wooden labyrinth

The Wooden Labyrinth: A Study in Process


I have never worked in corporate America but from the little I know it seems to operate according to results. If the numbers are rising, the stocks are growing, the network is expanding and the profits are increasing then all else is secondary. Sure it matters to some degree how you get there, but the most important element is the bottom line. Results are a direct correlation to success.

Does the same ring true when working with the poor?

The answer, as presented in chapter 6 of “When Helping Hurts”, is actually more of a no, than yes. It doesn’t seem to add up, but its true. To the surprise of most of us the results of our poverty alleviation efforts aren’t really the focus. Sure the results are part of it but they are secondary to something else. I am the first to admit that physical results, better known as “fruit” in the Christian realm, is worth something, but maybe it isn’t worth as much attention as we have given it.

Before I confuse you too much let me quote a phrase in chapter 6.

“Participation is not just the means to an end, but rather a legitimate end in its own right.” (pg. 145)

You mean, the process is just as important (more important?) than the results themselves? Yes, I think so. But the reason isn’t because the results are unimportant it’s just that the process is really important.

If the goal is to get a homeless person off the streets, than getting them affordable, sustainable housing is the “successful” result. Once the housing is provided then the effort can be considered fruitful.

If the goal is to get the orphan a family, than funneling them through the system and into a secure home is a successful result.

If the goal is to get the refugee a job, or the single mother childcare, or the widow a trustworthy mechanic than a result that secures these services means success.

But what happens next? Is that it? If the focus is on the result, then yes… that’s it. The emergency has been diverted, the shuttle has landed and everything can go back to normal.

But,

… that widow goes back to being lonely

… the single mother back to her emotional scars

… the refugee back to the confusion of cultural transition

… the homeless person back to the struggles of self esteem and feelings of inadequacy. What now?

And therein lies the heart of the conversation. When we see poverty as a physical dilemma, than physical results will be sufficiently adequate. However, when poverty is viewed as an emotional, physical, social, spiritual melting pot of humanness than the “fix” is far deeper than physical results.

What in the process is so important?

When I was a kid I had one of those wooden marble-rolling games. I think it was called the Wooden Labyrinth Puzzle. You basically try to roll a marble (using knobs that tilt the board this way and that) around a little course filled with potholes. When the marble falls in the hole you lose. It drove me mad… for days and days. I was bound and determined to finish that course without losing the marble. Eventually I did. What I remember about the game though was not the moment I finished (I don’t remember if I jumped up and shouted, gloated my success in front of my sister or even did the grapevine dance) what I remember is how much time and effort it took to get there. As well, I reminisce that I achieved it all on my own, no cheats, helps or shortcuts. Since that day I also remember that when I put my mind to something I can usually see it through to completion. I proved to myself through that game that hard work; concentration and effort are worth it. I might not always “win”, but it makes me a better person in the process. I have used that confidence to inspire me in other tasks throughout life.

Although life often feels like the game of Labyrinth with pitfalls and dark holes waiting around the corner, what the game really taught me was confidence in my capacity to complete a tough goal. It wasn’t really the finish line that changed me; it was the looming pitfalls and dark holes, and the many long hours of avoiding them that changed me. While I realize the analogy isn’t totally perfect, what I am trying to say is that it was the process of accomplishing the goal that changed me, not the finish itself.

When we partner with the poor and help them overcome their obstacles together we and they become changed in the process. A house in and of itself isn’t the full answer to homelessness. It is part of the answer (we all need and deserve good, secure and safe housing) but it’s not the end all. Many homeless people receive housing but are not given the opportunity to deal with the roots of what caused the homelessness in the first place. Harriet McDonald from the Doe Fund (a nonprofit that helps the homeless in New York City) states it like this:

The quality of their lives (the homeless) over the long run, their ability to live independently, their interpersonal and work skills… none of these come into the equation. And yet they’re the most important features a person needs to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

That’s why the vast majority of homeless men and women don’t just need a home. They need opportunity. They need work. And they need the training, education, and supportive services to find it and succeed.” [1]

I would even take what Harriet has said a step further and say they need networks, healthy relationships, self-confidence and dignity restored – they need to know they are loved.

I think the same can be said for many other categories of vulnerable people. Helping the refugee find a job is a step on the right path, but our friendship with them and ongoing support of them is what will really help them.

Getting the orphan a home to live in is a step in the right direction but caring for their emotional and social needs, showing them joy, teaching them character skills and loving them for the beautiful children they are (all along the way) is what will assist them.

Process and the Bible

God is all about process. We are reminded of that in Phil 1:6:“being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

As Christians we can be about embracing the benefit of process. Not only because we ourselves are all in process or that we know know the God who restores all of life in process, but because we are driven by the understanding that people matter. We can embrace the truth that all people are “image bearers who, through trial and error, unpack and unfold the wonders of God’s creation.” When people matter it is not only about the physical results but the life change that comes through the process.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/harriet-mcdonald/homes-dont-cure-homelessn_b_5662591.html
Image courtesy of Annielogue/ wikipedia.org

About John

John Warden, our Director of Mission Initiatives, provides oversight and training for the TCT - Local program. John has had the opportunity to work with Christians around the world in elements of worldview, poverty, outreach and wholistic ministry. Join us in this initiative to reach and love the world around us for God’s glory.

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