My husband Curtis just spent the week at Duke Divinity school, in his third term of a Doctor of Ministry program. I tagged along this term, and was delighted to meet his colleagues and see the campus. They have to blog each day about the class sessions, and I stole this post from him.
You’d think we would have fixed Africa by now, what with all the missions trips, NGOs, major celebrities, government aid, water well diggers, full-time missionaries, and cows we’ve sent to the place. But we haven’t. Not by a long shot. There are over a billion people living in Africa. The majority of them live in poverty, about the same percentage as 40 years ago.
You know what country has largely been fixed, at least by such economic measures? Which country’s poverty rate has dropped from over 80% to 16% during the same time period? It even has a similar billion-plus population.
That’s right, China.
You know, the country that has largely been closed to Western aid, Western celebrities, and Western churches for the last century or so.
Now, I know there are many other factors involved in as complicated an economic story as this one; that the strength of the Chinese state and infrastructure matters too. Still, shouldn’t our cows have had some positive impact?
Actually, there’s a growing line of reasoning that argues it’s because of Western aid that Africa has stayed largely in neutral. During this past term, my class interviewed Gaston Warner, who leads Zoe Ministries, an empowerment organization working in Africa. He told us that from the African perspective Western aid creates a culture of helplessness and dependence resulting in a cycle of poverty.
His organization is pursuing a different tack, one that shows significant promise in equipping Africans to break out. It was designed, not by an educated Westerner, but by an African woman named, appropriately enough, Epiphany. When she saw orphans without food, she wouldn’t give them any. When she saw them with no homes, she left them on the streets. Instead, she worked with them to grow their own food, buy their own homes, and learn how to find and make use of the resources available to them, all while teaching them about the love of Jesus. Her goal was for them to never need charity again, and it seems to be working. Yet her organization is virtually unique.
When asked why other organizations weren’t pursuing these strategies, Gaston was at a loss. The logic of aid has powerful inertia, he said, and boy, does it make us feel good when poor African people tell us how wonderful and indispensable we are. Boy, does it feel good to be seen as powerful and important. It’s not nearly as much fun to not be needed.
After all, for many American Christians and churches, justice work is really all about us – our feelings, our spiritual growth, our emotional experience of helping those poor people who can’t help themselves. But that isn’t love; it’s selfishness cleverly disguised as compassion. True compassion would take a maturity I’m not sure we collectively have.
When the American Church is ready to make a real difference it can; it just might mean empowering Africans to take care of their own growth, while we work on growing ourselves.