Quotation of the Week

No, Juan was not blaming his people for becoming beggars.  He was faulting the affluent, well-meaning U.S. church for its unexamined generosity.  His accusations, now pouring forth with considerable force, were directed at naïve “vacationaries” who spend millions of dollars traveling to his country, perform work that locals could better do for themselves, and create a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments – all in the name of Christian service.  The unintended consequences of such mission work was undoing the very vision Juan had given his life to – helping his people emerge from poverty through training, entrepreneurship, saving and hard work.     

From Bob Lupton’s October issue of Urban Perspectives (the link above goes to the Urban Perspectives index, though it looks as if the October issue is not yet posted)


  1. Erika,

    I forwarded this post to a friend of mine who travels with his family (wife and two daughters) to Juarez every year to help build houses and work on an orphanage. I personally don’t know which side of this is “right” or “wrong”, but I thought Mark had a different perspective. With his permission, here is his reply:

    I’d say this could be a valid criticism *somewhere* in Mexico or even the US, but I don’t think it works in the case of what this organization we work with does.

    1) Our generosity is not “unexamined.” We’re very deliberate about what we provide and what we don’t.

    2) Work like we do is not work that “locals could better do for themselves.” A trained team of around 25-30 people build a foundation and a house in a good 30 or 40 hours of work, which means up to 1200 man-hours of work. The people I’ve been around down there generally have jobs they have to work at for 50-60 hours per week by the time you add in transportation time (Juarez is sprawling and traffic jams and bus routes slow things to a crawl.) How long would it take a solo worker to build the same place on the same site that they already have a residence. It is reasonable to move into a smaller place for a week while a better house is built in your regular site. This is not-to-mention the fact that we’re putting in around 5-10K worth of materials. That’s more than they make in a year. So how long would it take them to build the capital “out of pride” to be able to build their own house? Long enough for the mold and crap in the cardboard-and-plastic-bag house they live in to kill their infants of respiratory disease?

    3) We don’t deprive them of the “pride of their own accomplishments.” When they are actually available to help (my argument for point two), we invite them to help, and we’ve never been turned down. I’ve seen many folks on the crew hand their tools over (which the natives don’t have or can’t afford) to let them build their own house.

    4) “All in the name of Christian service.” I have problems with this one within the church – I believe in compassion, in helping, in working for others. I do it because I believe it to be the right thing to do, and it just so happens that Christianity says the same thing. And yet I would argue very strongly with Juan that avoiding helping others because it’s the Christian thing to do and you don’t want to be churchy is inane. Help. Give. Wherever you can. And don’t leave others in destitution just because you don’t want to be churchy. This is truly an evil point on his part.

    5) A point not addressed is who these people actually are. I can discuss demographics, income, available time, family dynamics, etc of all of the families and the orphanages (oh, yeah, let them pull themselves out of pride – never mind the fact they can’t afford food) we’ve worked with. Nowhere in Juan’s analysis do I see anything that reflects the reality of Juarez.

    6) BTW – after doing this work for several years, my perspective on illegal immigration, the types of jobs Mexicans take on both here and there, etc, has changed. These are hard-working, proud people who need a help up and will generally grab at it if offered in reason.

    But thanks for asking. 🙂


  2. Jim,

    Thanks for bringing this to the discussion. I realize too that only posting a portion of Bob’s article, especially when his words are fairly harsh, is a liability.

    Anyway, I really appreciate hearing from your friend and hope to hear more from others here…

  3. I understand and truly appreciate Jim and Mark’s takes. And Bob’s too.

    Maybe we’re struggling to get beyond American politically liberal and conservative talking points. I doubt if he would identify himself that way, but Mark came across as a muscular, no nonsense old school liberal (with some of the old school paternalistic arrogance involved). Bob, as he sometimes does, wrote his ideologically right wing empowerment thing even though in practice he’s been known to do a handout or two or many more :^) I’m guessing each of them–since they both seem to do real good for others–are probably more balanced and life giving in real life than their words in this polarized ‘virtual exchange’ might indicate.

    I’m actually impressed with both. I’m coming off involvement with a ministry that–in my experience–doesn’t do a whole lot of practical good for poor people. You’ve gotta do some real and extensive practical good for poor folks–like Mark and Bob–before you even qualify for the kind of ideological discussion going on here.

  4. Bob’s article describes wells built that are then never used; walls built only to be torn down and built again; churches constructed where no one is needing them. Those are examples that clearly show how short-term missions can be self-serving and exploitative. I would love to hear more stories from Mark and people like him who can describe how they are a benefit. It is easy to do things without taking seriously our need to evaluate/critique, and assume that our life-changing experience overseas with the “needy’ comes at no cost. Clearly Juan (an indigenous leader) disagrees. His voice, and others like him, are probably pretty important to listen to…but I doubt that there would be one mind about it among different communities. But it is certainly good to ask the questions…

  5. In my experience, short term mission approaches don’t normally do much good for poor people, for sure.

    But I think they can benefit poor communities if done carefully and well. Habitat for Humanity, for example, is an organization built on the idea of short term investment that creates practical and life giving long term benefits for poor people.

    Many short term mission programs are set up to briefly introduce big numbers to the mission field to win and winnow out the very few that end up going long term. I think those programs are also aimed at influencing the advantaged (as well as the potentially advantaged)to give big dollar eventually to long term mission work as a result of their short term experience. And finally, to introduce new people into the local western church who will support cross cultural mission and keep that vision alive.

    To be fair, I think those kinds of short term approaches are sometimes effective at getting the very few to the long term field and even more effective at attracting big dollar for long term approaches. And it’s never a bad thing to have some people in every congregation who have actually traveled outside the US and can bring some perspective.

    But, as Bob says, those short term approaches usually do more damage than good for poor communities. True. Hard to get over the paternalism and ignorance in a few weeks or months or a couple of years.

    I guess we’ve got to balance various values. Development directors for long term missions probably like the short term mission programs (internships? :^) cuz they bring in the bucks over time.

    How does the damage normally done to poor communities by short term mission projects stack up against the value of those short term projects in getting long term western and well off missionaries supported and onto the field?

    As a result, at least for me, the discussion of short term western missions–because of their characteristic costliness for the poor in the service of ‘a greater good’–always leads back to an evaluation of long term western missions. Long term western mission efforts to the poor have to justify the typical damage short term efforts do. Otherwise–at least in my view–most short term efforts are hard to defend.

  6. This is Mark – you have Jim to thank for me posting this. If my reaction to my first post is similar to my reaction to my first single-malt scotch (also thanks to Jim), then I will be wasting even more time on-line than usual.

    I’m not sure I have much to offer in terms of additional stories to tell. I will give a couple, though.

    First year I went on this mission trip to Mexico, the father of the family we built a house for worked approximately 60 hours a week as a bus-driver for a salary of around 6KUSD/year; he was unable to be there for any of the construction due of that work schedule. The team we took on the trip was completely inexperienced and had to work hours and intensities far beyond what they had ever done before. We finished the build on the last day just before our plane had to return to Denver, and the father took off time from work to be there for the dedication ceremony and handover of the keys to the new house. Not a dry eye in the house. The mother of the house cooked a dinner for the entire team which was obviously a huge time and finance burden on her given her kitchen size and food budget but it was something she strongly wanted to do. The reality of giving and love between a team of gringos and this Mexican family was palpable.

    Another year, the husband of the family we built for was too embarrassed to help for the first couple of days. By the third day of the build, he was out helping as much as he could, even though he didn’t speak a word of English and many of us didn’t speak any Spanish. The following year we returned and hunted the house down – the family we built for was still there. Through an interpreter, we found out that for the last year, any time they were driving through the streets of Juarez and saw 15-passenger vans which we use when we’re in Juarez, they quickly pulled up next to the vans, hoping that the vans would be carrying our team and they would be able to say thanks again. A year after the build was complete, the family still had a photograph we had taken of them and us pinned to the wall of their new home.

    I could tell you stories about the orphanage that would make you cry – they sure made us cry. The leaders of the orphanage are desperate for help.

    Like anything else in life, you find what you are good at, where you can help, and you plug in. I’ve coached youth sports for the last ten years or so, and would argue that you can do more to spread the gospel and have a positive impact on people through youth sports than you can in most churches these days.


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