People over projects…

We all have those friends. Those people who always think they know more than we do and always have to be right. Those people who it’s their way or the highway—either we go where they want to go and do what they want to do, or they will find someone else to do it with and ditch you. Most of us would probably agree that those kinds of people are really annoying and not true friends.

Yet though we acknowledge those behaviors as bad in terms of friendship, often those very same attitudes are what guide our development. We may not look at it that way, but often those kinds of attitudes are what drive the particular projects or programs we offer in communities.

We believe that our education and exposure to the world makes us somehow more “qualified”—so we feel justified in coming in and telling a community everything they are doing wrong and what they should do to fix it.

We feel like we have something valuable to contribute, so we jump right in, feet first ready to bring a solution. Often, as Westerners we mistake Asian hospitality and respect as them agreeing with us. Just because they are not rude like an American would be for you making assumptions about them does not mean that they believe that the project you want to implement is best for them. Instead of building mutual respect and trust, you’ve become that rude friend that always has to be right.

It’s not that the communities do not have problems—we all have problems. The issue is not the community problems; it is the attitude of those of us who want to serve those communities. So how do we get to a place where we can deal with the problems and have a good (and respectful) attitude? I think we can do this through this thing called “community assessments.”

I don’t know about you, but the term “community assessment” can be a bit scary. I mean, first of all, where do we even start? The issues the community faces can see so overwhelming it is hard to narrow the focus? Also, what if you do the survey and you find out that the problems the community identifies are not the problems you think are the most important? Or even worse, what if the problems they identify are beyond the scope of what my organization can do and then you have to tell them you can’t help after all?

I think the problem with those assumptions is that it is a wrong view of community assessment. Community assessments really are a tool to help us build better relationships with the community. They help us learn to listen to their hopes, their dreams, their expectations, and even the challenges that they face. The community assessment takes the problems from paper and gives them names and faces. It reminds us that those we are serving are real people, real souls. But if you want to move your organization from caring about projects to caring about people—using a community assessment as a guided process is a great place to start.

Some people don’t need a community assessment to get to know people in a community. I am not one of those people. I am a tad awkward. I hate large group gatherings where I don’t have a specific task or role. For me, community assessments give me a reason to talk to women in the community one-on-one and begin to build relationships with them. One of the moms I talked to for the community assessment invited me into her home the next time I was there. It broke the ice between them and me.

Yes, assessments are hard, they take time, and sometimes the tangible results don’t feel like they are helpful. But we should do them anyway. Why? Because people are valuable. Because they are worthy of our time. Because they have a voice and they should be heard.

If we want community development to be a tool for evangelism, then we need to stop bulldozing our opinions and ideas about communities and begin to listen to them. As we build relationships we earn the right to be heard and can have the future opportunities to share our faith through relationships.

People are more important than projects. Projects are there to facilitate the growth and development of people, but they should never be the end goal. The end goal should be people being transformed into the image of Christ and them leading healthy and productive lives—physically and spiritually.

What I have I give to you – Lessons in Wellbeing Part 3

Sometimes the problems that we see in communities are so big that we don’t even know where to start working. It can be incredibly overwhelming to see the lack of clean water and realize that the project is so hard, and so huge—where do we even begin? Or maybe it’s nutrition—the kids are malnourished and the feeding program we developed doesn’t work. How do I begin to see transformation in the community relating to the food they feed their kids so that the kids are not malnourished and then stunted? Where to begin? It is often in that overwhelming moment that we freeze. We don’t know what to do so we do nothing. Or we charge ahead thinking we can solve the whole problem ourselves with our own ways.

Yet, as I have been talking to the mothers in the trash dump community, I am learning that often the solution to a huge problem is for a community to come together and everyone just do their part.

Saturday morning I was talking to a young mother, Lindawati, about what she loved the most about her community. As we were talking, she shared that she loves how within the community they take care of each other in their need. Yully, our community partner, cut in and explained what Lindawati meant. Whenever a family in the community has a huge financial need that they cannot cover themselves, a community representative (often Yully herself) goes around house to house for a collection. Each family contributes whatever it is that they have to spare, it didn’t have to be much—but everyone who could, contributed. The need is often huge and overwhelming. No one family can solve the problem. Yet they have discovered that if everyone just contributes what they can, they are a lot closer to the solution than waiting for a silver bullet solution that will magically take away the problem.

As I reflected on this, three lessons occurred to me.

First of all, when was the last time we gave to someone in need? I don’t mean we gave our extra Starbucks money—I mean we risked not being able to feed our families vegetables that week because we gave to someone in our community that had a need? If I am honest with myself, I don’t know when the last time I gave that way was…I wonder if this is how those who heard Jesus praise the widow who gave her two mites felt in Luke 21?

Second, while the community contributions may be monetary, what they are giving is more than money. By sacrificially sharing, they are standing in solidarity with each other. It is supporting each other through the difficulties life throws at them. Wellbeing has to include this kind of dimension—it has to have room to understand that while they may not economically have much—their relationships are rich and strong.

Third, I learned that there is value in just doing something rather than sitting by. Problems around us are huge and they can be overwhelming. But what if instead of waiting for a silver bullet solution, we decided we were going to do something about it, even if it’s just a small step? I’m not talking about haphazardly going into a community to solve a problem without thinking through the consequences. I’m talking about working together as a community to take care of one’s own. Of saying that a small step forward is better than waiting for there to be a giant step. And maybe a series of smaller steps will lead us to an unexpected breakthrough.


Works Cited:
Lindawati. Personal Interview. 5 August 2017.

Moder-day gleaning – Lessons in Wellbeing Part 2

Ani is approximately 55 years old. She has six children and lives in a small one-room shack over the sewage canal right across from the main entrance to the trash dump. She has lived in this community for almost ten years. I met Ani for the first time about three years ago when she came to one of the free medical clinics my organization conducted in her community. She is usually one of our best participants and whenever she is around, always comes to say hello. Ani is one of those people in the community that you can tell gets a little more grace than most people.

I have found that generally people are quite guarded talking about the structure of the trash dump, but Ani was excited when we started to ask her about her life and her job.

The trash dump is owned entirely by one “big boss.” He rents out large sections of it to several “bosses,” which in turn each rent sections of their plot to a few “little bosses.” Each little boss hires approximately five to six full time workers to sort through what the trucks bring to their section of the dump. Ani explained that it is a highly organized system with lots of bosses.

However, there is a segment of people who collect trash who are “independent workers.” They do not work for any one of the bosses—rather they are allowed to pick through the leftovers that the official crews have cast aside. Generally, Ani explained, they pick one type of trash that they want for that month and then if they collect something else, they exchange it with other independent workers. For example, if she is collecting plastic aqua cups and another person is collecting toys, if she finds a toy she can exchange it for a certain amount of aqua cups so that they can more quickly reach their goal to collect the same type of item so they can get more money. In addition, if the official worker crews find fresh fruits and vegetables or items good enough to be sold, often they will give it to the independent workers for either very little or even free.

As Ani explained the arrangement of independent workers at the trash dump, it occurred to me that this sounds very similar to the Old Testament principle of gleaning. In the Old Testament, the harvesters were to leave some grain or barley behind so that the marginalized could come behind them and be able to collect grain and barley to be able to survive. Through gleaning, the gleaners were able to survive, while maintaining the dignity of working for their survival rather than just being handed free charity. This is very similar to what the trash crews do. They leave some trash to the side so that those who cannot work as official trash crew can still work to survive. The trash dump community has created their own system for caring for the marginalized in a way that retains their dignity and self-worth because they are still earning an income and providing for their families.

What an incredible lesson in development! How often do we create programs that give people free handouts, rather than work within the system already present in the community to help them, while still allowing them the dignity to provide for their own families? Work is important because providing for one’s family gives them dignity and self-worth. Ani was incredibly proud that she could provide for the school fees of her children through her trash collection. It would be easy to just give free vouchers for the school feels—but wouldn’t that rob her of the ability to have provided for her kids herself? Isn’t what the trash crews are doing, letting her go behind them to collect, more compassionate? They are showing mercy in a way that builds her confidence and self-worth.

As we develop programs in communities, this principle of modern-day gleaning reminded me that we need to be careful to in our pursuit of “help” not rob people of their dignity. This is why developing programs the community identifies as important is a good starting place. As they identify their needs and are a part of the solution, their confidence is being built as they realize that they have enough value and worth to determine their own future.


Works Cited:
Ani. Personal Interview. 5 August 2017.

What do you see? – Lessons in Wellbeing Part 1

When you look at the picture below, what do you see? It seems like a silly question, but actually take a minute and think through what you see.


I remember the first time I went to this trash dump community, almost four years ago. I remember getting out of the car and being overwhelmed by the heat, the flies, and the smell of trash. As I looked around, all I could see was shacks, trash, kids playing in heaps of garbage, and a sewage canal. I saw people having to slave away in the heat of the day with such a demeaning job as picking through trash. Poor community, I thought. I felt sorry for them. I thought I felt compassion, but really it was pity.

Over time, though, my perception of this community has shifted. I had not realized how much it has shifted until a couple weeks ago when I took a team from America to visit this community. After we got back to Jakarta, as I heard them make the exact same reflections I had made after my first visit, I realized that I no longer shared their observations about the community—I no longer saw what they saw and felt what they felt. As I thought about why that is, I realized it’s because over time I have gotten to know the people in the community. I have started to learn their stories. It’s not about the physical environment they live in; it’s about the people who live in that environment.

Now, as I look at this same picture, I see something completely different. I see hard work and determination. I see positive attitudes in the midst of difficult situations. I see a group of resilient people who keep pushing on, even when outside forces seem to be against them. I see a close-knit community that is constantly connected and in each other’s homes. I see fathers providing the best they can for the needs of their families. I see a clear community organizational structure that takes care of the most marginalized within their community. This community is not to be pitied—it is to be admired. Their resilience, their ingenuity, their strong community bonds are inspiring.

You see, often there is a lot more going on in a community beneath the surface. But do we take the time to ask people their stories? Do we take time to ask people what their dreams for the future are? Do we even care if they told us? When we look beyond the surface, when we truly talk to people on a deeper level, it is amazing what we will find.

That’s not to say that health and education programs are not necessary in the community—I really believe they are. But the community is a strong community and they should have a voice and an opinion as to what they want. What is their idea of a healthy community? What do they think are the next steps to a healthier place for their children? What programs do they want to see in their community? What structures are already present that can be built upon rather than reinvented? It is important to discover what the women in the community believe an ideal community looks like and help them figure out how to get to that dream.

As I’ve gotten to spend time with and get to know the mothers in this community, I have realized that true development is about this idea my grad program calls “co-powerment.” I don’t just empower them, they don’t just empower me—we empower each other. Through working together to make the community a better place we both grow and develop in the process. It is in this co-powerment that we both get closer to wellbeing.