There is a timeless quote that says “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish and he can eat for life.” The idea is an appropriate challenge for those of us called to the work of poverty alleviation. You need not look far to see examples of institutional short-sidedness that focuses on today’s need rather than tomorrow’s stability.
Having been immersed in the topic for the past decade I understand the temptation toward transactional solutions that leave the giver feeling good about their contribution and the receiver happy to collect the benefit. The fish comes in many forms, food, clothes, housing, transportation, health care and cell phones. All necessary for our world and all for good cause. Unfortunately, while the war on poverty has elevated the standard of living for many it has also created a cycle of generational dependency and entitlement. We’ve asked those in need to check their dignity, motivation and self-worth at the door while we do the fishing for them. We feel better giving and they’re content to just receive. It’s a corrupt system.
So the solution has to be teaching people to fish…right? It makes sense that investing the resources in hooks, rods and worms and showing poor people how to bait the hook will solve the problem. We provide the resources and training and they reel them in. The metaphor works… in our minds. However, it’s been my observation that baiting hooks and learning to spot weld are great skills but, for many, are not enough. Not in today’s economy. Today’s economy is a service economy moving quickly toward an information economy. It’s important to understand how to bait a hook and cast a rod. However, to provide for yourself and family in our world, you need to know where the worms are, what’s the best value in a fishing rod and which pond yields the best fish. Our world requires fishing skills but it mostly requires relational understandings that help us maneuver through complex systems. Giving poor families access to our current economy is about helping poor individuals better relate to themselves, others, their community and God.
So how do we do this? Even more importantly, who should do this?
At the risk of becoming political, I would argue that our governmental systems cannot. The history of politics and poverty has given us decades of indulgence by the “Liberals” and indifference by the “Conservatives”. I know this is a broad brush and I don’t judge the heart, I’m simply assessing the fruit of the trends. I believe most institutional systems (from either camp) begin with the assumption that poverty is a material problem. People don’t have enough things so we need to give them, or teach them, how to survive. Unfortunately, we all know too well the stories of poor lottery winners that find material poverty again not long after “winning”. We’ve spent billions of dollars to improve the quality of life for poor people but have ultimately separated them from being productive parts of our community. They’re not lazy, they are deceived.
I’ve committed my life to being one of the “who”. I lead a faith-based non-profit that’s mission is “breaking the cycle of addiction, despair and generational poverty found in our community” (www.joshuasplace.cc). We’ve renovated an old elementary school into a Community Center where I also pastor a church that meets there (www.thevillagechurch.cc). When Jesus was announcing his reason for coming to earth, reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Since the local church is the “hands and feet” of Jesus, His mission is our mission. I believe the local church (not the building but the people) are best equipped to do this relational mission. I serve alongside the most committed group of Christ Followers that give of themselves and their resources every week for this purpose. It is messy and beautiful, you can’t immerse yourself in this work and stay unsoiled. However, the impact is amazing and Spirit led.
We’re practitioners not philosophers. What I mean is that we’ve learned and evolved over the past seven years of working in our community. We’ve made mistakes but we’ve made them leaning into the problem, never retreating. We have simple rules:
Firstly, do no harm, just because it feels good to us doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.
Secondly, set aside our self-righteousness and “God-complexes”, we’re all broken in need of redemption. Just because we have a pool in our neighborhood doesn’t mean we have it figured out.
Thirdly, everything we do is in the context of deepening relationships. We avoid transactional methods that simply pass materials and goods. Sometimes the help we give is material but we never lose site of the greater need.
Fourthly, we distinguish between crisis care (relief), rehabilitation and development. If all we offer is free food then we assume the problem is only material. Instead we take a more comprehensive approach that focuses on the physical, relational, emotional and spiritual subjects.
Finally, we’re here all year long and for the long haul. Relationships and development take time. We avoid the temptation to focus on the “headline needs” and write a budget and structure that is available every week and long term.
I love the story of the calling of St. Peter. While Peter’s out fishing (his occupation at the time) Jesus says “Follow me and I’ll make you fishers of men.” I have felt that same calling, the calling to fish, give fish, teach to fish and fish alongside.
This article was originally posted on Kevin Peyton’s personal blog.