excerpts from “Road deaths, cancer and diabetes becoming Africa’s hidden epidemics” by Oliver Balch

“accidents on the road are expected to become the biggest killer of children between five and 15 by 2015, outstripping malaria and Aids.”

‘The poorest communities often live alongside the fastest roads, their children may need to negotiate the most dangerous routes to school and they may have poorer outcomes from injuries, due to limited access to post-crash emergency healthcare,’ the report says.

Aside from the obvious distress caused by accidents, sub-Saharan Africa’s high-risk roads have a significant economic impact too. Crashes are estimated to cost African countries between 1 and 3% of their GNP each year, the report finds.”


“The shift towards urbanisation is a case in point. City residents typically take less exercise, triggering diabetes and cardiovascular problems. Rising incomes are driving demand for processed foods that are higher in sugar, fat and salt. The same factors result in increased car use and ownership, and more traffic accidents.

Alcohol consumption links the two. Though seven in 10 adults abstain from drinking alcohol in sub-Saharan Africa, those who do have the highest prevalence of heavy episodic drinking globally, the report says.”




excerpts from “Listening Well: West Africans Speak on Poverty and the Global Church”

What are the causes of poverty?

“There are many causes – ignorance, idol worship, slavery and neo-colonialist structures, political systems – it all creates poverty. But it is also partially created by the approaches of many of the first missionaries and poverty alleviation workers: they created dependency, which cements poverty.”

– Togolese Leaders


What can the foreign church do to better partner with you?

“They should try to appreciate the African culture – identify the positive aspects of African culture, and respect African churches and people as being created in the image of God.”

– Togolese Leaders


“They could support us through training in education, health, and theology in the context of specified partnerships that respect each other.”

– Malian and Togolese Leaders


“They should ask our opinions before coming to help. Don’t just plan in your offices and then come here and do it to us . . . they sometimes think the money is more valuable than human beings. The African church can think and reflect on what we need. Foreign countries try to think for us!”

– Malian and Togolese Leaders



i hate seeing panhandlers (and the complexity of poverty)

Confession: I hate seeing panhandlers.  All these conflicting thoughts immediately start flooding through my mind when I see them: “I want to help… I don’t want them to waste my money… I shouldn’t be judging them… They look healthy enough to get a job…  I’d rather use my money to help the poor on a larger scale…”  (that last thought doesn’t sound quite like that when I’m sitting there in my car, but you get the idea :P)  It’s even worse when they try to do something in exchange for money – e.g. squeegeeing my windshield (it was cleaner BEFORE you touched it!!), ushering me into a spot on the street (I found it before you came running up, stop trying to take credit!!)…
Then I end up getting frustrated at myself, at them… and when I finally get away I feel relieved, guilty for feeling relieved, and guilty for not helping out.
Argh, I hate seeing panhandlers.  But not because of them… because of me.
I hate my inaction.  I hate my judgmentalism.  I hate that I can’t singlehandedly wipe out poverty (I know, I know..  didn’t you read the post about my god-complex? :P)
Maybe in part to assuage my guilt, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to actually “help the poor on a larger scale” (did I just quote myself in my own blog?  Yes, yes I did).  The annoying thing is that it’s really complicated.  (Disclaimer: I’m simplifying things big-time in the next couple of statements.)
  • Food banks, welfare, and Medicaid help with hunger, unemployment, and medical expenses… but they can also cause dependency. [1]
  • Holiday gift drives and school supply drives provide what could not have been purchased otherwise… but they can also disempower those they’re trying to help. [2]
Just a couple examples, but you get the point.  Obviously, each of these initiatives has pros and an appropriate time and place.  But it’s important to look at both sides – especially if what we’re doing could be causing more harm than good! [3]
One of the most important distinctions to make is whether those we are trying to help need relief, rehabilitation, or development.  Relief is immediate care in response to an urgent emergency or crisis.  Rehabilitation “begins as soon as the bleeding stops” and helps to restore people to their pre-crisis conditions.  Development is in it for the long haul, helping communities pursue ongoing change and improvement.  Doing the wrong thing in a given situation might help in the short-term but ultimately hurt in the long-term.  
Here are a few things to consider when determining what’s most appropriate (from When Helping Hurts, chapter 4):
1) Is it really a crisis?  If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?  If not, relief is not appropriate.
2) To what degree was the individual personally responsible for the situation?  If there was some personal responsibility involved, ensure the appropriate lessons are being learned.
3) Can the person help himself?  If so, a pure handout undermines the person’s capacity to be a steward of his own resources and abilities.
4) Has this person already been receiving relief from you or others?  If she’s been receiving “emergency” relief from multiple sources, the most loving thing to do might be to withhold further relief, explain why, and offer to walk alongside her in finding a long-term solution.
(I specifically refer to churches in the next section, but it could apply to any group that wants to help.)
The really cool thing about churches is that they can address problems on all ends of this spectrum.  First, we know that churches are called to help (check out my last post).  Second, you’re in a space where you’ll probably be for some time, so you have the unique potential to walk with a person from relief to rehab and all the way through development.  Third, you’re probably surrounded by nonprofits who know how to help – and they need volunteers!  A nonprofit often has the tools to do just relief or just rehab, but a church can “adopt” a community or specific set of individuals and then work with multiple organizations to ensure that help is provided in the right way at the right time.
I’m gonna end with the same quote from my last post:
“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers.  Let those numbers sink in for just a minute.  Think of the possibilities…  Ponder the potential to change the world if all these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (The Hole in Our Gospel, chapter 22)
Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all work together to “help the poor on a larger scale”? 🙂
P.S.  Oh, so what about panhandlers?  These guys say it better than I ever could:
[2] “[After] several years, Pastor Johnson noticed that he was struggling to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts to the hosing project.  At the congregational meeting, he asked the members why their enthusiasm was waning, but it was difficult to get a clear answer.  Finally, one member spoke up: ‘Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out.  We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves.  They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out.  Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys?  The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks.  They don’t deserve our help.’   In reality, there was a different reason that there were few men in the apartments when the toys were delivered.  Oftentimes, when the fathers of the children heard the Christmas carols outside their front doors and saw the presents for their kids through the peepholes, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their apartments.  For a host of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs.  This often contributes to a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, both of which make it even more difficult to apply for jobs.  The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy.  In trying to alleviate material poverty through the giving of these presents, [the church] increased these fathers’ poverty of being.  Ironically, this likely made the fathers even less able to apply for a job, thereby exacerbating the very material poverty that [the church] was trying to solve!  In addition to hurting the residents of the housing project, the [church members] hurt themselves.  At first the members developed a subtle sense of pride that they were helping the project residents through their acts of kindness.  Later, when they observed the residents’ failure to improve their situations, the members’ disdain for them increased.  What is often called ‘compassion fatigue’ then set in as the members became less willing to help the low-income residents…  Furthermore, the poverty of community increased for everyone involved, as the gulf between the church members and the housing project residents actually increased as a result of this project. (When Helping Hurts, chapter 2)


What if Christians were more like Jesus?

(main sources: When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns, and the book of Matthew in the Bible)

Let’s start with a quote from When Helping Hurts:

“When people look at the church, they should see the very embodiment of Jesus!” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.40)

Sadly, the following is what people actually see:

In 2006, Barna researchers found that only 16 percent of “individuals who had no strong religious convictions themselves… had a good impression of Christianity. Worse, only 3 percent [had] a favorable impression of ‘evangelicals,’ with 49 percent saying they [had] a bad impression! One interviewee put it this way: ‘Most people I meet assume that Christian means very conservative, entrenched in their thinking, antigay, antichoice, angry, violent, illogical, empire builders; they want to convert everyone, and they generally cannot live peacefully with anyone who doesn’t believe what they believe’… The data also suggests that [Christians] have become defined by those things we are against rather than those we are for. We’re seen to be against homosexuality and gay marriage, against pornography and sexual promiscuity, against alcohol and drug use, abortion, divorce, Islam, evolution… even against those who believe that global warming is a threat.'” (Stearns, p.227, 229)

I wonder what survey respondents in Jesus’ day would say about him

Actually, the Jewish religious leaders who wanted to kill him were probably more likely to be viewed the way Christians are today. They were the ones who strictly adhered to the Jewish laws concerning the Sabbath, tithing, fasting, etc. Jesus, on the other hand, was criticized for healing on the Sabbath, not making his disciples fast, and hanging out with prostitutes and tax-collecting swindlers. True, he probably did want to convert everyone. (I mean, if Christians really believe in the necessity of faith in Jesus, it would be hypocritical not to share about it.) But for Jesus, the thousands of people listening to him each day were there of their own volition and actually wanted to hear him speak.

Maybe Christians would be better received if we lived and communicated more like Jesus did:

“When we committed ourselves to following Christ, we also committed to living our lives in such a way that a watching world would catch a glimpse of God’s character – His love, justice, and mercy – through our words, actions, and behavior.” (Stearns, p.3)

Let’s break this down.

1. What if we communicated God’s character with only our words?

:: Mississippi in the 1960s ::

“Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation… Sam Bowers, the Imperial Wizard of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi…. terrorized African Americans throughout the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African-American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults…

“While Reverend [Charles] Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched… What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, ‘I have heard your cries for help, but your earthly plight is of no concern to me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity”? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy [and so many others who asked for healing]?” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.35-37)

No WAY..

As James said in the Bible, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17).

What has happened to the church?

:: The Great Reversal ::

“The idea that the church should be on the front lines of ministry to the poor is not a new concept in the North American context. As numerous scholars have noted, prior to the twentieth century, evangelical Christians played a large role in ministering to the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. However, this all changed at the start of the twentieth century as evangelicals battled theological liberals over the fundamental tenets of Christianity. Evangelicals interpreted the rising social gospel movement, which seemed to equate all humanitarian efforts with bringing in Christ’s kingdom, as part of the overall theological drift of the nation. As evangelicals tried to distance themselves from the social gospel movement, they ended up in large-scale retreat from the front lines of poverty alleviation. This shift away from the poor was so dramatic that church historians refer to the 1900-1930 era as the ‘Great Reversal’ in the evangelical church’s approach to social problems.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.43-44)

Of course, in response to the Great Reversal, we shouldn’t just shift to dealing solely with social problems without teaching truth.

2. What if we communicated God’s character with only actions?

:: Bolivia ::

“A Christian relief and development agency attempted to improve crop yields for poor farmers in Bolivia’s Alto Plano. Although successful in increasing output, the impact on the farmers’ incomes was far less than hoped because of the farmers’ deep reverence for Pachamama, the mother earth goddess who presides over planting and harvesting. Seeking Pachamama’s favor, farmers purchased llama fetuses, a symbol of life and abundance, to bury in their fields before planting. At the time of the harvest, the farmers held a festival to thank Pachamama. The larger the harvest, the larger the celebration was. In fact, a large percentage of the farmers’ income was being spent on the fetuses and on the harvest festival, thereby contributing to the farmers’ material poverty. (Corbett & Fikkert, p.80)

:: Rwanda ::

“Converts need to be trained in a biblical worldview that understands the implications of Christ’s lordship for all of life… Failure to include this “all of life” element in the gospel has been devastating in the Majority World. There is perhaps no better example of this than Rwanda. Despite the fact that 80 percent of Rwandans claimed to be Christians, a bloody civil war erupted in 1994 in which the Hutu majority conducted a brutal genocide against the Tutsi minority and Hutu moderates. Over a three-month period, an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered, the vast majority of them Tutsis. How could this happen?… For most Rwandans, Christianity was ‘little more than a superficial, privatized veneer on a secular lifestyle characterized by animistic values and longstanding tribal hatred and warfare… The church was silent on such critical life-and-death issues as the dignity and worth of each person made in the image of God.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.45-46)

Bolivians and Rwandans have years of rich culture and history that have consciously and subconsciously contributed to their belief systems, just as years of culture and history have influenced our North American understanding of the gospel (sometimes resulting in beliefs that may not be completely Biblical, as evidenced by the Great Reversal).  Culture and history should definitely be taken into consideration when trying to figure out how to communicate and understand the truth of who Jesus is most fully (i.e. contextualization), but great care should be taken in determining what the unadulterated truth of the gospel actually is.

That being said, clearly communicating truth is essential and universal. As Corbett & Fikkert explain, “[teaching] the values of a ‘Protestant work ethic’ without teaching about the Creator of those values and about the transforming power of Jesus Christ is like giving out penicillin without ever explaining the source of the penicillin’s power.” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.91-92). Yes, Jesus healed and hung out with people – but that’s not all he did. He also preached a ton of truth about who he was and his role in the fulfillment of Jewish law – and that was absolutely necessary for people to understand the whole idea of the kingdom of heaven.

Let’s go one step further.

In When Helping Hurts, Corbett & Fikkert write that “the coexistence of agonizing poverty and unprecedented wealth… is an affront to the gospel… [What] is at stake is not just the well-being of poor people – as important as that is – but [also] the very authenticity of the church’s witness” (Corbett & Fikkert, p.16)

We’ve already seen that the church’s witness is pretty bad right now, and it’s not doing us or God any good if we as Christians – people who are supposed to be Christ’s ambassadors of love, justice, and mercy – are not doing anything about this coexistence of poverty and incredible wealth.

“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers. Let those numbers sink in for just a minute. Think of the possibilities. Think of the resources. Ponder the potential to change the world if all of these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (Stearns, p.237)

More on this next time… 🙂