“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish you feed him for a lifetime.”
We have all heard this proverb. The concepts are simple. If you do for someone what they can do for themselves, you are ultimately hurting them. If you take the time to walk through the process with them, you can change their life.
Us Americans are guilty of handing out a lot of fish around the world. It’s done some damage. Americans enter a situation with money, and power, and influence. We see people who are poor and we respond by giving them stuff. This isn’t always bad, and Americans have helped many people around the world. When it becomes bad is when we don’t respect and honor the poor as individuals made in the image of God, or when in God’s name we feel like we are gods ourselves. It’s hard to respect someone when you aren’t entering into the process with them.
But the process is so darn hard.
The reality in El Salvador is we are not just teaching people to fish. The reality is that we are trying to remove barbed wire, and quicksand, and landmines so people can get to the pond in the first place. Poverty is complicated. We work with broken people, in a broken system, filled with broken relationships that leave a trail of broken lives behind them.
We must go into the brokeness. Consistently, God uses His followers to redeem people back to Himself in all areas. To change the world, we have to be available wherever we are, no matter how overwhelming it seems.
There is one hard way to that fish pond. That is to go with those who are trying to get there. We can’t do it for them. Sometimes it would be easier to just throw money at the problems, but this isn’t going to change someone’s life for the long term. So we have to get in there…get scratched by the barbed wire and caught up in the mess. We need to build relationships and partnerships, and work together to change things…relationships filled with mutual value and respect regardless of race or economic status or nationality.
Will it pay off? This messy work? Is there redemption for the woman prostituting herself on the street? The man who has been dulling his pain with alcohol for 15 years? Is there hope for the children in Gerardo Barrios beyond a life in a gang? What about the boys in CISNA who have been abused and abandoned?
The answer is that yes, there is. God Himself says that He cares deeply for the poor, the fatherless, and the brokenhearted. I hold onto that. I trust that He will do the changing.
We don’t have all the answers on how to get to that fish pond. Sometimes it feels like we are in over our heads. We have made mistakes along the way. We have done a lot of research, looked at different approaches, educated ourselves, talked to those with experience, and prayed…a lot. We are learning every step of the way, tweaking things, growing, and making choices. But there is a risk that we will never see results, that we will never see lives made whole.
Still we must trust and work side by side with those who are in those broken places. Our task here is to share the spiritual hope of the Gospel, and work hard with all of our time and lives to heal the physical hurts as well. It’s a frustrating road, but God promises great things at the end.
We ask for your prayers. We ask for God to move lives and situations and circumstances. We ask for His wisdom and guidance. We ask for more staff, and more time, and more energy. We ask for redemption. We want you to dream with us for those who are dreamless and keep praying for a brighter future…teeming with fish.
An essential step to coming alongside those who are broken is to realize that we ourselves are broken. Until we see how much we need God, we will keep trying to give people fish and won’t have eyes to see that what they really need is to learn to fish. When we see our brokenness before God, he opens our eyes to the true ways we can help – walking with them as one broken person with another and being open to how God can use us to truly help them. Our prayer is that your nets will be full and many will benefit for eternity from your ministry in their lives.
Love these insightful words. I assume you’ve read ‘When Helping Hurts’? We spend a lot of time at World Vision talking about this exact issue. A book that really gets to the core of this issue (although not an easy read) is ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Freire. One of my favorite follow up quotes to the “teach a man to fish” fable comes from John Perkins when he asks….”Its time to ask the question WHO OWNS THE POND?”. He uses this to lead into discussions about injustice to the poor who will never see justice until they are given back land that was stolen from them; or who are given a fair and just chance at the ownership that only the privileged seem to enjoy. One of World Visions great books that is boring, but a must read for folks working along side the under resourced is ‘Walking With The Poor’ by Bryant Myers. Great words Danielle. I’ve always thought you were an amazing women of God. I have much respect for what you are doing and would love to find a reason to come and see what Christ is doing through you and your family.
Yes I have read “When Helping Hurts” and we recommend it to anyone coming for a short-term trip. Thank you for the book suggestions..I will definitely check out them out. I feel like I have so much to learn! We talk about this issue a lot too, it’s a tough one. Sadly we have seen people really hurt by those who truly do have good intentions. I think Americans really need to think about this especially the millions who go on short-term mission trips both in and outside of the U.S. Thank you for the encouragement…you are welcome in El Salvador anytime!
I really enjoyed your perspective on this topic. I might ask you, this is taken from your comment in response to Matt, how would you challenge Americans (westerners) who would consider short term missions?
What would you ask those considering short term missions to do? Would it be better to avoid short term missions with direct contacts with the people in that place? Would it be best to go and provide support for the missionaries there? Would you recommend not having short term missions programs?
Obviously, this is a challenging topic. I was just curious how you might advise a group considering short term missions. I am just curious your perspective on alternatives or perspectives that you challenge short term missions groups with before coming. Thanks
I’m sorry I am just now responding to this…crazy weekend!
You are asking really great questions, that I think everyone needs to ask who is considering a short-term trip. Millions of people from the U.S. go on them every year, and it’s a big “business.”
I would definitely challenge Americans who go on trips to see them as an opportunity to learn and to encourage the local church and the local workers. Realistically, someone isn’t going to change a community or church or country in a week. We are so task-oriented that we focus on all that we can do in that one week and sometimes see ourselves as a type of “savior” swooping into a culture that we have no knowledge of. This can be harmful.
I think that it is always best to go and work with a church or missionary that has a long-term ministry in that community. A common mistake is that Americans see a poor community and automatically start giving them stuff. It is far better, in my opinion and experience, for groups to support the individuals who are already walking through the process with the community. Teams that do this can be a great asset to the local ministry. For example, we have a ministry in a slum community. It’s a weekly ministry and sometimes we do special events. We have relationships built within the community and we are working to support community leaders who are helping their own neighbors. There is a single mom that we know, and that was introduced to us by the community leaders. Her kids are in our children’s program and last week a group from the States helped to build her a new home. It was nothing fancy…just built out of sheet metal like the other homes. She has a job and is working hard, but has been struggling recently and her house was falling down and her kids had nothing to eat. This group was able to help her, and it also has helped our relationship with her and the community. If a group just came in and built a random house, it could have had bad results since they didn’t know the community dynamics.
Sending finances to help churches or ministries in another country is great and absolutely needed. There is also a place where short-term missions can work to support and encourage long-term ministries. The key is the attitude and approach that is taken. Anyone considering a mission trip should research the ministry that they will be assisting to see how they approach alleviating poverty in their context. There is a lot more that could go into this answer…and I really recommend that you read the book that was mentioned “When Helping Hurts.” There is a whole chapter that deals solely with short-term missions, and there are many principles in this book that can be applied wherever you are doing ministry (including your own context of Baltimore).
It is a challenging topic, and since we work with short-term teams I struggle through some of these things. I, myself, have even made many mistakes because of my own attitudes toward poverty that I wasn’t even aware existed. It’s been a learning process for us, and we really recommend that anyone who comes makes it a learning process too. I hope this kind of answers your questions, and next time we see you in person I would love to talk about it more…it’s a great discussion and one that needs to be happening.
I absolutely agree with this! We are all broken, and I personally have been challenged with my own walk with God through our work with the poor. Good insights Mom!
Thanks, Danielle! Yeah, I would like that conversation. I also think your insights are wise.
I have been thinking a lot about what you said and the subsequent dialogue in your comments. An elder and missionary at FCF wrote and interesting piece that relates to what you are saying…it’s worth a read and offers wisdom from someone who’s been at this Kingdom work thing for a long time! Let me know what you think! I am also open to other’s thoughts on the article.