What I Missed by Trying to Play the Poverty Hero | by Sarah Ann Schultz

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At 20 years old, I made what seemed like a simple decision: I decided to take a semester off of college to live in Uganda for four months.  Brimming with evangelical zeal, I was ready to change the world. Armed with a backpack full of knee-length skirts and malaria meds, I told myself I was prepared and ready for the challenge whatever that would be.

Spiritual guns blazing, we came into the rural town where we were based eager to affect change. All my plucky self-assurance quickly deflated when I saw that poverty was far more complex than I had imagined from the air-conditioned safety of my American home.

Not surprisingly, I grew increasingly frustrated with the limited change we were seeing, frustrated that all of my prayers and relationship-building weren’t enough to change the community. My self-imposed burden of “changing the world” began to suffocate me as I saw that it wasn’t a challenge I could shoulder on my own. Four months later, I came back to the U.S. broken over the weight of what I had experienced.

Let me be clear: I do believe the world can change. In fact, I cling to the deep conviction that God has not given up on this world that He made—and neither should we. But in putting myself in the role of hero, I missed out on the dignity and worth of the very people I was trying to serve. I made assumptions about their needs and desires rather than pausing to listen.

On a recent trip to the Republic of Congo through my work with HOPE International, I entered into conversations with Congolese friends eager to listen. In setting aside what I thought people needed, I got to hear remarkable stories about how communities are changing from the inside—how Sophie, a HOPE client in Brazzaville, uses her knitting business to mentor young mothers and train them in a practical skill; how Moise continues to give of his time and resources to other farmers despite facing some hefty challenges of his own; how Gilbert started a music center as a conduit to teaching his community about worshiping God through music. What Ugandan passions, talents, and gifts did I miss out by assuming that my team had all the answers?

And more importantly, I’ve recognized that while God’s people can be agents of reconciliation on earth, we are not the saviors I once thought we could be. In thinking I could change the world, I missed out on seeing God’s redeeming power on this earth that He created.

“He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’”-Revelations 21:5

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Sarah Ann Schultz has served as a writer with HOPE since 2014, telling the stories of HOPE clients in marketing and development communications. A North Carolina native, Sarah Ann currently lives in Lancaster, PA, and spends her time traveling, reading, hiking, and laughing at her own jokes.

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