Book Review–When Helping Hurts

I see them everywhere in Costa Rica, and they always make me cringe a little:  they are conspicuous because they are mostly white, usually wearing matching t-shirts, walking around like they own the place and taking pictures of everything.  Who are they? Tourists? Space aliens? No, they are Short Term Missionaries.

Why do I cringe? Because I too have been a Short Term Missionary—on seven different occasions, in fact.  These experiences, plus a fair amount of research into the topic, tell me that the burgeoning phenomenon of short term missions is a decidedly mixed blessing.

For example, I recently joined a short-term missionary team for a day’s work in a precario (urban slum).  Unlike some teams, everyone seemed to be motivated by a genuine desire to serve and committed no egregious cultural faux pas.  We did worthwhile labor that really helped several families living in extreme poverty.  I helped to pour a smooth cement floor in the entryway to Maria Rosa’s corrugated iron dwelling, which replaced the slanted mix of mud and excrement that had been there before.

So what was the problem?  Well, nearly everyone in this precario are Nicaraguan immigrants driven to Costa Rica in search of jobs.  In fact, Maria Rosa’s husband was six hours away trying to find work in—you guessed it—construction.  As our team busily worked “for” the poor, the poor themselves sat and watched as North Americans with limited construction skills did work they themselves had left their homes to find.  We had missed a golden opportunity to share resources that could have empowered them to improve their own neighborhood and to learn from them how to build under such exacting circumstances.  Further, a professor at the seminary later told me that there are more than forty ministries operating in that precario.  They rarely cooperate with each other and basically offer short-term handouts that foster dependence.  My heart ached as I realized that we had contributed to this culture of charitable dysfunction.

This example of short term missions raises the larger question of how we can give to and serve with the poor in ways that are empowering and not debilitating.   And this is exactly the question that Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address in their book When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…and yourself. Corbett and Fikkert, who are professors at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, have targeted their book at North American Christians who have good intentions but little experience with the complex realities of poverty and development.  When Helping Hurts offers an introduction to the biblical basis for engaging poverty, basic best practices from the development field, and practical advice on how congregations can effectively be involved.

The strongest three themes of the book are ones that wealthy North American Christians desperately need to hear:

First, Corbett and Fikkert insightfully identify the root cause of “hurtful helping.”  They claim that the default mode of middle-class Americans is to assume that they know how to fix poverty by giving away material goods, which reinforces “our” messiah complexes and “their” disempowerment. In the authors’ words,

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being economically rich—their god complexes—and the poverty of being economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame.

Often this dynamic expresses itself when wealthy Christians offer short-term relief in situations that really require long-term rehabilitation and development.

In order to address this hurtful pattern, Corbett and Fikkert emphasize the importance of leveraging the already-existing assets of struggling communities in order to empower greater participation of the poor in their own development.  This is really Development 101, but it is often not followed by well-meaning Christians.  So the authors’ accessible and relevant presentation of these concepts is a valuable contribution indeed.

Finally, When Helping Hurts offers practical strategies for helping without hurting.  In perhaps their best chapter, Corbett and Fikkert offer a number of diagnostic questions that could dramatically improve short term missions teams.  Have local people invited the team and defined the team’s contribution?  Could the cost of the short term trip (say, $20,000) be better invested by simply helping to fund existing local groups’ work?  Is there pre-and post-trip training that helps participants stay involved in Kingdom work for the long term instead of just having a one-off experience of “spiritual tourism?”

When Helping Hurts does have its weaknesses.  It is less than compelling in its presentation of patterns of structural injustice that cause and maintain poverty.  It underemphasizes the radical call for the rich to share with the poor.  It overemphasizes empowering the poor to gain financial independence to the neglect of the New Testament ideal of interdependence within the Body of Christ.  Nevertheless, the next time I lead a short term mission team, I will definitely require that everyone read this book.  I hope When Helping Hurts continues to have wide influence. Perhaps then I will cringe a little less when I see all those matching t-shirts.

Have you read this book?  Did this review make you think of your own short term missions experiences? If so, please share your thoughts below!

Book Review– Organized Simplicity

Simple living. For the typical American in this economic climate, that sounds like a swell idea. For the Christian looking to free up more resources for the Kingdom, that also appeals. But what, exactly, does this entail? Living like an ascetic? Throwing away the stuff in the garage? Somewhere in between? Tsh Oxenreider, creator of the blog, has come up with a step-by-step, room-by-room answer in Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living.

A former missionary, Oxenreider started a blog about simple family living while overseas (her family is now based in Austin, Texas.) The book is a compilation of the ideas and tips featured on her web site. Since she started her blog in 2008, and since then, it’s expanded into a mini-empire with over 27,000 subscribers, 500,000 monthly page views, advertisers and sponsors, five offshoot websites (,, etc.) and multiple contributors.

I stumbled upon this blog through the blog grapevine (blogvine?), and was intrigued with the mainstream success of a devout Christian. How would she incorporate her faith objectives (as I had assumed her reason for downsizing home life), with her practical solutions for living? Oxenreider describes simple living as: living holistically with your life’s purpose. Problem is, she doesn’t really get into what that really means. Her Christianity is mentioned only in passing, without explanation. It has an elephant-in-the-room quality about it.

While this choice to omit deeper motivations may make the book more accessible, it makes it difficult to glean why Oxenreider is so intent on living simply. She only refers to wanting intentionality for her life goal—filling a house with kids, a husband, and love (in her words, “nesting”). Oxenreider predicates the purpose of her blog on the principle that, “When we find solutions for cutting everyday life clutter, we’re taking care of our family, our home, and ourselves.” The point of living simply, it seems, is to live simply.

Oxenreider introduces these foundations for her way of living, and the majority of the book is focused on how to de-clutter. This is exemplified in the 2nd part of the book, “Ten Days to a Simpler, More Organized Home.” Each day centers on a room, and is filled with solutions about how to prioritize things and checklists for cleaning. For example, in the master bedroom, Oxenreider instructs the reader to “stick to the classics,” to keep the basic black dress, skirt, etc. She also writes that under-the-bed storage boxes are a good idea. Finally, there are reflections at the end of each chapter, mostly encouraging the reader to reflect on the purpose of the room and to de-clutter accordingly.

In all, the book is a handy guide but most likely replicates the tips on her blog (but minus all the ads, ironically). Like many things, the value of the book depends on your expectations. Fairly or not, I was expecting a more personal story about why Oxenreider and her family want to live simply. To be fair, there are references and stats about wealth levels and standards of living, but I had been looking forward to reading about how her and her family not only simplified their home and lives but also about what motivated them to continue to do so.

I was slightly let down when the book seemed little different from a family-focused issue of Real Simple. As such, the usefulness of the book then depends on the type of audience. If you’re a single person looking for philosophical or theological rationale breathing purpose into directives for living simply, then you will be dissatisfied (but take heart, this blog you are currently reading is a good place for this!) If you’re a busy stay-at-home mom (“home manager”) looking for tips to nurture simple domestic living, read her blog. If you’re a busy stay-at-home mom looking for home recipes for detergent and lists to de-clutter and prefer to have it in a bound guide, then this book is for you.

Book Review – The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Made and Gave Away a Fortune Without Anyone Knowing

Have you ever bought anything in an airport Duty-Free Store (DFS)?  I never have.  I’ve walked by plenty of them, wondering who purchases expensive cognac and cases of cigarettes to have them mailed home.  Now after reading this book, I know the answer: Japanese tourists during the 70’s and 80’s.

I would never have thought of DFS as a business opportunity, but Chuck Feeney did.  Together with a few partners, he built it from scratch into a company that sold for $6 billion.  Not many people can claim that feat.  But even more remarkably, he gave away over 99% of his wealth while still alive.  He lives a modest lifestyle, wearing a plastic watch, flying economy class, and not owning a house.  Who is this guy?  For most of his life, that was difficult to answer because he was so incredibly secretive.  DFS made its money by opening stores in airports where the bidding was done in secret.  To know a competitor’s bid would give you the power to outbid him by $1, and win the right to operate a storefront on prime real estate.  The book notes that Feeney got his start in secrecy in the US Air Force, working on coded radio transmissions.  But the way I read it, he was just a shrewd businessman.  While in the military, he got access to the travel logs of navy ships and used them to run a retail operation, taking orders to have goods sent home — a precursor to DFS.  Naturally his secret knowledge of the logs were critical to his business and kept competitors at bay, not to mention the authorities who would have stopped his access to that information.  Secretly skirting lax international tax laws was another core strategy for DFS.

His desire for secrecy and anonymity carried into his philanthropy as well.  Instead of having buildings named after himself, he didn’t even let grantees know who made the donation!  Naturally that made some people nervous, thinking they were getting laundered money.  So Feeney established The Atlantic Philanthropies and built a network of respected leaders who would vouch that the money was legitimate while keeping his privacy.

Many of us wonder and perhaps fantasize about what it would be like to be incredibly wealthy.  But Chuck Feeney lived it and saw the dangers face-to-face.  A rich friend of his lost a daughter to suicide.  And many others were in constant fear of kidnapping.  Even the good sides — the mansions, the yachts, and the parties — bored Chuck.  He thought it a terribly superficial way to live and retreated into his work, traveling constantly.  His wife thought differently and enjoyed the high-class lifestyle.  Unfortunately they divorced, and he gave her all of the mansions.

When the Iraq war started, tourism plummeted and brought down DFS revenues as well.  By then Feeney had secretly put most of his holdings in Atlantic Philanthopies which had made long-term giving pledges.  He became aware that a fluctuating revenue stream couldn’t support constant giving, so he decided to sell his share of DFS.  That created many complications, including bitter fights with his DFS partners, breaking life-long friendships.  In addition, his sale made public all of the details of his business and philanthropy, tearing away his valued privacy.  He decided to control the PR flow by offering an exclusive article for the New York Times, which eventually led to this book.

In his early years, Chuck would often help kids by paying for their summer camp or school tuitions.  He was known for taking kids in to live with his family on occasion.  Later on, through his foundation, Feeney helped Ireland by stabilizing its politics and investing in education.  The book profiled many of his other philanthropic projects, and his hands-on approach with gradually increasing grants.  But the best summary of his giving philosophy is found here:

In summary, Chuck Feeney made a lot of money because he was smart, hard-working, opportunistic, and had good partners.  He didn’t want to keep his money because it enjoyed making it more than holding it or spending it.  He didn’t want to be known for being rich.  He liked the ordinary lifestyle.  And he had a lifelong gift of helping the needy, particularly young people.

“You can only wear one pair of shoes” — Chuck Feeney

Book Review–Radical: Taking your Faith Back from the American Dream

Note: This is the first in a series of book reviews we’ll be posting over the next two weeks.

Imagine a Christian book that forcefully made the following points. How do you think it would sell?

  • The Gospel is diametrically opposed to some aspects of the American Dream we cherish most.
  • Consumerism is a blind spot for contemporary Christians just like slavery was for Southern white Christians in the early 19th century.
  • Genuine discipleship means not just tithing, but carefully choosing a modest lifestyle and giving away the rest, regardless of income.
  • Followers of Jesus are called to give not just “what can we spare” but “what will it take” to evangelize the world and end the most egregious forms of poverty.

Actually, there is such a book, and it is currently the bestselling Christian book in America.  It has been on the NYT Bestseller List for 31 weeks and has been through 22 printings in nine months.

I happened on David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream in the airport recently.  Normally I religiously avoid Christian bestsellers, but in this case I read all of chapter 6 (“How Much is Enough:  American Wealth in a World of Poverty”) while I stood in the airport bookstore. I almost missed my plane.  By the time I was done, I was actually weeping (a little) in public—an absolutely unprecedented, and rather embarrassing display of emotion for me.

Why was I so moved by this book?  I think because it gave me hope. You see, living simply and giving generously used to be standard issue Christian ethics.  But over the last 200 years, the massive tidal wave of consumerism, upward mobility and the American Dream has totally overwhelmed the church, leaving only a tiny remnant to protest.  There have been occasional attempts to push back the tide, but since the Reagan Revolution the vast majority of evangelicals have been very loud about abortion and homosexuality and very silent about wealth and poverty.

But all of a sudden Platt, a stereotypically slick, charismatic megachurch pastor is saying things like this:

What is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in the selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church. . . .

Are you and I looking to Jesus for advice that seems fiscally responsible according to the standards of the world around us? Or are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?

These are hard things to hear, but Platt offers them without legalistic self-righteousness and with an empowering tone of grace.  If you’re looking for a 20-page introduction to genuine economic discipleship, I’d recommend turning straight to chapter six of Radical. It’s the best bestseller I’ve read in a long time.

What do you think?  Is Radical‘s success a sign that things are changing for evangelicals?