Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 3, no. 1 (February 2012)

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Relief Missions: Short-Term But Essential

Larry Wu

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. – Chinese Proverb

This proverb suggests that the solution to this man’s hunger problem is found in teaching him a skill that will provide for his lifetime of need; in particular, hunger. Giving him a fish to eat will only satisfy his hunger temporarily. He needs a fish because he doesn’t know how to catch one. I don’t know who would, or could, disagree with this wisdom. Viewing this situation in a long-term perspective, it appears as if the giver really isn’t helping by simply giving what is needed at that moment. Teaching, therefore is a better solution than giving.

This view and perspective is currently being posed to Christian-based relief agencies like the one I work for: Christian Relief Fund. We are being told that the work we are doing, and the help we are providing, are not really ideal long-term solutions for the people we are feeding, protecting, and serving. Other non-profit organizations focus their efforts and resources towards programs that provide job training, teach a skill, or focus on education to help the needy improve their situation. Some suggest that groups like CRF may not be providing real assistance through charitable giving, and our resources could be better put towards solutions and programs that teach people to fish, in a figurative sense, of course. Here’s the strange part: some of the sharpest critics of our work are also the same ones asking us to assist them with short-term disaster relief or sponsorship of the orphans coming to their programs.

Let me stop the argument by first saying, “The Christian Relief Fund agrees!” We may not like the passive-aggressive style of the message, but we acknowledge that under the right conditions, we need to focus on solutions that give people in need real long-term solutions to poverty, hunger, homelessness, and lack of education. BUT (and this is a big but), how can you choose not to meet the immediate needs to keep people from dying from thirst or hunger? How do you teach a starving adult, let alone a starving child, how to fish when death is so close? They may not make it through, or even to, lesson one: “How to make a fishing net.” While starvation, thirst, and death are powerful motivators for survival, they may not make the best motivators for learning a new skill.

Baxter Loe founded the “John Abraham Christian Relief Fund” (the former name of the CRF) in 1971. He originally named the organization after John Abraham to remind him of how imminent death is to people in great need. Baxter, an Amarillo preacher and businessman, went on a short-term mission trip to India. He met John Abraham, a preacher and missionary in the village Baxter visited. The area was experiencing a tremendous famine, and John asked Baxter for help to feed his family. Baxter promised to send money upon his return to Texas. After returning to the US, Baxter got caught up in his own busyness and forgot to send money back to John. Much later, he received a telegram from India with these four haunting words: “John Abraham is dead.” He had starved to death anticipating help would soon be arriving from the US. Baxter began having nightmares of John Abraham’s death. He was hounded by the thought of seeing John hopefully waiting for the gift that never came. After many troubled nights, Baxter decided that God was calling him to support the orphaned children of John Abraham. He didn’t stop with those children. Christian Relief Fund has programs in 30 countries, focusing on the most vulnerable of the world—children without advocates. Our mission is based on Luke 2:52, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” Our belief is that the best we can do is to care for those that are the most vulnerable, and that care involves meeting not just physical needs, but spiritual, educational, and social needs as well.

I doubt John Abraham needed to learn how to “fish.” I am sure he had the skills necessary to provide for his family. John needed a fish or two to see him through a difficult time. The situation there was so dire that many people could not make an adequate living. Extending our use of the Chinese proverb, there was no possibility of “fishing,” or catching any “fish.” This happens, whether through an act of nature or in a man-made situation. There are many hot spots of human suffering in our world today. These areas are so impoverished from drought or ravaged by warfare that “fishing lessons” would be useless and a waste of resources. The greatest needs are immediate relief aid: clean drinking water, food, firewood, health care, safety, and compassion. The modern day tragedy that is the Horn of Africa comes immediately to mind. Hundreds of thousands of displaced people are starving to death. Teaching them a skill is pretty far down the list of needs. Keeping them alive and giving them hope for the future is on top. I think the best biblical example is found in 2 Cor 8:1-4. There is a great famine in Israel causing large-scale starvation, and the new churches in Macedonia have taken up a generous contribution to send to the churches in Jerusalem. It is giving aid with no strings attached and no conditions required.

I am not sure that the Chinese proverb asks the reader to judge which action is right. It does not say that feeding a man for a day is wrong. It compares two ideologies that can, and should, coexist. The idea of “yin and yang” must be applied here. There are situations that call for compassion and short-term relief aid, just as there are situations that require a more sustainable form of assistance. Christian Relief Fund believes there should be a balance. Our care of orphans is focused on the long-term needs of children. Giving them an education teaches skills they will need to succeed in society. Teaching them about Jesus Christ helps to concretely identify the real priorities in life. We are also applying microfinance in whole communities to help them better provide for their own needs. It’s not an “either/or” situation; it’s both because the needs of the poor in our world stack up higher than the resources charitable aid groups have at their disposal.

Larry Wu is the Director of Field Operations for Christian Relief Fund (http://christianrelieffund.org). He previously served three years on the CRF board of directors. Larry spent the first twenty-eight years of his career in the Food and Beverage industry. Contact Larry at lwu@christianrelieffund.org.