For the past 10 years I’ve been using a metaphor with poor communities around the world. At many of our first meetings with local leaders I’d ask them to hold one end of a rope, and I would hold the other end. I’d then use the rope to describe our relationship by attempting to push the leader forward by pushing the rope. The illustration would get lots of laughs.
The solution was obvious: in order for us to go anywhere together, the leader had to pull me. He also had to know where he was going; meaning he was a good leader with a vision. And… if I wanted to follow, then we could go a long way together.
The illustration, while simple, has been effective. Unfortunately, it’s a major blind spot in the West with how we engage the poor.
We (the West) don’t ask. Even if we do, we typically don’t listen.
We have the money and the idea, and therefore we think it should be done our way.
We know better, and they (the poor) should be grateful for our help.
But what if we paused, and instead of rushing to the solution we became learners? What if we truly saw ourselves as guests and co-laborers? What if we actually believed that the people we were trying to help were the solution, not a problem to be solved?
The answer is clear and we see it happening in over 40 communities in East Africa and Haiti. Communities mobilize without us; not waiting for us to get started. They own both their problems and the solutions. And they sustain the solutions on their own, without help from outsiders. Our role is to be a catalyst for change and to help them go further, faster. Our role is not to direct, control, or sustain.
As crazy as it sounds, this really is happening. But frankly, that’s the easy part. The hard part is on our side of the bridge. We in the West tend to be impatient. We have a love affair with efficiency. Time has authority in our world — we expect things to happen quickly and efficiently — because after all, it’s our time and money that made this happen, right?
Here’s an actual story of what this looks like. It’s just one of many.
Several years ago, a group of American doctors visited one of The 410 Bridge’s communities to work in a health clinic that the community built with many of their own resources. It was from this trip that I came to learn just how well the leaders in the community understood the rope metaphor.
The volume of patients who visited the clinic on the first day was much smaller than any of the doctors expected. So they asked the local leaders, “Why aren’t more people coming to receive medical care?”
“It may be that they cannot afford to pay,” their hosts replied.
This was an unacceptable answer, the doctors felt, and they told the leaders that they hadn’t traveled so far at such great sacrifice and expense to charge money for their medical care. They were on a mission trip and they expected to offer their services for free.
Their hosts clarified as graciously as they could that, no, they did not plan to pay the doctors, but for the clinic to survive, they had to charge a small fee to cover the resident nurse, security guard, and most importantly any medications. But the doctors refused to listen. Their church was a sizable donor to the project and they simply would not offer their assistance any other way, thinking, once again, that they really were helping. The local leaders stood firm at first, but as almost always happens, they eventually relented to the wishes of their guests, and the next day huge crowds showed up for free medical care.
The rumblings of frustration in the community reached my office within a week after the self-satisfied, but well-intended, doctors returned to their practices in the States. They left the clinic having dispensed all of the medication, and leaving the community with no way to replenish their stock or pay their staff.
During my next visit, only weeks after the doctors had departed, I attended a spirited meeting with the leaders. They asked me, “You say that this clinic is ours and we must sustain it on our own. Yet when you Americans come, you act as if it is yours.” They continued, “So, please explain … is this project ours, or is it yours?”
I told them that it was theirs and that we would make it right. I was grateful that our friends were bold enough to confront me and to challenge the Western donors.
Today, the community of Kwambekenya continues to sustain their clinic without outside resources. They’ve done the same with their water project and education and discipleship programs.
In 2015, almost eight years later, Kwambekenya “joyfully and thankfully released” us to help their neighbors because they didn’t require our assistance anymore. They now see that they have been created by God with a purpose, and he has given them the gifts and resources they need to thrive on their own. They have a vision for their future and the commitment to the journey without help from outsiders.
How great is that?!
What drives me, and our 410 Bridge staff, is to see this narrative repeated in community after community. I love to see leaders and community member when they recognize that they are, in fact, empowered and gifted by God to do more than they ever thought possible.
Thanks again for reading. I hope you enjoyed hearing about what we’ve learned through our partnership with Kwambekenya and that it inspires you to make a difference… A real difference in the world.
Kurt Kandler is the founder and Executive Director of The 410 Bridge. He is passionate not only about breaking the cycle of poverty in communities where The 410 Bridge works, but but also for changing the paradigm of mission for the Western church and how it engages the poor.