As Christians in North America, we readily recognize and respond to the call of God on our lives to share from whatever wealth we have to assist those who have less. Such sharing has been a primary element of our mission, whether locally or globally, but we often don’t recognize that our efforts can cause more harm than good.
Dennis Jacobsen writes, in his book Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing, our acts of charity can end up being more about us than those we serve, laced with assumptions of being better than the one we’re serving, which promotes criticism of them; working ‘for’ the other instead of ‘with’ them; needing others to be powerless in order to claim our own power; and feeling good about ourselves because we helped. Our mission policies can reflect these attitudes. Even promoting accountability, which helps mission churches toward self-reliance, can be based solely on North American standards, incognizant of how it might best play out in a culture that values community, with loyalty to the group essential to one’s survival, and where “designated” funds for a project might instead be applied by the mission church to help a pastor with funeral costs.
We think we are helping, but the biases and individualistic culture that we bring, combined with the fact that North Americans generally have more wealth at the table, can limit any true partnership in missions, and can undermine the power, creativity and ability of those we serve to lead their churches. Recently some Moravians from our worldwide church got together via Zoom to share in Bible study and conversation. One pastor from the Caribbean raised a concern about the word ‘dialogue’ in the title of our gathering, noting that when missionaries would come to have ‘dialogue’ it meant that they were coming to tell them what to think. Threads of the colonialism of our past live on, despite our sincere attempts to be different.
A related and significant harmful effect of how we share our wealth has been the dependence on outside funding for the basic operations of many of our mission partner churches. In a presentation for the Moravian Board of World Mission in North America, Jean Johnson claims that this dependence decreases indigenous sense of ownership of their local church, brings confusion over accountability, and can compromise the witness of the church to the gospel of Jesus Christ, relating our faith to material gain.
How do we begin to promote healthy sharing of wealth that affirms our global churches as they move toward self-reliance for their ministry? To begin, we can:
- Acknowledge our own biases and motives. These can negatively impact our perceptions of others and our ability to be a helping presence. Do we believe we have all the answers and that our way of doing church is the best model for these partners?
- Listen and build relationships. Get to know those we serve, their lives, their needs, their gifts, their ideas. Promote local decision making. What can we learn from them?
- Look for local solutions. Seek out local vision and resources, as well as options for local-local interdependence. Do not do for others what they can do for themselves.
- Strategize for self-reliance from the beginning. Help churches develop in ways that are relevant and sustainable in their context.
- Equip mission partners. Rather than funding basic operations, help to promote ministries through leadership development, economic strengthening, and mission outreach by the global church. Partial funding for income-generating projects can be one way to help build capacity.
Lynne Twist shares the time when the Achuar people in Senegal, living in the desert, were desperate for a new water source. Members of the Hunger Project visited them and met with the male leadership to discuss the issue. They then met with the women, who were convinced that there was an underground lake below them. The men agreed to let the women dig for a well and they eventually found water. Twist writes in The Soul of Money:
“They wanted our partnership—not handouts, or money, or food—and respect and equal partnership is what we brought. … the tribe is proud that it was their own people, their own work, and the land they lived on that proved to be the key to their own prosperity.”
Perhaps pilgrimage is an even better word than partnership. Pilgrimage can overlook the power differences between North Americans and those we serve, which according to African Catholic priest, Emmanuel Katongole, can bridge the “us and them” divide. Jean Johnson, author of We Are Not the Hero, describes her 16 year pilgrimage to Cambodia this way:
to live with them in such a way that their problems became my problems. In this manner, I wasn’t solving their problems; we were solving our problems together on equal footing. I entered their journey to the best of my ability, sojourning with [them] instead of trying to fix them from within my own comfort zone.
As we bridge the cultural divide, there will be times of misunderstanding. It makes it crucial to more intentionally promote open, honest and respectful relationships and communication, bringing humility and deep listening to the table as we seek together to find healthy ways to share our wealth in our ongoing response to the call of Christ for our world.