Seeking Justice through Reconciled Relationships


Carissa Youssef serves as the Director of Philanthropy and Public Engagement for Food for the Hungry (FH) Canada. In February 2018 she had the privilege of participating in the Global Social Justice Conference in Red Deer, Alberta. This is the transcript of her talk "Seeking Justice through Reconciled Relationships." You can view or download the powerpoint at the bottom of this post.

Food for the Hungry’s (FH) mission is to end physical and spiritual poverty by serving the most vulnerable around the world through long-term community development. Since 1994, FH Canada has been able to see 67 communities graduate as self-sustaining and is actively working in 66 communities in eight countries. 

The video we just watched together [top of post] highlights one such graduation from poverty. 

FH’s model for ending poverty is through community transformation. We partner with communities to form a ten year plan to get from stuck to thriving, focusing activities in the areas of education, health, livelihoods, and leadership training. Working on all four fronts at the same time makes each program even more effective.

Now, at this point, you might be asking…what is the link between justice and poverty? Both are important but how are they connected? For FH, the connection is absolutely critical. In fact, it is the foundation to our understanding of what poverty is because we believe how you define a problem will determine how you solve the problem. 

“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.”  - Bryant Myers, Walking with the Poor

Let’s dial in to that for a minute. Poverty comes from broken relationships. As humans, we were created into four primary relationships.

Human with God: The book of Genesis tells us that God walked with Adam and Eve on a daily basis and talked with them to the extent that they recognized his voice. He had a relationship with them in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:27-31; 2:19-20).

Human with Humans: We also see that a social relationship existed in the husband-and-wife bond between Adam and Eve (Genesis 2:18, 20-24). Social relationships were part of God’s plan from the beginning, and they were good, harmonious, and just. 

Human with Self: The book of Genesis states that humans were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). As image-bearers of God, we all were created with inherent dignity and worth. Having the image of our creator allows us to live with a healthy self-image and sense of purpose.

Human with Creation: Humans were also given a relationship with creation, what can be referred to as the physical relationship (Genesis 1:28-30). God positioned Adam and Eve to be caretakers of the earth, establishing a relationship between humanity and his physical creation.

If you dig in to injustices around you, if you seek out the root causes of the poverty, very likely you will find one of these broken relationships – or all four – at the heart of the issue. 

So if poverty comes from broken relationships, then the reconciliation of these four relationships is the heart of justice. Because FH defines the problem of poverty as broken relationships, our solution and focus is on reconciling those relationships, is on justice.  

Take Makhai, for example. 

Makhai, Uganda before their relationship with FH began.
Makhai is a community in Uganda that had huge visible material poverty when our staff arrived. After months of listening and learning, staff uncovered that the root issue to Makhai’s poverty didn’t come from any material lack but from a root belief that they were cursed. A neighbouring community had buried a dog skull in the centre of the village and the people of Makhai genuinely believed they were powerless to change their future. After they learned this, FH staff had the opportunity to change the story. They shared with the leaders that God had made them in his image with purpose and value and they were blessed, not cursed! This was the beginning of poverty alleviation for Makhai. If the FH staff had begun by planning for school infrastructure or medical clinics, which were both badly needed, not only would the root issue not have been addressed, but the solutions would not have been sustainable because they would only have addressed an outcome of the poverty instead of the source of poverty. 

Just briefly, let’s look at the two Hebrew definitions of justice presented to us in scripture. 

Mishpat: Do Justice

Tzedeqah: Being Just

Mishpat is an extremely active verb and is most often associated with taking action against an exploitation. Tzedeqah, on the other hand, is almost always expressed as "being righteous", and refers to a way of living in shalom. FH focuses primarily on tzedeqah through our work in reconciliation - long-term relationship repair to overcome the injustice of poverty. 

Timothy Keller does a fantastic job dialling in to each of these references in his book Generous Justice. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. 

I don’t know your story or what God may be specifically stirring up in your heart. Perhaps he is equipping you to focus on mishpat – to take a specific action to bring reconciliation to a particular exploitation or damaging behaviour. 

Perhaps you are being prompted to more deeply live out tzedeqah in your life – maybe there is even an area of personal brokenness that needs to be reconciled in order for you to live in and offer shalom to others.  

But I do know we are here today because we care about living justly and that poverty, as defined by broken relationships, impacts each of us. There are so many things we can talk about on this topic and we have been able to touch on many important areas during this time together. How privileged we are to gather together to challenge and encourage each other in this critical work. 

I want to pause here for a few minutes and share with you a few things I wish I had known 20 years ago about this idea of justice. And a few things I’ve learned that I believe are crucial for effectiveness in our efforts to live justly.

If you only remember one idea from this afternoon, I hope it is this: To live justly we must always keep in the front of our minds our posture and God’s provision.

I think most of us, whether we like to admit it or not, struggle with holding a biblical posture in our efforts to live justly. You see, I find we often talk about the poor and vulnerable but we do not often engage with the poor and vulnerable. It’s rarely intentional, but by not actively pursuing a posture that honours the vulnerability and value of those we are seeking to serve, we create a very real danger of building an “us” and “them” mentality.  When I was 14 years old I first visited a developing community. My youth group and I drove to Mexico on big yellow school buses and spent 10 days building houses for families experiencing material poverty. Granted, I was young and age is most certainly a factor in my experience, but when I look back I am saddened to realize I remember nothing about the family we were there to serve. I recall having fun with my friends and learning how to pound nails more efficiently but I don’t remember the names, faces or stories of the people I was there to help. I’m ashamed to admit I never even tried to use my weak Spanish to learn from the family. 

What if we had engaged with this family differently? What if the parents had helped us build the house? What if we had actually learned the language? What if we had asked the family to teach us something during our time together? 

We have to make sure our greatest efforts when working with the vulnerable is to maintain and enhance their dignity and maintain and enhance their roles. The way we view people will directly affect our response to their needs. 

There was a survey done of many materially poor people across a variety of countries and cultures, asking “the poor” how they would describe their poverty. The results might surprise you. Here’s a sample of what they said.

“When I don’t have any [food to bring my family], I borrow, mainly from my neighbours and friends. I feel ashamed standing before my children when I have nothing to help feed the family. I’m not well when I’m unemployed. It’s terrible.” - Guinea-Bissau

“When one is poor, she has no say in public; she feels inferior. She has no food, so there is famine in her house; no clothing, and no progress in her family.” - Uganda

“For a poor person everything is terrible - illness, humiliation, shame. We are cripples; we are afraid of everything; we depend on everyone. No one needs us. We are like garbage that everyone wants to get rid of.” - Moldova

Listen, this isn’t just an international reality. 

How we speak about people matters. Instead of trying to solve homelessness let’s reframe the conversation about how to heal the broken relationships (God, self, others, and creation) for those experiencing homelessness. Instead of fighting a drug culture, what if we invested into healing the broken relationships with God, self, others, and creation for those experiencing addiction? 

May I make a suggestion? It is my opinion that the best way to counter this struggle is to serve from a posture of healthy awareness of our own vulnerability and value.

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.” ― Brené Brown, Daring Greatly.

It’s critical that we understand our own vulnerability and that we serve with a posture of vulnerability. It is in this place that God will grow our hearts and minds and ability to care for the marginalized, for the voiceless, for the poor and for the oppressed. Because now it is not us and them…now it is just us. 

We have all been vulnerable. 

When I was young my dad was diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia and given three months to live. We were living in the States and unfortunately my dad was also between jobs meaning we had no health insurance; a terrifying prospect when facing such a daunting medical journey.

God gave our family two incredible years together while my dad fought this terrible disease and I experienced more of God’s faithfulness and provision in this period of my life than any other. Part of that provision came through the support of our community and the families in our church. 

I remember Christmas time. A time when our family experienced great generosity from friends and family. One way people chose to bless us was by showing up at our home with extravagant gifts for my me and my siblings. Naturally, we were delighted, but I’ll never forget looking up and noticing my dad’s face as he watched us receive gifts he couldn’t give us. 

Then there was the giving tree in the foyer of our church with my name swaying on a golden card; suggestions for gift giving penned in cursive. Walking past that tree on a Sunday morning as a 15 year old I felt extremely vulnerable; not poor - that never occurred to me - but vulnerable and ashamed of my very visible “need.” 

Contrast these approaches with the families who discretely gave my parents money and told them to enjoy buying gifts for their children; perhaps they might know best what would delight their children? 

Please hear my heart on this. I know without a doubt these families were acting out of love and compassion and I adore them for it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t remember how their actions made me feel. 

This leads me to the next important point and that is God’s provision. 

We have to remember that we are in God’s story. I wanted to change the world when I was 14. Honestly, I still wanted to change the world a few years ago. But I’m learning instead that what I really want is to walk alongside the God who loves the world so much that he made a plan to change the world and invites us to be a part of it.

“For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” - Colossians 1:19-20

God has a plan. 

God is now at work reconciling all things.

God is going to complete the work that he has begun.

We are part of God’s plan of reconciliation. We are part of his plan to invite back wholeness, to bring in justice, to live with joy and hope in the tension between the Garden and Kingdom come.

But we have to remember our role. We need to celebrate our role. In 2 Corinthians 5 we are told we are Christ’s ambassadors and that God is making his appeal through us; that’s so much bigger and greater and better and scarier and more meaningful than what I thought I wanted to be part of all those years ago. 

I read this challenge a few months back. Listen with me. 

“Consider the story of Moses, when God called him to speak to Pharaoh. Moses felt inhibited by his weaknesses. He didn’t feel capable of speaking to Pharaoh or of leading the Israelites out of Egypt because he only saw his disqualifications. And how did God respond to Moses’s doubt? He didn’t give a self-help pep talk. He didn’t affirm Moses’s leadership or his talents or gifts. He didn’t hug him and cheer for him and speak encouraging words over him. God didn’t do any of those things. Instead, he changed the subject. God affirmed his own strength, his own leadership, his own self because the outcome never hinged upon Moses. This story was not about Moses’s strengths. Moses was never meant to be the hero. Only God could deliver the Israelites out of Egypt, so he directed Moses’s focus back to himself.”

Friends, living justly and serving the vulnerable is so much bigger and greater and better and scarier and more incredible than I could have ever imagined all those years ago. 

But it only works if we serve out of a space that recognizes our vulnerabilities, and values and upholds the dignity and value of those we are striving to serve. And, I know it sounds simple, but we have to stay courageously surrendered to God’s abundant provision. His plan is in motion and it is through living reconciled lives that we can participate with him in changing the world. Let me close with this. 

May we encourage each other to truly live justly in right relationship with God, self, others, and creation so that our lives can be used by God to change the world. If you recognize in yourself brokenness, take heart, you are not alone. But lean in. Chase Jesus. Make your relationships: with God, with self, with others and with creation. God has great plans for you, but you have to do the work to participate. 

The smiles of these two girls in Makhai show the joy of knowing they're blessed.

Receive now this Franciscan Benediction:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart. 

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people so that you may work for justice, freedom, and peace. 

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. 

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. 




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Food for the Hungry: Seeking Justice through Reconciled Relationships
Seeking Justice through Reconciled Relationships
Food for the Hungry
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