No more than fifteen steps after leaving Fridays, I see a man, about 80 years old, bending over a trash barrel. All I can see are his filthy brown pants, rolled-up to make capris, and his thickly-calloused bare feet dangling in the air as he reaches for the bottom of the barrel. He is a skinny bald man wearing a vintage, mustard colored t-shirt. Even though I do not know his life story, my heart instantly breaks for him. As he pulls himself up out of the trash barrel, empty-handed, I walk toward him, with a sympathetic face, to hand him my leftovers. Since I do not speak Chinese and he does not speak English, he just lifts both of his hands and rapidly waves them back and forth, indicating that he does not want my leftovers; he then turns and quickly runs away.
I remember this old man vividly because he taught me an unforgettable lesson. For the longest time, I could not fathom why this hungry, elderly man would not want my leftovers, but the philosophy taught in the book When Helping Hurts became a reality for me that day. I realized that my perspective on poverty alleviation was narrow and skewed.
Before this experience, I admit that I had done a terrible job of putting myself in their shoes—the shoes of the materially impoverished—and therefore found myself to be rather ill-equipped and inadequate to even attempt to help the poor. I was simply trying to help this old man when I offered him my leftovers that day, but my good intentions were not enough, nor were they even helpful, and in fact, they were quite harmful. I had just ignited his shame, humiliation, and feeling of worthlessness. Although this was not my intent, I was starting to comprehend that my Western definition of poverty was very different than a materially impoverished person’s definition of it.
When Helping Hurts articulates a Biblically-based framework concerning the root causes of poverty and its alleviation. I have found this book to be the second best resource in the topic of poverty alleviation. The only resource that trumps this book would be to actually see, experience, and build relationships with the materially poor for oneself.
I’m the Volunteer Coordinator for an amazing non-profit water organization, Wine to Water. I get to travel around the world, not as a tourist, but rather as someone who witnesses poverty first-hand and sees a large portion of the 2.5 billion people who lack access to clean water and sanitation around the world. I have seen a child vomiting on the street from drinking non-potable water and another child with a skin disease all over his body due to poor hygiene and sanitation. I have also seen full-sized worms inside a ceramic water filter that would have been consumed, if not for the filter. Thankfully, each of these images is ingrained in my mind, so that I cannot forget about the realities of this world. I feel as though I have the best job because as I take volunteers on different water projects around the world; I get to practice the teachings and implement the ideas of When Helping Hurts. Together, the volunteers and I get to learn about, engage with, and support poverty alleviation first-hand. I love to use Helping Without Hurting in Short-Term Missions with my teams to walk them through the process of meeting a need, without losing sight of the importance of relationship.
Even though I have been attempting to apply the philosophy from When Helping Hurts in my work and personal life, I still struggle with finding the best response. I don’t think this way of thinking comes naturally to us, especially in the States, because alleviating poverty requires more than just handing over your leftovers or five bucks. Alleviating poverty requires time, love, grace, and a right relationship—with God, self, others, and the rest of creation. I wonder the impact I could have made on that weary Taiwanese man’s life if I had known and implemented these principles.