Rain beating off Cambodian roofs has me thinking about a theology of work. I’ve just returned from an amazing trip with our medical team to work alongside our Advent Conspiracy partners in Cambodia. Last year through AC, we partnered with Medical Teams International and Pastor Abraham, a Cambodian pastor, bringing emergency roofing material to a displaced slum community where he lives. Over a hundred families received roofs, but rather than Abraham or us building the roofs for the community, a different tack was taken.
Families were grouped with their neighbors into construction groups of five. The deal was: you only received roofing materials if you agreed to help the other four families in your group build their roofs as well. The families got to work together in rebuilding their community, receiving not only shelter over their heads but dignity in being a part of the process and a deepening of relational bonds with their neighbors. Parties took place during and after the roof-building days where the families celebrated what they had accomplished together. One of the things that struck me visiting with the families that had received roofs was the sense of dignity they expressed: they were not merely passive recipients of aid but active participants in the transformation that took place in their community.
I was struck by a number of things. First, my general gut-response in situations like this is to want to build the roofs for the community myself. You see this a lot: whether church mission teams or mainstream humanitarian organizations, we are often tempted to come in as outside ‘experts’ and do development to the community. We want to be helpful, and it feels good to be the hero. The irony in a situation like this is most all of the people in the community have the skills and know-how to build their own roofs, to make the shelter they need. Utilizing the skills and resources in the community broke down the stereotype (for us and them) of the Western heroes and the helpless poor. Rather, we were brothers and sisters together bringing what gifts and resources we had to the table.
Second, a process like this takes longer. It takes time to build the relationships, to cast the vision, to coordinate the families, to organize the construction. It would be a lot quicker and easier to hire an outside construction firm to come in and throw the roofs up. If the ultimate goal was getting as many roofs up as possible in the quickest amount of time, this might be sufficient. But lost in the process would be local dignity and ownership of the process. More so, it would likely breed dependency where local initiative was undermined by the expectation of continued outside aid.
So what does all this have to do with a theology of work? God created Adam to tend His garden, to cultivate the soil. God creates Adam (in part) to work. (Gen. 2:15) I believe there is a dignity that comes with work. God Himself is a worker: God spends the first six days in the work of creation. He is thereafter interactively involved in the work of redemption. God is a worker. God creates Adam in His image to tend His garden, to steward His creation, to cultivate and bring forth new things from the world God has made. We were created (in part) to work. Sure: work has been frustrated by the Fall (Gen. 3:17-19), and there is the danger of a work-a-holism where we don’t rest as God rests (Sabbath), and the image of God is much more multi-faceted than work (creativity, reason, relatedness, sovereignty, etc). But work is nonetheless an important part of human identity and calling. In international involvement, if we take over the opportunities for our local brothers & sisters to work and participate meaningfully in their community’s transformation, we can breed an unhealthy dependency on outside aid that undermines long-term local initiative and fosters an unhealthy savior complex in ourselves that sees us as more important than we ought. I believe a God-centered theology of work calls us to give extra time and energy to see how we can involve the recipients of aid in the process of their community’s transformation, to experience the dignity God has created them for in the cultivating of the soil, the providing for their families, the building of their communities, the stewarding of creation, in the dignity of work.