Relief or Development – bringing it home

By Donald Schell

I never imagined my trip to Africa would raise such troubling questions about ordinary Episcopal Church life in the U.S. The headline controversies of Biblical authority or homosexuality weren’t what shook me there. It was daily conversations with African and Western non-governmental (NGO) workers and church leaders struggling to practice development rather than mere relief. I come home to my work with congregations wondering if relief work (and the church’s culture of helping) – does lasting harm. What does it take beyond help to build community and encourage personal initiative and creativity?

Choosing relief over development remains controversial. There are no simple answers. At dinner our first night in Malawi, an NGO worker was complaining about U.N. sponsored village wells.

Deep boreholes equipped with a mechanical hand pump bring clean water to villages that otherwise rely on polluted streams. Clean water saves lives. It’s the single most effective intervention to decrease infant and adult mortality. Such evident health and economic benefits have inspired many Western churches and NGOs to drill wells for villages. What the U.N. project added was a maintenance fund: each family that used a new well water contributed a small amount to keep the well going. The U.N. program developed community responsibility for the well whenever it brought a well to a village.

Our dinner companion readily admitted that the U.N.’s plan kept good water flowing, as he acknowledged that other villages whose boreholes lacked a local maintenance fund didn’t maintain their wells, so when the well broke, they went back to hauling water from the nearest stream or pond. Still the NGO worker objected on grounds of justice; “… people simply have a right to clean water and it’s the government’s job to provide it.”

If the government actually had the will and enough money to drill wells for every village in the country and maintain them, more wells would save more lives. When the U.N. drilled a well, villagers learned new responsibility and new ways of working together, but the U.N. initiative wasn’t reaching everyone.

I thought back over my thirty-five years of parish priesthood, remembering how often churches ask, “Is there a need?” and “How can we help?” When the church makes relief help the whole response to urgent human need, what is the cost to people and to mission?

In Malawi I heard the legacy of resentful dependencies churches and NGO’s created by quick and dirty help. Articulate, reflective Africans explained that relief help will only look and sound opposite to colonial exploitation as long as you ignore how Western leaders and planners keep the decision-making power in their own hands. Helping needy people means all or most of the significant decision-making power remains in the hands of trained professionals. Sounds like parishes where help produces dependence on the rector or dioceses where expert, top-down help centralizes power to bishop and diocesan staff.

By contrast development demands discovering effective local leaders and working with them to share authority and encourage autonomous, creative activity. Development is inevitably collaborative. I was moved again and again by the vision and steady discipline of African leaders asking how to direct aid and mission money to help where there was need AND to build community.

What difference would it make if U.S. churches challenged every program, ministry and member as those Africans were challenging relief projects to shape themselves for community development?

Each day we drove out to villages to see health clinics, micro-lending programs, schools, AIDS education programs and orphan care programs. We visited villages with working wells and watched the satisfaction of adults and children pumping water that sparkled in the sun. Those scenes made the abandoned wells even more haunting. Silent, and deserted, shunned by villagers as a painful reminder of the shame and disappointment of losing good water – nothing gathered at the dead wells but dried weeds.

But isn’t the church necessarily a relief organization? Aren’t we called to serve?

Have we never noticed how Jesus repeatedly chose development over relief? In the Gospels Jesus’ listeners were startled at his teaching ‘with authority.’ He didn’t quote chapter and verse, but trusted himself and his listeners as he appealed to experience (‘What father among you would give your child a stone if he asked for bread?). He apprenticed his disciples in organizing and sent them out to practice teaching and healing before they felt ready.

More than hundred years ago, Roland Allen, an impatient young missionary to China and then to Kenya, began to think that help and extended training were crippling the church. In Missionary Methods, St. Paul’s or Ours? Allen argued that just months after establishing a new church, St. Paul would leave new recent converts in charge. Jesus and Paul both practiced development.

Here’s a story of development and formation for mission: On a rainy San Francisco winter’s day, St. Gregory’s member Paul R. was shivering in a slow-moving ATM line. Though they pressed themselves against the wall, it offered no real shelter from the rain. Paul looked at the dry space under a store awning, just a few yards beyond the ATM. Everyone saw it, but no one would leave the line. Then Paul said to himself, ‘I go to St. Gregory’s where we learn how to make invitations to people’ so he said to the line of strangers, ‘You know, if we all moved under the awning, keeping our same places in line, we’d all be out of the rain.’ Everyone laughed, moved and regrouped and under the awning. Strangers were suddenly talking with each other.

Development gives people authority to do unexpected things. In Take This Bread, A Radical Conversion, Sara Miles wrote of founding a food pantry just months her hunger for God brought her, still an atheist, to Christ’s table.

What Paul and Sara got from a regular Sunday liturgy was not just help, comfort or encouragement but freedom to think and do something new in the world. How? St. Gregory’s liturgy is a practice of trust that invited them to discover personal authority and relationship even with strangers. Week by week deacons explicitly invite everyone to join unaccompanied congregational singing. Even first time visitors add their speaking voices and experience to complete a sermon and offer prayers aloud for reconciliation, peace, and healing. Everyone leaves their safe places and seats to gather the whole congregation around the Altar Table for the Peace, the Eucharistic Prayer and communion. People not only receive communion but give it to others.

In Africa I remembered familiar stories tell like Sara’s and Paul’s and recognized relief work where people were making a discovery, seeing or feeling something new, and choosing to act with grace and generosity. The world doesn’t need our help. God is building circles of creativity and compassion and invites us to join that work.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is Creative Director of All Saints Company, working for community development in congregational life focusing on sharing leadership, welcoming creativity and building community through music.

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