I get an email update from GBGM (the UMC’s General Board of Global Missions) a couple of times a month or so.
About two months ago, I got a newsletter from them about Spring Break mission trips to the Northeast. Volunteers were going to help with the Hurricane Sandy damage that millions of people were still facing.
I am definitely not proud to admit this, but my immediate reaction to reading this was “…..what?“
Hurricane Sandy? Wasn’t that last year? Didn’t that already happen? Sure, people are still rebuilding, but isn’t the Red Cross’ campaign closed for this particular natural disaster?
Our perception of injustice in the world occurs in cycles. Just like my reaction to Hurricane Sandy, something will happen and things will inevitably fade. Whether it’s something like Invisible Children, the earthquake in Haiti, or the tornadoes in Joplin, in a dark sort of way it seems as though our attention can only last so long. Something will happen, some action will be taken, and it seems as though it is enticing to become either numb or distant to the problem, regardless of whether things have been “fixed” or not.
I think this really speaks to a consumeristic mindset. If there is a disaster, we think of tangible solutions that are easily measurable. Bring donated clothes to a drop-off location to send to children affected by the tsunami in Japan. Text this number to donate $10 to Sandy relief efforts. There’s a starving child in war-torn Mali and this one-time donation of $30 will provide food for her for an entire month (the infamous dollar-a-day model). When it’s all supposedly said and done, we are able to measure our “success” with these sorts of predicaments (i.e. $1 million raised, 2,000 pair of shoes donated, 40 mission teams sent, etc.). This is only intensified if we can purchase something we already want while simultaneously contributing to charity (re: Starbucks and TOMS).
Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett wrestle with this phenomenon quite a bit in When Helping Hurts. They identify three different stages in situations concerning poverty and disasters:
It is argued in the book that inefficiency of charities and mission efforts is due to the fact that we usually have no idea how to distinguish between different stages. We usually throw money and material goods at problems (characterized by #1 “Relief”). Rarely do we explore what must happen after the initial wounds have been treated (both literally and figuratively) following a disaster. Corbett and Fikkert share several stories where teams (unsuccessfully) try to handle Rehabilitation and Development situations with Relief-type solutions.
I think an interesting issue with the Boston Marathon bombing and the explosion in West will be how exactly these tragedies will be handled after the relief stage comes to a close. Just on Friday, several friends of mine active with the situation in the Waco area began to post that they had received more than enough material goods for residents affected by the explosion. Of course material resources are needed with events like this. Public servants in Boston need assistance, and families in West, TX need places to stay. But what happens when we venture past the relief stages of a crisis? As Fikkert and Corbett would argue, I think this “moving on” is oftentimes nonexistent.
May we never be stuck in relief and may we come to see that communities need rehabilitation and development too.