Lesson #5: Communities Can Help Themselves

By Jeff Palmer, CEO on March 5, 2018 | Print

The wisdom of Solomon says, “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep war, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him – a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

I grew up in a rural community in Tennessee. We cared for each other, the epitome of which was evidenced through our small Baptist Church. If there was a need, a death in the family, an illness, we spoke the language of love and casseroles. There were few things a can of cream of mushroom soup couldn’t remedy.

This upbringing taught me that to be Christ-like is to help people in need. It’s simply the right thing to do. For much of my life, however this conviction emanated from  a resource-driven perspective. In other words, I had much (blessed by God), so it was only natural, as well as my duty, to help those in need, or as we would say in small-town Tennessee, those less fortunate than us.

Later in life, as I worked in developing countries among the poorest of the poor (forgive for the cliche), I was initially driven by my rural Tennessee upbringing (e.g. helping the “less fortunate”). I had good intentions but gave little credit to the capacities, gifts, abilities, and potential of communities to help themselves. I had the problem common to most westerners working cross-culturally among the poor. We call it a “savior” mentality that basically says, “people are poor and in need and really can’t help themselves therefore someone has to ‘save’ them from their plight.”

My eyes and heart were opened wide the more time I spent in the rural Philippines. The very first funeral I attended was a literal outpouring of love, compassion, and care from one community member to another. While I bemoaned the fact that I wouldn’t be able to whip up a casserole to share, I soon realized that the tables would be overflowing. Even in the poorest communities, it was amazing to see the flow of love and resources from the entire community directly to the family that was experiencing the loss—and we’re not just talking about casseroles. The local folk arrived well ahead of the funeral service and cooked, for days, rice and stew to feed those in mourning. They brought bags of rice, vegetables, chicken, and even pigs to share with the crowd that gathered. Out of their poverty, they would bring most of what they had, share, in order to care for the grieving family. And they did this knowing that when it was their time to go through a similar experience, the community would be there for them.

I had grown up learning to help people out of my abundance. It was a vertical transaction with me and my resources at the top. What I observed in this community was the fervor, capacity and commitment to the well-being of their neighbors even in their poverty. There was no top-down structure. There was not a “less-than” player in the equation at all. Rather, these community members served each other eye to eye, hand in hand. Resources didn’t define or restrict their generosity. They simply opened their hearts and gave. That is the definition of true community.

Have you learned similar lessons in your work? What is the most profound occurrence you’ve observed and what did it teach you?