Thursday, August 16, 2007

Charitable Choice: Should We Help Via the Marketplace or Via the Church?

Someone came to me with an interesting proposal recently: for my church to sponsor an African native in the U.S. while he gets Information Technology training for two years. The man whose idea this is has a great heart and a mature understanding of charity, so I listened carefully. There are several unique pieces to this proposal. First, we would sponsor someone who is a Christian, but not someone who is officially engaged in the life of the church in Sierra Leone, where he’s from. In other words, he’s not a seminarian, missionary or pastor. Second, that we would not only give some money to help someone in need, but we would full-scale sponsor a person with only the hope that he would proclaim the gospel in Africa through his business. And this is no small proposal; the total would be at least $50,000 for the two-year program.

What makes the proposal even more risky is that we would be sponsoring someone to get Information Technology training, only to go back to a country that has minimal infrastructure for such a position. That he could get employment is no guarantee; in fact, we might need to rely on his entrepreneurship skills to start a business rather than work for someone else. But we are trying to look beyond that, to see what could take place in Sierra Leone in the years to come, and to consider the role technology will have there. I have to admit, it is a bit of a daring proposal, but it comes as frustration mounts with bad charity, government aid that seldom seems to help, and seeing our brothers and sisters suffer while we know there is more we could do.

It should be noted that a majority of charitable propositions related to Africa seem to revolve around a few cornerstones: its people are poor so they need money, they are hungry so they need food, they are thirsty so they need water. Most of which is true, and some charities have become more innovative to provide lasting solutions, like digging water wells instead of shipping food, or donating money for an entire calf instead of a little money that gets spread around to varying food distribution charities. This way, the food and water are self-perpetuating, and the building blocks are there for ensuring health.

Still, perhaps the most popular “charity” to emerge for Africa is Bread for the World, through the One Campaign. ( I’ve written more about them here. Essentially, this is less of a charity and more of a lobby, an effort to redistribute American wealth to a country that has very little. The fact that we have been doing this for decades and the problems still persist there seem to phase them not even a little. Worse, I find this star-studded approach (their website chronicles the many celebrities who champion the cause) to charity pandering and un-thoughtful. Apparently none of these celebrities (who quite probably did not finish high school) bother to consider if their proposal would actually work. Perhaps helping with such causes helps them assuage some guilt.

So let me iterate again how unusual the proposal I’m considering is compared to so many others I’ve seen. This charity would full-scale (instead of piecemeal) sponsor someone who will spend the majority of his employment in the marketplace. The church would have no way of ensuring a good “return on investment”; we would only trust he would be a faithful witness after he has received his training here, mostly on our dime. But the more I thought about it, the more biblical the proposal was. Consider these biblical figures who only spent part of their lives with their ministry: Jesus, Paul, Peter, and pretty much every disciple who ever had a day job. In fact, few Biblical characters were full-time prophets or spiritual leaders, including Abraham, Moses, Luke (he was a physician). It is true that the major prophets like Elijah, Elisha and John the Baptist seemed not to have day jobs, but to spread the gospel without it being a full-time occupation is an entirely biblical principle.

The basic problem is the same temptation towards big government; it is easier to trust a large, anonymous institution than to take the risk of personal involvement. It would be easier for my church to write a check. It would be easier to trust another institution whose heart seems to be in the right place. But that doesn’t seem like enough anymore. In my economic philosophy, I trust the marketplace. Why not with regards to evangelism as well?

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