Responding to Crises – Beyond Relief

Date posted: Monday 29 June 2020

“One of the biggest mistakes that North American Churches make – by far – is in applying relief in situations in which rehabilitation or development is the appropriate intervention.”


With our world and ways of being, both locally and globally, getting upended multiple times in the past few months, this observation and its related learnings have kept me grounded and focused as I seek to respond in loving-service to the needs of the day. As described in chapter four of the 2012 edition of their book, When Helping Hurts, for authors Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert, there’s a meaningful difference between these different crisis responses and learning when to apply each is key to avoiding harm while building the capacity for all to act.


Relief is the first step and is defined by Corbett & Fikkert as “the urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis.” Rains lead to crop failures in Tanzania. Spikes of COVID-19 lead to a lack of PPE for healthcare workers in East Africa and the isolation of rural communities in Guatemala. George Floyd is killed and discontent erupts on Lake Street and in the Midway, exposing systems of inequity and magnifying food deserts in the middle of our Twin Cities. These are all crises that have called for responses that are both immediate and temporary.


And respond, we have. Lutheran Disaster Response organized a fundraising campaign to assist with flooding in Tanzania. Global Health Ministries and Neema Crafts rallied support for PPE in places like Iringa and companions in the United States helped the Iglesia Luterana Agustina de Guatemala deliver food and supplies to 450 rural families. Closer to home, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church on Lake Street and Bethlehem Lutheran in the Midway turned into pop-up collection and distribution centers of food and supplies for their respective neighborhoods. Grassroots networks mobilized dozens of congregations and hundreds of individuals gave their time, their talents, and their treasures to respond to these clear and present needs.


These responses are good and they are to be celebrated, but providing relief is only the beginning. In fact, Corbett & Fikkert would describe it as the easy work… the crisis response we are pre-wired for. “Being from a materialistic culture,” they write, “North Americans often view the solution to poverty (or a crisis) in material terms and tend to pour financial and other material resources into situations…” This is a step in the right direction but not the destination. Yes, the bleeding has (largely) been stopped, as Corbett & Fikkert phrase it, AND we still have some ways to go.


Moving beyond relief, into the responses of Rehabilitation and Development, self-awareness and “an attitude of humility and brokenness (are) everything.” In the language of Accompaniment, this is vulnerability and without it those of us who are kind-hearted folks from the dominant culture are likely to inadvertently reinforce the very provider-recipient dynamics and systems of oppression that we all seek to overcome in our life and work together.


Rehabilitation, as Corbett & Fikkert describe it, “seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions” and is characterized by mutuality and a dynamic of working with the resources and centers of expertise that are already there. Development goes a step further and is understood to be “a process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved – both the ‘helpers’ and the ‘helped’ – closer to being in right relationships with God, self, others, and the rest of creation.” The flourishing of life that it leads to is not done by people doing something to or for others, but with them. It involves a commitment to accompany one another for the long haul – to listen, learn, laugh, mourn, and grow -together – into the people and beloved community that God would have us be.


Whether we find ourselves in the Midway, Guatemala, Tanzania, or somewhere in between, this is what lies beyond relief and these are the next steps we are called to take.


All thanks be to God,
The Rev. Peter Harrits – Director of Bega Kwa Bega and Assistant to the Bishop