Supporting Missions Well: The Changing Definition of “Helping”

I’m continuing on this week with a few more posts in the series of how to support missions well. The whole hope of these posts is to open the door for conversation. Or, even just to get us all thinking about what missions looks like today, no matter whether you fall on the side of being the missionary in the field, or whether you’re a supporter of missions in general or a specific missionary or missionary family.

In the past week we’ve looked at Calling, Grief and Defining Home, Raising Support and “Going”, Being A Good Support, Care and Expectations and Where the Money Goes.

Today we’re going to take a little side trip and talk about the actual “mission” part of things.

For many of us, our whole purpose of being involved in missions in any way, whether we’re the ones “going” or we’re the ones “sending” is that we want to help people. We want to help with physical needs. We want to help with emotional needs. We want to help with spiritual needs.

What happens though when our definition of “helping” and what is really most helpful when we get into the field aren’t the same things?

What if our definition of “helping” can actually lead to doing long term damage to those we’ve intended to serve?

How do we process through those things and adjust our sails?

I think if you took the time to ask a missionary if their definition of helping has changed since they’ve gone into the field, especially those who have served for several years, you would get “yes” as an answer. At some point most of us have had to come face to face with what we perceived as helpful and realize that maybe we needed to change our definition a bit. Or, a lot.

Coming from North America, or any developed country (I’ve gotten to meet a variety of people from various places in Europe who have shared the same insights) it is natural to think that we have the “right” way of doing things, that our methodology is supreme and that we can find solutions to the worlds problems. We have access to so much, at any time that we want it, so we expect solutions to come quickly and problems to be resolved in a short period of time if we only provide the resources. Generally speaking we live in material wealth, whether it’s personally, or as a nation. We might believe that our form of government should be modeled and that the social resources we have should be the norm world wide. Think schools, medical facilities, government resources, etc. Coming from the Church perspective, it’s normal for us to think that we have things figured out and that our methods of evangelism and teaching are spot on.

Coming from this mindset, with so much of it being deeply ingrained to the point that we aren’t even aware of it, can cause a huge culture shock when a missionary starts working in the field. Time and time again I’ve personally been challenged through my experiences here in Haiti to step back and reassess what I’ve believe to be the “right” way, and admit that maybe I wasn’t as smart as I thought or that there was maybe a different way of doing things.

I’m going to share a bunch of Haiti specific examples here, but I’m hoping that you’ll understand that on a general level you could change the country and the characters and closely substitute context and probably end up in a similar place if talking to missionaries serving in other parts of the world.

Here we go!

My home culture in Canada has taught me that there are systems and order to doing things like applying for documents and taking care of business. Because those systems are in place things are very “service oriented” whereby I can go in to a particular office, stand in line and when it’s my turn, expect to receive a certain level of service from the person helping me. If I don’t believe that I’ve received that level of service, there is a manager or superior that I can file a complaint with. If it’s a transaction where the goods that I purchased are not up to par, broken or in the end just aren’t what I want, I can return them for a refund. Basically, this whole cultural system exists on a basis of providing service. In Haiti, it’s been a very slow process and one that is still developing to receive customer service. In many cases, simply expecting to be treated a certain way or that one will receive a certain level of customer satisfaction is pretty much where it stops, and can actually cause problems because it changes the way we go into and interact in any given situation. Customer service places me in the position of expecting respect and assistance.

In Haiti everything is relational. Coming from a culture where customer service is an expectation paired with the access to anything I want at almost any time of the day gives me the false sense of importance. Time and time again I’ve rushed into situations, whether it’s running errands, or asking for help. And time and time again I’ve had reminders that there is a different process here and unless I’m willing to step back from what I know and readjust, I’m not going to accomplish much.

In almost any given situation there is a social protocol to follow. You go into the situation and greet everyone there. This may involve just saying hello, but in many cases means shaking hands and cheek kissing when necessary. Then you ask how people are doing. If you haven’t seen them in a while you ask how their family are doing. Not doing so is rude. You chat for a few minutes, or 15, before you get around to talking about any business. This might be a bit different if you’re just going into a store situation where you’re buying goods. If you’re in a store and need help, being demanding on any level here – no matter how justified – will probably see fewer results than if you take a few minutes to be polite and kind and act like the person helping you is doing you a great favor by giving you their time. Even after all these years I sometimes forget to account for the social time when running errands, while at other times I plan for it because I want to make sure I have a few minutes to chat with the cashier at the grocery store.

One time I was getting ready to leave a touristy spot that had a nursery/bakery on site, and since we had arrived really early they had put out new items since I got there, and I ran in to quickly ask about a plant I saw in the window. I ran in , asked the man at the counter what it was and how much. You know what he did? He smiled a big smile and said, “Good morning madame, how are you?” I didn’t hear him clearly because I was so focused on the plant and my questions, but he graciously made eye contact with me, and again asked me how I was doing. I stopped dead in my tracks, exhaled and apologized for my hurry and took a moment to chat with him. In the end I got all of the information I wanted, but I was reminded that I wasn’t in Canada and that I needed to take those few seconds to be social.

You might wonder what this has to do with a changing definition of “helping”. It has everything to do with it. If we don’t take the time to recognize what is important in the culture that we’re there to serve, we will only get so far before doors and opportunities close in front of us. If we don’t take the time to be socially gracious where expected it might mean a government official choosing not to help us, even if that is their job. It might mean that one person feeling offended cut a whole group of people off from receiving the assistance they need. That said, we always have to weigh social custom with what is right and ethical. If it’s a situation of ethics, we might have to find another way to accomplish something.

Coming from a culture of material wealth where we have the funding to “fix” almost every problem if we chose to can lead to expectations in another country. Haiti has been a huge recipient of aid over the years, and a large percentage of it has done a lot of damage. It’s been given with the expectations that money and stuff can fix a problem that might have very deep roots. Bringing in bags of shoes for kids that seem to not have shoes might only put a band-aid on a much bigger problem. Why can’t their parents afford to buy them shoes in the first place? Is it more effective to meet what seems like an immediate need, when maybe focusing on the bigger issue of employment would be a better solution and a better investment of funding? What if there isn’t a cultural expectation that kids wear shoes every second of the day in the first place? If I look at that little boy with no shoes, am I seeing a problem or am I seeing a problem that would be a problem in my own culture because kids are expected to wear shoes every second of the day outside their home. We see that as a sign of being provided for. What if the very act of bringing in gifts of shoes cuts hurts the economic cycle because there are people selling shoes in the market that are reliant on those sales to feed their own children.

The greater issue here is being able to step back and admit that our limited understanding is just that – limited. What we see on the surface might only be a snapshot of the greater picture. Going back to the shoe example (and please know it’s just an example and not me pointing at anyone or any organization in particular) maybe the child does have shoes, but they’re saved for going to school, church and other more special things. Mom doesn’t want him to ruin them by running down to the river to get water and potentially getting them muddy or wet in the same way that I would put aside certain clothes or shoes for my kids.

The bottom line is that unless we spend time in a culture and are intentional about learning, we will only ever be able to see the surface and that surface picture will limit our idea of what “helping” should look like. If you talk to any long term missionary in Haiti and ask them what they know now that they didn’t know when they first arrived most will probably say that they know less now that they did when they first arrived. You see, we’ve all learned what we thought we knew, and can now admit that maybe we didn’t know as much as we thought we did in the first place. Cultures are very different, and what might work at home probably won’t work in the field.

I’m sharing this so that you can work at having reasonable expectations of what you think a missionary or organization should accomplish. Do you know that many organizations feel that they’re under a lot of pressure to provide results so they don’t lose donors, even when they know that a slower pace would be better for everyone involved?

Think about that for a second.

An organization that feels they need to provide some sort of measurable results to their donors may be doing more damage than good. It might look like any one of these things, or none of them:

  • A visitor comes to the mission on a missions trip and feels a special burden, so they go home and contact the organization about making a donation to start a specific project. What if that project doesn’t really line up with the overall mission purpose? What if the logistics of starting that project cause more financial strain on the organization? What if the very project causes more dependence on the organization when the organization is diligently working to create independence?
  • Donors may expect that simply giving means a problem can be solved quickly. If it’s a case of buying a certain piece of equipment that may be the case, but then again maybe that item isn’t in stock and it needs to be shipped in or it involves doing a lot of leg work to have it delivered, installed, etc. Maybe implementing a program means going very slowly so that the right people who can take on leadership roles can be located and trained, and that relationships can be properly built within the community or group that will benefit.
  • What about community involvement? While it might feel like we can offer all kinds of solutions and answers, sometimes the main reason that assistance doesn’t solve a problem is because the community or those directly involved don’t have any investment in the solution. Maybe they feel like what is important to the organization isn’t what is really important to them. Maybe they feel like they’re having a technology forced on them when they would really have a much simpler option that they’re familiar with. Maybe the solution doesn’t line up with cultural values. Maybe by not having direct investment in the solution, the community doesn’t feel any sense of obligation to maintain it or actually use it, wasting donor funding. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen community projects abandoned because of all these reasons.
  • Perhaps the solution to the perceived problem really isn’t the best option for that situation. While there are a variety of water treatment solutions and options, they aren’t all the best option for Haiti. Maybe they’re a good solution for other countries, but we need to work in a case by case basis in these situations. Does it require resources like power that might be irregular or limited? What about maintenance? Can a person with limited education understand how to use and look after this particular thing? Do they have ongoing expenses for replacement parts in order to continue using this item? Where do they get these consumables? What about user friendliness? Will it actually provide what they need in a way that will make them want to continue using it, or will it just be frustrating so they feel like it’s not worth their time or it’s more work than other options?

Most of the frustrations that we as missionaries encounter (and I think aid and development workers in general) stem from trying to push developed nation ideas and ideals into and onto situations that aren’t at the same level. The cultural differences are too vast. The resources and infrastructure aren’t there. Maybe it’s just not the right solution for that particular setting. We all have to recognize that we’re coming from the outside and we need to place ourselves in the position of the learner.

Chris and I have been here in Haiti for 12 and 8 years respectively. We are still daily required to place ourselves in the position of the learner because there is so much we don’t know. It’s not that we don’t have good ideas and good intentions, it’s they might not be the best solutions for Haiti for any variety of reasons. Maybe it goes against culture. Maybe there needs to be education done before the people we’re serving are ready for that particular part. Maybe it’s simply that people need to be involved in helping get to the solution rather than us being the bull in the china shop and telling them what they need. Just last Friday we gave our staff homework to do over the weekend where they had to answer a few questions about what they think we could do better at the mission, what they think are good things and how they think we could save some money. We did it because we know they can offer a lot of insight and because we want them to take ownership of this whole thing by being invested in it. We’ve done things like this in the past and time and time again we’re reminded that what we think might be a priority, isn’t even on the radar. And, the things that they do bring up are things we might never have thought of.

Whatever we’re doing, and however we’re involved, we need to consider how we define “helping” and be willing to ask ourselves some hard questions.

Is this something that I think I know the solution to, or have I taken the time to ask questions and learn about other ideas and options that might be better?

What IS my definition of “helping”, and where did that come from? Am I willing to adjust that or is it firm?

What to I hope to gain from my efforts to help others? (We all have some motivation, we often don’t ask ourselves what it is)

What is the most effective way for me to participate in helping when it concerns issues that I feel passionate about?

Do I trust this organization or person to make decisions on my behalf as a donor that will result in truly helping, or do I have concerns?

They’re all important questions. The last one is a BIG one because I think that there’s a lot in there. If I give to an organization because I feel passionate about something, do I really trust that my donor dollars will be spent effectively? Do I believe that they will have the insight to learn what the best solutions are and invest their time and resources into making lasting change, or do I feel I need to dictate what that might look like because I’m not really sure? Am I willing to listen if they share with me why my understanding of an issue might be different from the best solutions in that situation based on their cultural knowledge and experience?

When we “help” we need to be invested in the process in the right ways. Sometimes that means being more involved, and sometimes I think that means entrusting those that God has called into roles of leadership to discern the best ways of doing things. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had conversations with people both in the missions community and the development world who are frustrated because their on the ground experience has taught them that one solution is the best way to go, while their home culture support is dictating another way. In some cases those directives are causing more problems than good, and those staff members have had to physically remove themselves from being associated with the organization because they don’t want to be part of the damage.

We have to be educated. We have to be intentional. And we have to be willing to admit that maybe we don’t know the best way sometimes. We need to be learners.

A lot of people are willing to step into the role of the learner and they ask us where they should start because this is so different from what our culture teaches us. We love to recommend that people read “When Helping Hurts”. It’s a great book that was intended for the North American Church at large, and was written to challenge us all in what we see as missions work and how that’s changed in recent decades. That said, I recommend it to anyone that is coming from a developed country, whether they’re affiliated with a church or not because the principles are great. Mostly it just asks the question of whether we’re doing more harm than good. And if so, what can we do differently to stop that cycle?

Prayer:

  • Pray for the organizations and missionaries that you may already be supporting. Pray for all the day to day decisions in the cultures where they’re serving. Pray for those in leadership as they balance in-country relationships and needs with home country and organizational relationships and needs.
  • Pray that God would use these organizations and people to be truly effective where they are serving, and to not do more harm. Pray that he will reveal areas where this might be a problem to their leadership and that their leadership would have soft and obedient hearts that will change direction if needed.
  • Ask God to show you any ways that you as a supporter might have expectations that aren’t reasonable or in the best interest of the people being served, and then ask him to change those things in you.
  • Ask for wisdom in knowing how to best invest in those that are serving on your behalf as a donor around the world.

Thanks for continuing on this journey with me!

~Leslie

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