Sunday, June 24, 2007

Reflections from Appalachia: Part II

Or, From Charity to Justice

When thinking about the work that ASP is doing, I am proud that I was able to be a part of it. Given the opportunity, I would go again. I am sure that next year we will plan a similar trip, and hopefully even more young adults will participate than this year. It is good to be drawn out of your comfort zone and pushed into a different culture and socio-economic situation than the one you live in. Although the participants go to help the people of Appalachia, I believe that in many instances the ones serving learn more and are ministered to more than the ones being served. ASP helps teach youth, young adults, and adults who come to serve about the realities of life.

One of the frustrating things about ASP for me, however, is the challenge of moving beyond charity and towards justice. Fixing someone's trailer is nice and certainly makes her situation more comfortable, but it does little to solve the societal issues that make her as poor as she is. Don't get me wrong--the work that ASP is accomplishing is very important for the individuals whose lives they touch. However, even though a person's trailer may be warmer, safer, and drier, she is still poor and unemployed. It's similar to a soup kitchen--feeding the hungry is a wonderful thing to do. These people have an immediate need, which is to eat. However, they will just come back hungry again tomorrow unless you work to fix the bigger issue that is causing them to be hungry in the first place.

I don't claim to know everything about ASP's agenda in Appalachia, and as I have already stated, I do believe they are doing a wonderful ministry there. Some of the evenings we spent in Knox County were spent discussing the issues of poverty in the area, what we think about it, and what we think we could do about it. We were asked if we believed that the situation there is hopeless. We were taught about the history that brought poverty into that part of our country. We were taught about the rich heritage there. We were also taught the statistics--in some parts of Appalachia, including in Knox County where we were, unemployment can reach 20%. That means that 1 out of every 5 people is unemployed. At what point do we move beyond fixing people's homes and talking about the situation, and towards doing something to improve the root causes of the problem?

The manual that I received from ASP prior to going to Appalachia says on page 17 that "[ASP founder Tex Evans] created ASP not to solve the poverty issues in Appalachia but to change lives." I think there is something missing here. ASP does a wonderful job at building relationships and increasing the understanding of poverty in those who come to serve. ASP also does a fine job at changing individual families' lives by making their homes warmer, safer, and drier. But--what is happening to change the root cause of the problem?

I have to admit that I know full well that there are no easy answers. I believe we should be moving from charity (fixing peoples' trailers) and towards justice (solving the problem of poverty in Appalachia so that everyone's quality of life improves), but I do not know how to do that. Maybe if I had made my home in Appalachia in service to the local people, I might understand better how to do that. But, maybe not. I lived in Africa for two years in a place where most people support their families on less than $1.00 a day. After being there for two years, I still do not know what the solution is to their problems. I do have some ideas about how to help solve some of them. But, they have been made victims of governments and militias and so many other powers beyond their control. How do we go about changing history?

I do not believe that the situation in Appalachia is hopeless. But I also wonder what I can effectively do about it. Rollie Martinson, one of my professors in seminary once said to me (I'm paraphrasing here) that the size of the problem may be as big as a beach ball, and what you can do about it might be the size of a marble. But, at least you have done that much, and if everybody did a marble's worth, then many marbles would eventually fill the beach ball and eliminate the problem. Maybe that is what ASP is doing--slowly filling the beach ball with marbles, one run-down trailer at a time. In the process, they are educating people about the issues in Appalachia. Maybe one day that will lead to a solution. Maybe we are slowly moving that way now... so slowly, that I can not see it with my limited vision.

Historical, social, and economic factors in Appalachia have aligned themselves in a frustrating and seemingly endless cycle of poverty. We can not change the past. How do we move ahead into a future with hope?


Dawn said...

The problem is the size of a very complicated beach ball. I've thought a lot about many of the questions you raise in this post. I think it is more a matter of changing us than fixing trailers. Someone told me once that affluent America might be the greatest mission field in the world. Imagine what could happen if all of these people with all of these resources became servant-hearted... anyway, we should have this discussion in person sometime :-)

Have you read the book Understanding Poverty? I think you would find it very interesting. I'll loan ya a copy if you're interested.

Rebecca said...

Hi Dawn,

This is an awesome comment! I really like what you said about affluent America possibly being the greatest mission field in the world. I think you are right... it is about changing OUR hearts, which could ultimately lead to change in Appalachia and elsewhere. I wish we would/could all do our marble's-worth.

I would like to borrow that book from you sometime. We can definitely talk more about this later! I'd like to hear more of your thoughts about it based on your ASP experiences.


Mr. Drew said...

This posting makes me uncomfortable. Very uncomfortable, so good job! It is hard to see beyond the immediate needs of those we serve to the bigger issue of justice - because it seem so enormous.

Enormity has apathy as a partner - so many things go undone because they are too big, too complicated. Most of us would rather not think about it - because it makes us uncomfortable.

I do have faith that small things (like meeting immediate needs) are important, and can change lives. But you are also correct to point out that often, it may not seem like enough.

Jesus changed the world not with a blog or a website or televangelism, but only with the people he could contact directly. And look what happened.

Every waterfall starts with a single drop of water.........

Another good book:
The Irresistible Revolution by Shane Claiborne