One evening in the early days of our work in Haiti, several of us sat on the front porch of a guesthouse in Grand Colline, a mountainous region in southern Haiti, exchanging stories and watching fireflies.
Pere Albert, the Haitian Episcopal priest with whom we partnered, came up the path from the vocational school building where he lived to join us.
The conversation turned to his testimony. He told us how happy he was that God had given him a task to do. “God gives each of us something to do for him,” he said. “It’s as if a boss gathered together a group of his workers, and he turned to each one and said, ‘I have a very important job for you.'” With childlike glee he exclaimed, “It makes me happy that God wants to work with me. I feel excited!”
Then he asked, “Can you imagine how you’d feel if, when the boss got to you, he skipped you because he had nothing for you to do?”
For the first time, it dawned on me how terrible it must feel to believe you have nothing to contribute, to feel you are and always will be completely dependent on the goodwill of outsiders.
The good news, implicit in the Mathew 25 parable, is that everyone has been given talents they can put to use. We all have something to contribute to the kingdom of God. Each of us has an important role to play. This is news we need to hear for ourselves and share with others because it is significant and too often neglected.
The lie of the world, reinforced by the media and believed by millions, is that the poor are worthless. The global economic system measures worth in dollars; you are paid according to how society values your contribution. The message is that as a Haitian farmer, no matter how bright you are and no matter how hard you work, you will never be worth more than a few hundred dollars a year.
We need to defeat the lie that says worth is measured in dollars. Sadly, the poor and many of those who try to help them have unknowingly bought into this lie. For the poor, it is manifested in a lack of self-confidence, self-esteem and initiative. For those seeking to help, it manifests itself in condescension and patronizing attitudes.
Unfortunately, when outsiders offer help, whether through foreign aid, short-term missions or donations, we often reinforce this lie. We bring used clothes that put local tailors out of business and give away free food that undercuts the local farmers. We construct buildings for people, putting local masons and carpenters out of work and implicitly sending the message that it takes outsiders to get things done.
We may even encourage small businesses based on models that work in the United States. Because we don’t understand the culture and local economics, these businesses fail. And that failure reinforces the lie that the local people are incapable of succeeding.
The elders from an evangelical church in a small village in Mexico approached me about the construction of a new church building. A concrete foundation had been poured and had been sitting there for years. When I asked why they’d not started building it, one of the elders told me, “We have been waiting for you to come do it for us.”
I don’t mean to disparage anyone who gives to the poor. We are commanded to do so. There are times when a handout is the most important thing a person can receive. People need assistance when they are sick, helpless or after a disaster. Children who have no families clearly need someone to care for them. But if we do for others what they can and should do for themselves, we rob them of their dignity and reinforce the lie that they have nothing to offer. We create dependency.
A story is told of travelers who come into a community during a famine and ask for something to eat. They are told there is nothing. The travelers take out a pot and begin to make soup by boiling some stones. When asked about it, they explain that they are making “stone soup” and only need a bit of garnish to improve it.
One by one, everyone in the village brings something to contribute. In the end a fine stew is made with everyone eating their fill. Similarly, the members of a community often have the materials and resources needed to change their situation. Sometimes people just need a catalyst and a little organization to create something far better than any of them could have imagined.
Scott Sabin is executive director of Plant With Purpose, a nonprofit Christian environmental organization with operations in seven countries, and author of “Tending to Eden: Environmental Stewardship for God’s People.” His book may be ordered from Judson Press.