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Short-term Missions Revamped

BY DAN VEEMAN

THE BELLADERE REGION SAVINGS AND LOANS GROUP DISCUSS COMMUNITY INVESTMENTS.

Posted Jun 11, 2018 / by Dan Veeneman / Christian Courrier Church Life

Earlier this year, I was given the opportunity to join Food for the Hungry (FH) Canada in Haiti for a week-long trip. I was part of a group of five from B.C.’s Fraser Valley area. The five of us work at two different companies that co-sponsor an education project in Haiti through FH, and both companies have committed long-term to sending employees there to learn more about the partnership. This allows for employee engagement in the project and it’s also a great personal and spiritual growth opportunity.

Having grown up in the Christian Reformed Church and participated in multiple short-term mission trips as a young adult, I thought I knew what I was getting into. I envisioned hard physical labour. Building a school seemed like a great way to spend the week in Haiti. I was excited, as my Calvinist upbringing had prepared me well for the tasks that I thought were before us. But at a pre-trip planning meeting, my dreams for this trip were dashed.

We would not be doing any work as I understood it. No hammers or shovels would be required. What sort of trip would this be without physical work? I wondered. What sort of help would we be, if we would not be doing any “helping”? My ideas about foreign aid and missions were about to be challenged and stretched in ways I had not imagined possible.

Traditional aid pitfalls

Traditional foreign aid and poverty itself have often been based on Western definitions of what it means to be poor. 

Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert argue in their book When Helping Hurts that the idea of poverty will actually change depending on who is defining it. People who live in poverty will start by defining their situation through psychological and social scopes, while wealthy Westerners are more likely to emphasize the lack of material things or a geographical location. 

For many Westerners, poverty hinges on a materialistic worldview: housing, water, clothes. Consciously or not, we believe that in order to alleviate poverty, those material things must be given, or money—so that people in poverty can buy their own material things. This is not a bad thing; shelter, water, and clothing are important. As Jesus says in Matthew 25:40, “whatever you did for the one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

The problem arises when our focus does not go beyond the so-called lack of stuff. Corbett and Fikkert note that we “sometimes unintentionally reduce poor people to objects that [we] use to fulfil [our] own need to accomplish something.” This approach often leads to paternalism, where we see ourselves as the only answer to the problem of poverty. This can cause a harmful cycle where North American churches provide material resources and evangelism to people in need, which can reinforce a sense of inferiority, which in turn increases the original problem.




A better way?

There are many NGOs and faith-based organizations working to end this problematic view of poverty and aid. 

Today it’s more common for aid agencies to start with an asset assessment, not a needs assessment. Working closely with the local community, an asset assessment will define the capabilities, skills, and resources already there. Instead of focusing on needs, the local communities are empowered when they realise that they are able to use their internal resources and gifts. This is a stark contrast to being told they have nothing of value to offer. Once the community has identified its strengths, only then are their weaknesses and areas of need brought to the forefront.

Many communities are able to mobilize their internal resources to make headway in combating some of the root causes of poverty in their own community. If local resources are insufficient, outside resources may be brought in. This idea of ownership is key. Ida Kaastra-Mutoigo, the director of World Renew Canada, notes that foreign aid is about human development. “We walk alongside communities and leaders, equipping and empowering them so that they are able to live to their fullest potential.”

I was able to witness this type of interaction while in Haiti with FH Canada. We met with the local Community Development Committee (CDC)—well-respected locals who are striving to change their community for the better. They have their own development plan. We sat in on a community health meeting where mothers are taught basic health and nutrition. We were given tours of what the community calls “model homes,” which follow strict guidelines for sanitation and waste management.

Relationships

When we look at poverty from a Christian worldview, it boils down to broken relationships—with ourselves, our neighbours, the earth, and God. 

Poverty is thus more than an opportunity to show kindness and mercy. Alleviating it is a “ministry of reconciliation: moving people closer to glorifying God by living in right relationships with God, with self, and with the rest of creation” (Corbett and Fikkert). It is about taking care of the whole human being: the social, emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of each person. 

Poverty isn’t just a lack of material things but also a lack of what makes a person human. Pride. Self-esteem. Empowerment. Courage. Happiness. Self-worth. These are things that money can’t buy and that having more stuff cannot give you. 


Dan Veeman is an active member of Gateway Community CRC in Abbotsford, B.C. Dan’s spare time is often filled by his three active children.

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Food for the Hungry: Short-term Missions Revamped
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