Friday, May 02, 2014

Really helping?

A question that ought to be central for anyone from the first world who works with the poor is whether we are really helping.

Do we help when we give people things?

Sometimes, yes – sometimes I wonder.

Do we help when we bring backpacks for kids with toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and a washcloth?

When a group brought these a few years ago and wanted to “teach” the children how to brush their teeth, I insisted that they do the demonstration with a salt and bicarbonate of soda paste that is easy to make and is very cheap. When we got to the first group of kids, I looked around and knew that there had to be kids who knew how to brush their teeth and so I insisted that the kids show the other kids how to do it. I don’t think this went over very well with some of the visitors.

Do we help when we use aid as ways to win people over to political or religious ideological positions?

Do people really help when a group of evangelical Christians from the US stay a week in a rural village, which is mostly Catholic, giving out clothes and goods and use the school as a place to “evangelize” the kids? Is this not another version of the “rice Christians,” a term used of Christian missionaries in China who arrived with rice to convert the starving.

A woman from a village who experienced this asked me to come to the village in June when the group will be showing up again.

How do we really help?

Do we help when we bring them together for meetings and pay their way and give them snacks and lunch?

All too many non-governmental organizations do this as part of their work.

Doe we help when we bring technologies that the people did not ask for in response to “needs” that didn’t surface from the community?

I have seen a few agricultural projects that do this, including a project to promote soy production. How many people here drink soymilk or eat soybeans?

Do we help when we come into a community and don’t take the time to listen, to hear what they have been doing, to rejoice with them in their successes?

Do we help when we come and the first question we ask is “What’s wrong here?” or “What do you need?”

Do we help when we come to share our solutions rather than listen to them?

Friday I went to Gracias, Lempira, facilitating a workshop for Caritas on Catholic Social Teaching for the Social Ministry of the Gracias parish.

The first thing we did was identify where they have been successful in their ministry. A marvelous list of their accomplishments followed. We put the papers on the front of the altar.  I identified these accomplishments as signs of the presence of the risen Christ in their communities.

Then they worked in groups to identify their dreams. The dreams were different but complimentary – a good place to live and human rights, reforestation of the water sources and organic agricultural practices, and harmony in communities and solidarity with people in need.

Then we identified difficulties.

In the afternoon, a Caritas worker led them in an exercise to identify what the Reign of God would look like in their communities. The drawings showed their hopes for a full life for themselves and their families – with a school, a health clinic, a community center, and decent roads. What each drawing contained was a large church – faith is central to their understanding of a full life.

Afterwards Simon asked them to identify what they needed to attain such a community.

Tomorrow we’ll deal with two concerns they mentioned – the need for a solid spirituality and issues about the environment.

In this type of working with the poor we in Latin America owe a lot to Paolo Freire who died on May 2, 1997, who promoted a liberating styling of education, beginning with his classic work, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He once wrote:
Authentic help means that all who are involved help each other mutually, growing together in the common effort to understand the reality which they seek to transform. Only through such praxis — in which those who help and those who are being helped help each other simultaneously — can the act of helping become free from the distortion in which the helped dominates the helped. For this reason there can be no real help between dominating and dominated classes, nor between “imperial” and so-called “dependent” societies. 
It is so easy to be a “do-gooder” if one does this from a position of power. But can we do good, working at the side of people in need, listening to them, letting them lead us in a common pursuit of a decent life for all God’s children on this earth?


Billie Greenwood said...

I loved this entry, John. These questions belong in the forefront of "helpers." Loved your workshop approach because it builds on the successes of the community.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

The approach is inspired by what is called the "appreciative inquiry" approach to working with the poor. It really affirms the people we work with and gives them a way to recognize what they have done and what they can do.

JWendt said...

Thanks John! This is a great reminder of how I need to approach "helping" the hispanic community in our town here. I keep being told by the (white) people here to do something / offer something for them - but what? Dreaming together with them about what they feel they need and what they would like to see - that's a much better idea than me trying to dream up the answer for them!
It's been so long since I was there! I'm forgetting those things, and I'm glad I can come back to this blog to remember - Thank you!

Charles said...

I strongly agree that when people come from outside a community to try to help, they need to listen and be respectful of the talents the community may have.

But I want to put in a good word for "rice Christians." There is a larger transformative process at work, one that takes ethnocentric missionaries and turns them slowly into advocates for the communities they live in, and takes communities that have often been abused and/or neglected and re-connects them with others. In the short term, it's not pretty. But God works at His own pace.

Even if no other good is done, some people are fed who would otherwise remain hungry. So, this is a case where I think the (Mark 9:40) "those who are not against us are for us" applies.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

The problem with some of these "rice Christians" is that they bring stuff that are not really major needs for the community. The community I refer to in the blog entry is isolated and poor, but not more desperately poor.

Maybe it's because it looks like a turf war, but as I see it part of the problem is that they are using "gifts" as a way to get people - including kids - into their church, in a community where there is already a Catholic community (which is a bit weak) but still exists.