The Common Good

The Perils of Well-Meaning But Short-Sighted Generosity

Rick Warren, the most prominent evangelical pastor of our day, has established a highly successful program arranging teams from his church to help specific villages in Africa. Given the effectiveness of his organizational skills and the extensive direct involvement that his people have with African villagers, I have no doubt that these teams carry out their aid efforts with high levels of accountability.

What concerns me, however, is that many tens of thousands of smaller churches are following his example and circumventing established missionary organizations, and directly providing financial support for pastors and churches in Third World countries, and are not able to provide the same kind of oversight. Leaders of both Compassion International and World Vision, two of the most effective Christian relief organizations, have told me an array of horror stories of how well-intentioned giving often results in church leaders in poor countries using the money in ways that are far removed from the intentions of the givers.

If we weren't going through an economic meltdown, I wouldn't be writing this article. I would be saying to myself that if wasting money on phony foreign missionary enterprises makes some Americans feel good, what's the harm? After all, it might give a lot of gratification to a church group that likes to think that it's living out those 2,000 biblical imperatives that require Christians to care for the poor. Besides, I could tell myself, youth groups that go on those "short-term" mission trips (better called "religious tourism") usually have their lives impacted in all kinds of positive ways. Visiting needy children in Third World countries often drives such youthful Americans into re-examining their own lives and recognizing how many dollars they waste on stuff that they don't need. Their confrontation with impoverished children who, in spite of their privations, radiate an effusive joy that contrasts with the morose dispositions of so many of their high school peers often gets them to question the source of this joy.

Given these realities, I thought it best to keep my mouth shut about how over the years I've been conned several times. It took a long time and a lot of safeguards to make sure that the dollars that I get people to give to support missionary projects do the good they are intended to do. We hate to impose the vigorous controls that we normally require when we dish out money. There's the matter of guilt. Comparatively, we Americans have so much while these needy people have so little. Too quickly we ask, "What can I do to help?" And far too often, the answer leads to money being given without the proper precautions.

What makes me most sad is that I am convinced that I helped corrupt some good church leaders in Haiti. I know of two men who were doing good things for their people until I got involved and started to provide funding for the care of some orphans who lived in their town. These men were poor and they had poor relatives. The money ended up being used to hire relatives for non-existent jobs or jobs that were almost non-existent. For instance, one cousin was paid a standard Haitian salary to spend a half-hour collecting the mail from the post office each day. I know of another man who was paid a full salary to wash the pastor's car whenever a washing might be needed. These pastors were poor men from poor families; and when I gave them money, they felt that their first obligation was to take care of their blood relatives.

If a church wants to help needy people in a country like Haiti, the best thing to do is to sponsor children through some well-established organization such as Compassion International. This particular ministry has field representatives who provide checks and controls on finances and makes sure that the money you give ends up where it should.

Tony Campolo is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (EAPE) and professor emeritus of sociology at Eastern University.

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