Dignity and Dependency

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.

Categories: Theology

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One Comment

  • Josh…I am Paul Ramey’s Mom. We visited your church today, April 25th. Paul’s Dad, Ken, visited every service today and loved each one in their uniqueness! I just wanted to convey to you that I enjoyed your ministering within your gifts this evening and was impressed with your overall presence. I have to say it….ready for a laugh…or maybe you have been told this before…but then maybe not….here it comes….you remind me of a young Keith Green. You HAVE heard of him….right! If not look him up or go buy his book, if you can find it, “No Compromise”. But after reading your blog on “Dignity and Dependency”, I’m made aware that your thinking is more like Keith’s than just your appearance and mannerisms. I really appreciated your report of your experience in Cambodia and am so totally there with the idea of the five construction groups of five working together on their roofs thereby building relational bonds within the groups, casting vision, coordinating families, & supporting the populous in taking care of themselves with their skills, not needing outside help with the skills that they already possess but accepting help with the materials to accomplish the task, which is where we, the Christian Community, SHOULD step up to the plate and be used for the Glory of God. We have been a part in the past of these ministries that come in for a week and do the whole project, from beginning to end, building entire houses & I have always walked away…oh sure…feeling good about what was accomplished in the Name of the Lord….yet feeling in some way we had done a disservice in leaving the “new homeowner” with bigger problems & greater challenges than he had before we walked in being their savior with jealousy from their neighbors (& in some situations making them a target requiring them having to put wood planks over their windows inside so the neighbors can’t see their new beds,blankets and pillows, stockpiles of food lined up against the walls, something to cook on and utensils, dishes and glasses. What was done in Cambodia was so incredibly productive on so many levels….it was nothing short of awesome! I appreciate your sharing your heart in this amazing spectrum of ministry and pray the Lord continues to bless all the endeavors there in Cambodia and other parts of the world for the building of His Kingdom. Paul is totally stoked in being able to work with you, combining your gifts to serve Christ. Of course, I am Paul’s Mother….so I have to add that Paul has much to offer you, as well, as the Lord has put Paul & Mere through some negative schools (as well as positive ones) in the last years which has only broadened them for a richer work in making them ultimately more valuable tools in bringing more to Him….which is after all….what we all are (or should) be aspiring to. I can’t wait to see what God does with the two of you meshed in hearts and gifts. Thank you for your time in reading what Paul is calling my “Book” to you. Thank you for your time. May the Lord gift you daily with His Power to make a difference in this world! I pray for my son daily….so your name will be on my lips as well because you will be working close with him….thereby affecting his world….therefore I will be praying for you as well, Josh!
    Peace be with you.

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