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The Myth of Expertise | by Claire Stewart

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As my eyes skim headlines on relief efforts for the thousands of refugees spreading across Europe or development organizations fighting poverty in sub-Saharan Africa or news of violence in the Middle East, my heart breaks for the suffering that plagues our world.

And yet, I rarely speak up about issues of social justice. Too often I fall prey to what I call the “myth of expertise.” I look around and see people who know so much, and I think, “What could I possibly contribute?” So I wait for a big blue genie to arrive and magically prepare me to join the conversation.

Let me tell you a secret: This genie doesn’t exist. And you don’t have to be an expert to join the conversation and engage the issues you care about.

Here are two reasons why you should dispel the myth of expertise and join the conversation before you feel you’re equipped to contribute:

  1. Change is accomplished by those who show up, not only by those who know the most. Possessing expert knowledge of an issue, while important, is only part of the grand scheme of working toward change. The talents God has given you have equipped you to make a contribution. Joining the conversation is the first step in the process of learning where your skills and talents meet the world’s needs.
  2. You’ll learn more from within the conversation than you will as a spectator. You don’t need expertise to successfully participate. Listen. Ask good questions. The first step in engaging with issues you care about is to learn. Join book clubs, travel to different cultures, or attend events. From within the conversation you’ll be better able to see how your own talents can contribute to meaningful change.

Three years ago, I began hearing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from friends who had experienced firsthand the injustices of the decades-old war. I knew that I cared about the pain experienced daily by Palestinians and Israelis, but didn’t know how I could contribute.

But I did, however, show up. There was a panel on campus, and I asked to help in any way that I could—manning the snack table or making posters. Then I was asked to use my organization skills to coordinate a trip to Bethlehem. A few months later, I found myself on a plane to Tel Aviv, headed to a conference on an issue about which I still felt I knew nothing.

Even so, I discovered that I didn’t need to be an expert to join the conversation. By showing up and contributing in ways that I knew how, I learned far more than I ever thought possible.

Don’t fall for the myth of expertise, my friends. You don’t need to be an expert to contribute. If you feel drawn to an issue, show up with a desire to learn. I think you’ll find that there is a place for you and your talents within the conversation.

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Claire Stewart serves at HOPE International, where she works with the president and executive team. She is a member of Millennial Voices for Peace, a movement promoting reconciliation and a holistic understanding of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Claire has a degree in philosophy from Wheaton College (IL).

Four Steps to Effective Charity | by Patrick Oetting

Effective Charity

When it comes to disaster relief, too often we fall prey to Bob Geldof’s “we just need to do something” attitude. But, is this a sustainable approach to charity and relief? Does it meet the need, or exacerbate it?

Last Friday CBS News released an article titled, “When Disaster Relief Brings Anything but Relief.” In it, Juanita Rilling, the Director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington D.C., brings forward many examples of the unintended consequences of our relief efforts that left me quite shocked. And you might guess, we here at PovertyCure aren’t exactly strangers to relief horror stories.

Please indulge me as I share a couple of poignant examples.

In 1998 a tremendous earthquake shook Honduras.  The seismic event left 11,000 dead and countless others without shelter, food or sanitary water. In the midst of this genuine crisis, a supply plane full of desperately needed survival goods was unable to land, and thus save lives, because donated winter coats had been left on the runway. Yes you read that correctly – winter coats… in Honduras!  Funny as that sounds, people were imperiled because well-meaning givers clogged an already weak infrastructure with garments no one in the entire country needed.

In 2012 a gunman killed 20 students and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. In what was surely intended as a kind-hearted response, people sent tens of thousands of teddy bears to Sandy Hook.  The outpouring prompted a school administrator to comment, “I think a lot of the stuff that came into the warehouse was more for the people that sent it, than it was for the people in Newtown.”

I’m reminded of Michael Fairbanks profound statement in the documentary film, Poverty, Inc., “Having a heart for the poor isn’t hard, having a mind for the poor – that’s the challenge.”

When we see others in pain or in need, our natural reaction is to help in any way possible. And when that person or group is a neighbor, we are able to better discern the type of charity we need to dispense.  But, when we send relief from a far-away place, without local knowledge of what is needed, our aid can be detrimental to the community development that we intended.

You might be asking, “Are you saying we shouldn’t help those who are suffering from a natural disaster?”

I’m not – we absolutely should.  But the examples above show that charity is complicated.  With that in mind, I offer that there are four things we MUST do before we dispense aid to a community outside our own – whether in the U.S. or international.

First, we need to stop, take a deep breath and think about the situation. We may, after all, have no idea what is truly going on.  A little humility could avoid the useless expenditure of our scarce resources.  Such as, distributing winter coats to Honduras, used tea bags to Rwanda or old breast milk to Haiti – yes, all three of these are real examples.  Just reading them here, I’m confident that you see how silly unconsidered aid can be.  Still, as you read above, this silliness can turn serious in a heartbeat and cause actual harm to those who most need our help.

Second, we need to research charity and aid organizations before we pledge our time, money or encourage others to give. It is not enough that we send a text message donating $10 because a celebrity prompts us to during a concert.  It may be cool to blindly promote a new initiative on social media because it is popular. But is it effective? If we want to ensure our resources create the impact we intend, it is eminently important that we know how they are being used.

Third, we need to hold the organizations that we choose to support accountable. All too often individuals donate to initiatives and never follow-up. We get caught up in our daily routines or we move on to the newer, more urgent relief effort and then forget to check in with the organization we previously tasked with a complex objective. If, relief organizations know what their donors expect, and follow up on results, they will dispense our scarce resources in a more thoughtful manner.

Fourth (and most importantly), we need to get on our knees and pray. Actually, you don’t have to pray on your knees. I do. But, I’m tall. My broader point is that much too often we rely on our human insights and resources to take care of astoundingly complex problems. Poverty is a labyrinthine – far too big of a problem for human minds, no matter how gifted, to solve alone. Oftentimes, the most compassionate act we can do for those suffering is to ask divine intervention, forgiveness, mercy and relief. I can guarantee this act of surrender is much more effective than sending winter coats to Honduras.

Relief is absolutely needed. That’s why it is imperative that we take steps in advance, get to know who is doing effective, ethical and considered aid work before the next catastrophe strikes.  We are called to act and to do so with humility, thoughtfulness, accountability and God’s supernatural guidance and grace.   If we don’t, we will continue to waste our resources and quite possibly cause even more harm to those we most want to help. But, if we do, there’s no limit to the life-giving change we can bring to countless communities around the world.

Patrick Oetting

Patrick Oetting is the Strategy and Engagement Manager of PovertyCure, an Acton Institute Initiative.  

Giving From The Heart | By Ismael Hernandez

Recently I joined the board of directors of a local non-profit organization, St. Martin de Porres Ministries. I met the ministry’s founders years ago while they were distributing food to the poor in an inner-city area of Fort Myers. Out of the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot, Mercedes and Fernando Castillo, their children, and a couple of volunteers packed bags of donated food and gently handed it to people waiting in line. There was never a lack of a loving handshake _JLW0417 size mainor a heartfelt embrace.

Most of the time, those waiting in line were Hispanic migrants, with a sprinkle of other ethnicities. Most were women and many of them were there with infants. Why would this humble family take time to do this? I wondered. I found it remarkable that they engaged their children in the process and they all seemed to be having a great time.

People noticed their efforts and rewarded them. Soon, ladies from local churches began to join them and helped them find resources. They understood that their loving efforts needed a structure, piety needed technique. Eventually, the Castillos were able to purchase a building and they are now expanding their services to the community.

Here you have a very humble family receiving no salary and dedicating a good portion of their lives to help others. They became a virtuous magnet whose pull was love. I often take the time to ponder about the meaning of social life after I encounter people like Mercedes and Fernando. I question the way we try to solve problems with “experts” or create huge bureaucracies of compassion within our churches that become feel-good alternatives to an encounter that grows systemically, from the heart.

I’m not trying to judge negatively here. Every person I have ever encountered who is trying to do something for others has always inspired me in some way. Even those whose technique might need some “tweaking” or whose only involvement is to write the occasional check ought to be commended, supported, and encouraged. But our resources are wasted at times because we reject the first principle of what I call the Human Flourishing Model: simplicity.

The Castillos found out that I was offering training on “effective compassion” at a local church and attended. I could see their excitement at the concepts and told me how they have been trying to move in the direction of helping people help themselves for a long time but simply did not know how. I could see the spark in their eyes as they spoke of being able for the first time to articulate what they have felt some time—they knew there was a missing link somewhere but did not know how to identify it and fill the void.

After a few weeks, I was about to begin another Effective Compassion Training session at a different church and I saw the Castillos coming again! They went through the entire training twice. They invited me to join their board and I was delighted. While I am very busy growing the Freedom & Virtue Institute, I just could not say no. My heart remains, after all, the heart of an activist.

Today, the entire board consisting of the same humble ladies with their husbands and a few other good people, is making big plans to transform the ministry into one that remains committed to providing a loving support to people in need; yet, now with a vision of human flourishing that is challenging the way we view the poor. Together we are showing that massive distributions of goods might be only a first step into a different type of service.

We are planning to use adjacent land to start a farm with areas dedicated to each family who regularly comes for food. If they want to continue to receive donated food they will have to tend the garden (Genesis 2:15). Through the help of a few donors, the children in each family will also work the plot with their parents and earn money that will go into a BB&T bank account. The bank account will be a dedicated account to help the children earn money for educational purposes such as school supplies, a backpack, uniforms, and the like.

These are just baby steps but very important ones. These steps are consistent with right order but informed by a profound love for the poor. And I could not be more overjoyed.

Ismael Hernandez is the founder of the Freedom and Virtue Institute.