants to become a Christian. Because she understands the demands of the gospel, this woman publicly burns all of the “herbs and medicines” that are necessary for her profession. In a very real way she burns her livelihood–her only way to make a living.

The woman changes her name to Grace to remind her of the great change that God has wrought in her life and faithfully attends the rest of the classes. She often shares her powerful story of how God is bringing transformation to her life. In spite of all this, many of the church people are still a bit scared of her because she had wreaked a lot of havoc in their lives before she came to faith. (This is kind of like the early Christians being afraid of Paul after his radical conversion from persecutor of Christ to follower of Christ.)

Then one day the former witch doctor doesn’t show up for the class and the report is that she is sick. You and a female church leader from the denomination make your way to her house. What you see seems to come out of the “very bowels of hell.” The only food in the “shack” is some scraps covered with fleas. Grace is lying on a mat writhing in pain and can barely whisper. She had developed tonsillitis and since she is HIV positive the hospital won’t treat her. Desperate for relief she paid a neighbor to cut out her tonsils with a knife.

She will probably die of an infection without penicillin which costs $8. What would you do? Would you give $8 to save this woman’s life? The author of When Helping Hurts, Brian Fikkert, was in that exact situation and he did what you and I would do. He gladly took the money out of his pocket, handed it to the woman from the denomination who accompanied him to the house, and watched as they made their way to the closest pharmacy.

That wasn’t a hard. The right decision was rather obvious, wasn’t it? Maybe not. The person who was actually in that position thinks he did the wrong thing and probably did more harm than good. According to him, what would he do differently?

He should have asked whether he was the right person to meet this need. Were there others in the community who would have been willing and able to help? He says he should have gone back to the small business class and asked if they would help buy the medicine to save Grace’s life. Yes those people were fellow slum dwellers in extreme poverty but if the hundred people in the class would have each contributed 8 cents, they would have had enough money. That would have been a sacrifice but it would have been doable for them.

Handing over the $8 was quicker and easier but “the North American need for speed undermines the slow process needed for lasting and effective long-run development.”

Why is this important? Because what Grace needed more than anything was relationships. She needed the church community to accept her as a “sister” and this was an opportunity for them to do that. The American was leaving but Grace was staying and giving her the money short circuited the church community rallying around her.

Giving her the $8 also prevented the church in the slum, St. Luke’s, from being salt and light in it’s own community.

And what about the pastor of St. Luke’s who faithfully ministers in the community year after year. The rich American comes to the slum and provides almost a circus atmosphere before returning to his own country. Handing this woman $8 undercut this pastor’s ministry.

Brian Fikkert says that in hindsight what he wishes he’d done was walked out of Grace’s hut, alerted the Christian community to the problem, helped them come up with solutions IF they wanted his input, and then got out of there as quickly as possible. That would have been in the best long term interest of both Grace and the community.

He concludes the story with this…

“The point here is not that outside resources are always a bad idea. Indeed, North American Christians need to be giving more, not less, money to help the poor. But how that money is given and to whom it is given is crucial. We need to look for ways to give money that builds up local organizations and that truly empowers the poor. My eight-dollar gift failed to meet this standard.”

For other posts on this book see here and here.

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