In a Field Journal this week, TEAM missionary Emily Johnson shares about her journey to understand poverty in the town where they live in Baja, Mexico.
I have a friend who lives in the neighborhoods where we work. She has two children and one on the way. Her husband works hard and so does she. Like many of their neighbors, they live in a house with walls made of cardboard and a metal laminate roof. One day, after a tropical storm, she called me. I thought perhaps it was to ask for help. I had been worried about them after each storm of the rainy season, calling and checking up on them. The roads in the neighborhoods are dirt roads and frequently flood; rain enters cardboard houses far too easily. But she wasn’t calling for help with her home. She needed help with her son. Neither she nor her husband knew how to help him stop fighting at school, and now he was in trouble for fighting with the son of a local member of the police force, which meant big trouble for all of them.
My husband and I drove up to their home that same evening and were shocked at the state of the house. The roof had been completely blown off in the storm and the entire house was soaking wet. My friend scrambled to find a dry place for us to sit, but we eventually just sat in the wet with her and her son while her husband was working repairing the roof. We sat and talked, and the entire time, I found it difficult to concentrate. My first desire, I admit, was a desire to fix things. I wanted to raise money for a better house, better school, better life for my friends. “Better” by my definition, but I also know that they, too, want a “better” house, one where they don’t have to worry about putting their children to bed under a leaky roof, or worry about the walls falling apart. What is the right thing to do?
That is such a difficult question for me to answer in this particular moment. I have read more than a few books about community development, attended seminars and trainings, and I still feel the need to learn so much more. A few months ago, this article in Christianity Today summed up perfectly what we’ve been thinking through lately. It’s entitled “Solving Poverty Is Rocket Science,” and sometimes we have felt like we are learning rocket science.
My friend lives in a community of people who have cardboard houses, who are trapped in various situations making it difficult for them to work and keep their children in school. These are my friends, these children are my students, and our team has covenanted to move slowly in our community development efforts. We do not want to approach development with an attitude that we are doing something “to” our friends or even “for” them; we desire to partner “with” them! It is so easy to fall into the temptation to move too quickly, or to make overly simplistic assumptions about the problems we see, or to push through solutions that have no ownership from the community. When we do these things, we risk wasting our efforts or worse, causing unintended harm to very community we want to help.
The thing is, community development in this sense takes a lot of time and is about so much more than material giving. Poverty is complex, and our response to it needs to recognize that. Doing so does not in any way diminish our efforts or our passion to do something. It helps us instead to press even further into God for his guidance, recognizing that we simply do not have all the answers ourselves.