When help doesn't help

There are plenty of stories for those who study the history of the Christian church about well meaning people who made big mistakes because they didn’t understand others. James Michener, Sarah Vowell and others have written about early Congregationalist missionaries to Hawaii who didn’t take the time to understand the culture of the islands. They sought to impose dress codes that were based on the weather in New England rather than the realities of Hawaii. They didn’t understand the systems of education and child rearing and imposed their sense of formal schooling on people who had their own systems of raising children. The result was that the missionaries ended up controlling an unfair portion of the wealth and the indigenous people were impoverished and lost control of many parts of their culture.

In Australia we heard stories of missionaries who encountered indigenous children who were naked or nearly so, who slept outdoors or in simple shelters without beds and bedding and who were eating grubs. The missionaries were horrified and took the children away to boarding schools where they were provided with clothing, beds with bedding and three meals a day. Because the missionaries didn’t understand the family systems they were disrupting, the children suffered terribly because they were taken from loving families. Because the missionaries didn’t understand survival in the desert climate of central Australia, they fed the children food that was unusual and often made them sick. They dressed them in clothing that was unnecessary and often an impediment to survival in the harsh environment.

Generations have suffered from what missionaries thought was bringing religion to those who had not learned of Christianity and what inadvertently was a harsh form of cultural exploitation. The missionaries were exporting culture as much or more than they were teaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

You don’t have to look far to find stories of the church getting its priorities wrong. I’m not sure we are doing any better in our generation, despite having some pretty good examples of how previous generations abused religion.

I know I’m not the only one who wonders what if the billion dollars raised to rebuild the Cathedral of Notre Dame were instead used to compensate the victims of clergy sexual abuse. Would the legacy of mercy shown to victims be a more noble one than restoring a beautiful and ancient cathedral? We will never know because obviously it is easier to raise money to repair a building than to repair broken relationships.

We all agree that hungry children is not a good thing. Our instinct is always to feed them. But we don’t always get it right.

Back before “welfare reform” we had a system of food stamps to provide nutrition assistance to needy families. The way the system worked was people submitted evidence of their income and the system evaluated to see what they could afford to pay for food and still have money for other essentials. Then the people went to an office, paid the amount that was calculated that they could afford and received food stamps, which were vouchers that could be used in grocery stores. If, for example, a family’s need was calculated at $100 and they could afford to pay $70, they exchanged $70 for $100 in food stamps, receiving a $30 benefit. The problem was that the system forced the family to have cash in order to get the stamps. If they fell short, they lost their subsidy. Also there was a stigma associated with using the stamps, which had restrictions on which items could be bought.

That system was replaced by our current system which is based on electronic cards which are reloaded by the agency with the calculated amount each month. This saves the family from having to come up with cash to receive the benefit, but it does not force them to spend any of their own resources on food. The money might go to rent, as was clearly demonstrated by rises in rent across the nation when the reforms were put into place. The net result is that many families have less to spend on food than the would have had under the old system.

Short of grocery money, families sent children to school hungry. Schools responded by feeding. In our town we have at least one school where nearly all children receive free or reduced price meals. Some schools feed two meals a day. Still children are hungry on weekends, so charitable organizations send home backpacks filled with food.

Because we know that there is a need, we donate to Feeding South Dakota and other organizations that help to feed hungry people. We give food to food banks. We support feeding programs at the Rescue Mission. We try to help hungry people get the nutrition they need.

In the process we rob them of the dignity of being able to provide for their children and grandchildren. In the process we rob them of the ability to choose what their children and grandchildren eat. It is an imperfect solution and so far we haven’t come up with better ways to help those in need.

For families living on insufficient income all sorts of factors come into play. The cost of housing and transportation affect the amount available for food. The cost of health care generally needs to be paid by the wider society. Those receiving health care from community health, the emergency room and other places that provide unreimbursed health care tend to not engage in preventive care. Their health is generally poorer than the wider population and their health care costs are higher. A lack of funds can often result in catastrophic illness and individuals who require more expensive health care than those who have the ability to pay. And all of these factors - food, housing, transportation and health care - are intertwined and have deep effects on each other.

Creative thinking is desperately needed as we look for better ways to express our compassion and reach out to help those in need.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!