Volunteering and Interfering

Trying to do good in the world may be harmful as well.

Every political science professor in college told me the same thing; ‘every new policy has winners and losers.’ This really has to do with change. Those that stand to benefit from the new rules will have the advantage. Those that were already benefitting from the status quo will lose the advantage they already had. This issue can be especially sensitive in poverty work when those that lose don’t have much to lose in the first place. Take, for example, Villa Soleada: a small community in Honduras that is far from the main town center. Nearly everyone in Villa is Evangelical. They frequently gather with visiting, volunteer missionaries. There didn’t seem like much hope for having an established church in the community until later when a plot of land was donated to the community so they could build a place to worship.

Along came a missionary group from the US. Lets call them the do-gooders. They heard about the land through a representative of the local church in the town center. They decided to buy the plot and give it to a Honduran pastor. Then they organized a trip, raised money from their congregation, and arrived here in Honduras at the end of last year. Within weeks, they erected an impressive structure. There was plenty of cement floor space, the roof was solid with no leaks, and they even added a stage for a pulpit. The whole do-gooder team bonded and celebrated the opening of the church. Scores of people came to worship there and even bought speakers for the stage. Then the do-gooders returned to the US and left the pastor to his work.

New Church

(taken with mother’s permission)

Good story, but like every major change that happens in a community, there were winners and losers. That story is about those who won. This story is about those who lost.

As it turned out, only one family from Villa allegedly received money for selling the land. It was reported that they seized the opportunity when no one was looking and sold it to the church representative, even when it belonged to everyone in the community. This created tension in Villa. Among those who didn’t get a say, was a woman and her husband that were already trying to set up a church on land donated to their family. This woman had been studying to be a pastor for a few years already and was able to raise enough money to get a spindly wooden structure up with some plastic tarp for roofing and a short cement ring around the land. She also raised enough money herself to buy a small microphone and speaker. Let’s call her Kelly.

Kelly held mass every weekend for a small group of people and received some support from visiting missionary groups. She then watched as the other pastor moved in and accepted the land from the do-gooders. She attempted to point out the existence of her church, but her household had recently fallen on hard times; her husband had a painful foot injury and could not work. Since they had taken out a loan with a bank to help with the initial construction, they were expected to pay even though her husband wasn’t working. When Kelly couldn’t pay, the bank took her microphone and speaker. Her disagreement with the family who had sold the other plot of land was even more stressful. Finally, the do-gooders finished erecting the new church and it became the only legitimized church in Villa. Kelly resorted to bible studies and had to postpone indefinitely her dream of having her own house of worship.

Now, if the ends justify the means then Kelly’s story shouldn’t keep any do-gooder up at night. The new church is a big success and the entire community has banded together on the weekends to sell chicken and raise money to pay off the speakers. They have a service almost every night and the new pastor is a widely respected community leader. What bothers me is that the do-gooders probably weren’t aware of Kelly in the first place, nor were they aware that the land wasn’t owned by one family, but by the community.

How would they have acted differently if they had understood what was going on before hand? What would they have seen if they had been there for more than a week? It’s impossible to please everybody, sure, but ignorance is a bad excuse for interfering significantly in someone else’s life. Let us remember Kelly’s story when we are trying to do good in the future, so that we may be able to account for her. If we’re going to create change we will probably create winners and losers.

Let’s at least be aware of those who stand to lose because of us.

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