When I worked in homeless ministry, I saw numerous instances of volunteers doing more harm than good. This harm went both ways: they rarely addressed actual client needs, and they unintentionally misrepresented the nature of the gospel. One example of this unintentional cycle occurred when a church group visited the mission to bring a Christmas tree to decorate with the homeless, along with presents.
This annual activity was a dreaded mark on the calendar, but the clients were required to attend. For the clients, Christmas was a painful holiday to spend in a shelter. This activity unfortunately reinforced the clients’ overall struggle of identity with feeling ashamed, embarrassed, inferior, and socially isolated.
At the same time, the volunteers felt like they provided a significant service. There were smiles, pictures, and a report back to the church about their “meaningful” project. Regular volunteers eventually noticed the same men and women in the shelter, and over time they developed a disdain towards the clients. Instead of seeing opportunities to serve in ways that addressed spiritual and physical needs, they looked down on those staying in the shelter. The volunteers could not understand why the homeless could not fix their situation, especially after they had ministered to them. Essentially, there was an unidentified gap in the deeper, unaddressed needs of their souls that would prevent the alleviation of physical needs from lasting.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert clarify that “one of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being for the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being of the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.”
The volunteers at the homeless shelter suffered from what so many well-meaning people suffer from: uneducated assumption. Instead of taking time to learn what needs were present by building relationships with the homeless, they felt as though they already had a great plan for making a difference. The time and resources that went into that service project ultimately had a negative impact.
The more I experience the work of CARE for AIDS, the more I am encouraged by our belief that the local, seemingly little churches in Kenya, can do big things in their own communities. You won’t see a giant “CARE for AIDS” sign in front of our centers. Instead, you will see the name of the church. Why? We are passionate about equipping the local church and unifying the global church. We desire for churches in the U.S. to help maximize their people and resources to strengthen churches in Kenya, making a positive difference for HIV-positive Kenyans for eternity, body and soul.
What ways do you partner with others to help meet needs?