Book Review of "When Helping Hurts"

I have been active in some sort of "Helps" ministry since 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina hit. The Dream Center opened in 2006 and my entire family has been serving there ever since.

Over the years I have learned so much, mostly from the mistakes I have made, and continue to make. I've done it wrong more then right. But it has all been out of a motivation to help and sadly, also a motivation to feel like I was helping.

I think that we American Christians are at a place right now, in this Social Justice era, where we are ready to look at the how, why, when, of all this "serving" and "justice" work and start asking our selves "are we really helping?" We have been at this for a while, many of us, and I think God is wanting us to go deeper, take that next step, learn from our mistakes and change a few things.

 This book is all about that. As with the At-Risk Communities book that I reviewed last week, I believe this one, together with Helping At-Risk Communities, should be taught as a course in churches that have any sort of "Serve" ministry or do any variation of the things that Jesus told us to do in Matthew 25; naked-clothed, hungry-fed, etc. because like the title says, sometime we think we are helping but really we are hurting.

Of course while reading this I couldn't help but think about my church and the ways we are doing things right. The program that came to mind the most was the Epic After school program at the Dream Center. Yes, I am biased, but if you took everything outlined in this book and in the At-Risk Communities book, you would see a lot of it fulfilled in the After school program.

Example, Paul and Charity give leadership roles to a hand full of the teens, ones who have been mentored by them and others, have matured, have committed relationships to God. They are in charge of a lot of the program themselves. These kids are far from perfect, by many middle class, white bread families standards, they have too many issues to be leaders, but Paul and Charity and all their team, see growth, consistent growth and a desire to grow more. So, they look for the gifts of these kids, and let them use those gifts. They place value on them, ask for their input. By their actions and by their words they let these kids know that the program can't function without them, that they are what it takes to make it grow, make it a productive program that helps other kids. Paul and Charity and their team are also deliberate about building relationships with these kids. They don't give hand outs as much as they help the kids get jobs, find creative ways for them to earn money, bring in business professionals to teach them how to start a small business, have art teachers, tutors, etc, that come in to help these kids tap into their gifts and use them.

Here are some quotes from the book...

"by focusing on the symptoms rather than on the underlying disease, we are often hurting the very people we are trying to help"

"poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation and voicelessness. North American audiences tend to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money, clean water, medicine, housing, etc," 

"..while there is a material dimension to poverty in the African American ghetto, there is also a loss of meaning, purpose, and hope that plays a major role in the poverty in North America. The problem goes well beyond the material dimension, so the solution must go beyond the material as well."

I think if I had to put this book in a nut shell I would say these are the key take-aways that I got from it:

  • It's about treating the poor that we are attempting to help as family, building relationships with them, treat them as the equals that they are. We are not God and they our people, we are all God's people. Whether we want to believe it or not, we are all equal. Sin abounds in all cultures, greed, pride, jealousy are just as much sin as adultery, murder, stealing. 

  • We have to rid ourselves of the Us and Them mentality.

  • The poor and needy should be a part of any planning of programs that are aimed at helping them. Ask them.

  • When doing initial evaluations of people requesting assistance, ask them what their gifts are, how can they contribute, give them value, help them discover what they are good at and help them use that gift. We ALL have gifts, some people just don't know it.

  • The spiritual aspect has to be a part of the program. Pointing people to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, is essential to seeing real break through and lasting change.

Also, after reading this book and At-Risk Communities, I started to think about all the ministries that are simply hand out ministries, and how they really are more about making the giver feel good about doing something, more then they are about really doing something good for the receiver. We have to be more deliberate not to harm when we are trying to help. It takes more work, more thought, more time, more analysis, maybe that's why having feel good hand out ministries is so popular now, we want to change the world, but not invest a lot of energy.

We want to be a part of something that makes us feel like we are changing the world, whether we are or not, and then we want to go home to our nice houses in the suburbs and feel good about ourselves.

That is why we need books like this, churches need books like this, in times like these when we have been at this Social Justice thing for a while, some are burned out from all the "causes" some are tired of no results, some have been doing it to feel good but that feeling is fading. We need books like this that cause us to check our motives and that also show us proven ways to actually do what we are called to do correctly. 

There is a way to do good, to really help without hurting.


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