“We do not expect any help from our neighbors. They can’t help; in any case, they won’t, because everyone is just fending or grabbing for themselves.”
This description of no trust and broken relationships is from a community in southeastern Europe. It’s from a project called Voices of the Poor, which attempts to capture the sometimes-ignored stories of those in poverty. Voices of the Poor documents this kind of under-the-surface experience of people in poor communities around the globe. Their stories show how poverty breeds conflict between neighbors struggling to survive.
Senaida, a mother in Villa María del Triunfo, Peru, tells a similar tale. Before Food for the Hungry (FH) Peru arrived, Senaida remembers how her community did not have a shared vision. Life was lived day-to-day, without a sense of longer-term goals. There were no shared dreams. Rather, families fought with each other. The community leadership was weak. There was no sense of common purpose or striving together.
Consumption Won’t Create Transformation
When outsiders approach a poor community, it’s easy to see a lack of resources or opportunities for education or jobs. In a lot of ways, that approach reveals our fundamental misunderstanding of the good life. In a culture of materialism and consumption, we mistake things as the key to happiness. But even the best and most important things, like work and school, won’t bring flourishing. And trying to “solve” poverty through the mentality of consumption will never transform communities.
FH is all about relationships. And we’ve seen that transformational changes come when a neighborhood unites. That occurs when the old model gets flipped upside down by not starting with a list of everything that a community needs. We don’t begin with what’s lacking. No! Transformation starts with neighbors seeing each other’s gifts, skills, abilities, and passions. If they connect around strengths and shared dreams, a community can create a vision of a new future. Maybe there are possibilities that nobody realized existed.
When FH Peru began working in Senaida’s community, she began to first see her mindset change. Workshops and training helped her understand that her community needed to be “united, with a single goal, a holistic look, with one heart and one God.”
Now, Senaida says that the lack of relationship between neighbors kept her community from doing great things. FH’s training helped her realize the importance of healing her own relationships. Our Scriptural worldview caused Senaida to begin “re-establishing” relationships.
Senaida in FH leadership training.
The writer, creator, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry says that community “answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members–among them the need to need one another.”
Berry has an amazing ability to focus his thought on the fundamentals of human life. He sets everything in the context of systems. The systems are relationships– to God, to each other, to the earth, and to all else in the world. And his writing speaks to a truth of FH’s training as well. FH focuses on developing the whole person. It’s not just about ending material poverty. Instead, we want people to live in relationship with each other and the rest of creation. Because that’s what flourishing is.
This may sound idealistic. Wendell Berry paints a vision of flourishing communities that looks different from the broken reality. Where there is poverty, conflict, and brokenness, Berry describes prevailing peace. Neighbors do not live in isolation.
What is the goal of ending poverty?
Because the goal of ending poverty isn’t independence. In some ways, families in Senaida’s communities were independent. They lacked harmony. Their futures were limited by lack of unity. Instead, the goal of poverty reduction is a relationship. For neighbors to dwell securely and peacefully…in working networks of interdependency. Where neighbors need each other to flourish.
Before, Senaida’s community was one lacking unity. Her relationships with her neighbors and even her husband were broken. Today, Senaida promotes workshops for children, families, and leaders with FH Peru. The community has a vision for restored relationships. Their goal of development cuts across spiritual, social, economic, and physical dimensions. And with those goals, FH Peru is raising up leaders like Senaida.
Senaida is a leader in her community. She teaches her neighbors about health and hygiene. She organizes talks and works to help mothers learn about their nutrition. Senaida organizes talks and opportunities for her neighbors to come together. She’s an example of a change-maker in her community. Leaders like her are the ones who help end poverty.
How can you build and restore relationships where you are?
If you haven’t heard, tomorrow is Random Acts of Kindness Day. Every year, I hear about people baking chocolate chip cookies for an elderly friend. Running a 5k for a breast cancer research. Leaving a bouquet of daisies on a stranger’s doorstep. Letting others cut in line at Starbucks. Or placing spare change next to a Coke vending machine. These are fun ways to shine a bit of unexpected light into someone else’s life for a moment.
But what if we each thought about other ways to care for our neighbors? Random acts of kindness and generosity are fun, but they’re not love of neighbor. True obedience to that commandment comes from relationship.
How can you become a good neighbor?
Ask yourself some of the following questions.
- How can I offer peace today?
- Where can I bring restoration out of conflict?
- What do I need to sacrifice in order to care for someone else?
- Are there small ways that I can bless the people around me?
- Will giving something up help me build relationships?