Wednesday, September 23, 2015

For the days when helping hurts [you]

This post originally appeared on my (non-Africa) blog, A Generous Grace.

At first, I thought she cheated my son.

But when, yielding to my call, she trudged back up the steep grade of our hill, my frustration softened. Her wide black eyes slid up to mine, her forehead glimmering in sweat. Her faded, two-sizes-too-large men’s T-shirt was pocked with holes. She must have been walking nearly the entirety of the morning in those foam shower slippers with the toes long gone and sizeable gaps in their soles. She was thirteen, though looked all of eleven.

After greeting her in the local language, I turned to my housekeeper for help with translation. The girl’s utter fatigue was readily apparent in her soft answers. According to my housekeeper, the girl in her exhaustion didn’t even look at the bill my son had handed her. She returned the change.
As I pressed her gently with questions, we found that she and her siblings were orphans. It was challenging for her elderly, unemployed grandparents to feed them, so her brother was canvassing construction sites for odd jobs, and she walked the local neighborhoods selling kabalagala for two cents per banana cake.

My heart broke for this girl before me as my kids and I rushed to find her replacement flip-flops, a couple of shirts, a glass of water, a snack. Hearing her story, this seemed like a time for relief rather than development. So my housekeeper and I hatched a plan over the course of the next week, trying to best imagine what would help her family but not hurt them, cementing them further in poverty and dependence. When we all waved goodbye to the two motorcycles loaded with school supplies, soap, and other provisions, I was nothing short of giddy. I love this part of my life.

What I didn’t anticipate: the occasionally thrice-daily (always unannounced) visits of her brothers and cousins, sometimes with the two-month-old baby strapped to the seven- or nine-year-old’s back–smack in the middle of a nutso homeschool day, or my first guitar lesson (same undiapered baby who peed on my slacks during the lesson). I forgot they would lack skills to keep them from shoving my children, then laughing at them.

I was honored by the surprise visit of thanks from their grandmother (er, a half an hour before my dinner guest arrived, with dinner waiting on the counter for me to finish prepping it…and for me to find some deodorant and a comb, fast). I was less prepared for the subtle pleas for school fees that the children didn’t have–not really the truth, I suspected and later confirmed. I was also bewildered when children were sent to lie on the family’s behalf, in hopes for more “help.”

My heart twisted for days in a collision of emotions. I am convinced that for every success story of helping people in pain, there are exponentially more stories of failure, of unsuccessfully (whether we know it or not) failing to pull people from the cycles and behaviors and environments and choices that continue to enslave them. Does that sound cynical, or simply realistic?

Here is what I know. When God commanded us to “lift every yoke”–I’m pretty sure He knew the recipients would have issues. He knew they’d have their own moments of greed, ingratitude, pride, obliviousness, manipulation, like the rest of us. And as much as I wholeheartedly support concepts like those in When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (and strongly recommend it)–no matter our best techniques, helping people who suffer will almost always be just plain hard.

How do I know He knows? Well, because I’m not the rescuer, as David Platt points out.

I’m the rescued.

I still return to my ruts of self-destruction, tearing others along with me. I’m still ungrateful, haughty, and enthralled with all the ways I “deserve” to be helped.

Maybe, like me, you’re in a place where helping has hurt you. You may be raw, reeling, weary, confused…or alternately angry, jaded, or cynical. Perhaps you can sense the blisters hardening into calluses, or perhaps you’ve decided you just don’t have what it takes anymore.

In a very real way, I think I get you.

This week I am remembering God didn’t ask us to step into suffering and poverty and injustice only because it does–slowly and gruelingly as a rule–change people. It doesn’t just put a foot down against the disintegration sin’s visited upon every crevice of this world. As my mom has so often remarked with arm around my shoulder, God calls us to faithfulness, not success. Compassion broadcasts what our God is really like: He’s the God who Sees, who adopts our pain. He remembers, even when it bites Him back. He walks into it not stupidly, but willingly and fully.

Compassion changes someone else, too: me. I see it morphing my kids into brave young people who see, and aren’t afraid of giving without great personal loss. I see them shaping treasures that aren’t from this broken world.

And that kind of success lasts forever.

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