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Faith-based aid groups face a hurdle: the faith that drives them

WASHINGTON (RNS) Leaders of Christian and Jewish international aid groups say their efforts are often met with twin suspicions:

  • That the real purpose is to proselytize.
  • That a religious message is tied to material aid.
 Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, participates in a symposium on “Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies," held by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University on Wednesday (March 4, 2015). Photo courtesy of Rafael Suanes/Georgetown University

Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service, participates in a symposium on “Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies,” held by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University on Wednesday (March 4, 2015). Photo courtesy of Rafael Suanes/Georgetown University

Not so, say Pastor Rick Warren, who has led Saddleback Church to donate millions of dollars and hours of labor in Africa, and Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service.

The two were keynote speakers at a discussion on “Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies,” sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, at Georgetown University.

Both acknowledged at the Wednesday (March 4)  event that their motives — “living like Jesus,” said Warren, and “pursuing justice,” said Messinger — are questioned.

Rebecca Shah, a research fellow at the Berkley Center who moderated the session, began with examples such as a Hindu nationalist leader in India who claimed Mother Teresa’s hidden motive in aiding the dying was a desire to convert them to Christianity.

Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the center and former World Bank aid expert, said, “The first words out of many mouths are ‘Hezbollah, Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas’” — all groups that mix Islamist politics with various development projects.

The great stumbling block, Marshall said, is fear of religious coercion.

Messinger observed that the Jewish people had been on the “wrong end” of religious coercion for millennia.

The way to avoid it is to pay attention to the power dynamic, she said.  She starts with guidance from the “most commonly said Jewish prayer, the Shema, which begins with the Hebrew word ‘listen.'”

That shifts the power  to the developing community, not the aid agency with its material resources and outsider ideas. “People should never have to feel they must abandon some belief or adopt some new behavior to continue getting help,” she said.

Pastor Rick Warren participates as one of the keynote speakers at a symposium on “Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies," held by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University on Wednesday (March 4, 2015). Photo courtesy of Rafael Suanes/Georgetown University

Pastor Rick Warren participates as one of the keynote speakers at a symposium on “Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies,” held by the Berkley Center at Georgetown University on Wednesday (March 4, 2015). Photo courtesy of Rafael Suanes/Georgetown University

Warren, who has led evangelical churches into development work through his P.E.A.C.E. initiative, agreed emphatically.

“All compassion should be without strings. If it is not unconditional, then it’s not compassion,” said Warren, who works with aid agencies of all faiths on common ground issues, such as health care. 

But, Warren argued, all actions have a motivation and no one should be “the motive police.” 

Saddleback stepped up, particularly in battling AIDS in Africa, “because we love Jesus,” Warren said.  “I believe in sharing what I deeply hold. Jesus told me to share the good news, and I believe in both the good news and the common good and that we can keep them both in balance. … I don’t believe in coercion, but I do believe in persuasion. Everybody is trying to persuade everybody else — but it has to be fair.”

Messinger immediately countered: “What’s fair when one group (the development agency) has all the money and power?”

She gave a poignant example of how a failure to pay attention to the help people say they need most can lead to good intentions going astray.

Insecticide-laden fine-mesh bed nets distributed to poor villages to ward off malaria-carrying mosquitoes are used instead for fishing nets by people who were more desperate to feed their children than to prevent disease.

Yet, no one knows whether fish caught in those nets will be harmful to eat, and the fine-mesh scours the waters, scooping up other fauna and flora essential to the ecology.

From left to right, moderator Rebecca Shah, a research fellow with the Berkley Center; Asoka Bandarage, a member of the steering committee for Interfaith Moral Action on Climate; Kent Hill, senior vice president of World Vision; and Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, participate in a panel discussion at Georgetown University of Wednesday (March 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of Rafael Suanes/Georgetown University

From left to right, moderator Rebecca Shah, a research fellow with the Berkley Center; Asoka Bandarage, a member of the steering committee for Interfaith Moral Action on Climate; Kent Hill, senior vice president of World Vision; and Katherine Marshall, a senior fellow at the Berkley Center, participate in a panel discussion at Georgetown University on Wednesday (March 5, 2015). Photo courtesy of Rafael Suanes/Georgetown University

Real social change and effective development overseas requires change back at home in more prosperous countries, said Messinger.

She called for everyone to combat greed and selfishness in their own lives as a step toward facing down corruption in underdeveloped nations.

That resonated with Kent Hill, senior vice president of evangelical-based aid powerhouse World Vision and a veteran of international aid experience with numerous governmental and nongovernmental aid agencies.

“If you don’t address the root causes of conflict and poverty, you aren’t serving people,” said Hill. “Religious groups have something to say to greed, sin and conflict in this world.”

While coercive use of the assistance to spread the faith is always wrong, Hill said, “converting people from selfishness to a concern for the common good is a form of proselytizing, too.”

YS/MG END GROSSMAN

About the author

Cathy Lynn Grossman

Cathy Lynn Grossman specializes in stories drawn from research and statistics on religion, spirituality and ethics. She also writes frequently on biomedical ethics and end-of-life-issues

11 Comments

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  • “Saddleback stepped up, particularly in battling AIDS in Africa, “because we love Jesus,” Warren said. ”

    This would be amusing if it wasn’t so tragic. Saddleback supports less than useless “abstinence-only programs and opposes use of condoms. In fact Warren’s cronies attack those who advocate safe sex and spread lies about condom use. Rick Warren’s work also includes trying to have gays imprisoned or executed in African countries.

    That sums up Warren’s “battling AIDS in Africa for Jesus”.
    http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2009/01/07/the-truth-about-rick-warren-in-africa.html

    Using Saddleback Church as an example of faith based initiatives does little to improve the credibility of such groups or their efforts.

    Here “Faith-based aid” being worse than useless, actually contributing to the problem.

  • “All compassion should be without strings. If it is not unconditional, then it’s not compassion,” -Rick Warren

    “Real social change and effective development overseas requires change back at home in more prosperous countries, said Ruth Messinger.”

    “If you don’t address the root causes of conflict and poverty, you aren’t serving people,” said Hill.

    All these quotes are from people who care about the needs persons of which they speak. They have taken on a task which many suspect the intentions of working together on a common cause.

    ‘While coercive use of the assistance to spread the faith is always wrong, Hill said, “converting people from selfishness to a concern for the common good is a form of proselytizing, too.”’

    Proselytizing is now as dirty word but it is done by everyone for what they wont others to believe or do. The nay Sayer counters any good said about anyone with the negative. She/he seeks to convert others to believe anything that person does is wrong…

  • I take exception to Rick Warren’s statements. The statement was true, the speaker is suspect. His version of “compassion” is making a bad situation worse for the sake of furthering his sectarian goals.

    Proselytizing when done in conjunction with charity has always been dirty. It cheapens and demeans the act of charity into something self-serving.

    Sending earthquake victims boxes of Bibles is not sending aid.

  • Larry,
    I was responding only to the article as written. While I’m not in agreement with Warren in or Saddle Back Church beliefs and many of their actions, I do commend efforts to work together with other NGO’s.

    I especially do not like Warren led addiction recovery program which basically takes the steps of AA/NA renames them slightly ties them with the Bible and copyrights them. AA/NA twelve steps are not copy written for a reason so to be available to all.

    I imagine those who send boxes of Bibles to earthquake victims might actually mean well as those who send boxes of discarded articles of clothing to pile up.

  • Compassion is a comprehensive term, when a Christian shows compassion it not only covers addressing the physical needs of the soul but a Christian must be also be aware of the spiritual needs to whom they are rendering aid.

    A Christian therefore cannot divorce between taking care of physical and spiritual needs. What good is it if a person addresses only the temporary physical needs of another and fails to see the larger picture of the suffering soul and address the long term spiritual need?

    Christians are called to evangelize(share the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ) to all mankind, it is part of the Christian walk of faith. This is commanded by Jesus.

  • Jesus spoke of helping the needy “in His name”. Of course Christians help the needy in Jesus Name, that goes without saying. What is the point of this? There is no point. For someone to try to say you cannot speak of faith in Christ if you want to help the poor and needy clearly shows that they do NOT understand what is most important. The food and shelter and medical aid is all very important but cannot even be compared with the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. To help the poor in the natural realm and not offer them God’s free gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus would be ignoring their most important need. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to The Father but by Him. This is the message of the Christian. Jesus commanded that this message be preached to all nations. Receive Christ as Savior if you have not done so, turn away from sin and rebellion and you will know God’s forgiveness of sins and peace, and promise of eternal life. God Bless

  • And this is exactly the kind of tone deaf response which undermines faith based charity for many.

    You aren’t helping others with blatant proselytizing. You are only helping yourself. Trying to feel right about yourself with Jesus. Consideration of the needs of others or their beliefs coming second or not at all. You undermine the purpose of charity. It is not meant as a inducement to your faith, but an act of love of humanity.

    If you feel the need to evangelize is more important than performing real help, then you are not performing charity. You are simply acting in self-interest. Aggrandizing yourself, showing hubris and pride in your Christian faith to the detriment of others.

    If you want people to see the value in your faith, then you should avoid the tone deaf, offensive and frankly self-centered proselytizing associated with faith based charity. Let people know your beliefs in your deeds. Act as an example of a good person to others. Not a cheap obnoxious shill for…

  • Larry, my hearing is fine ty. Jesus has opened my eyes and ears so that I can see and hear what matters most. Can you hear? Can you see? Your comments clearly show that you are deaf dumb and blind to God and Jesus and The Holy Spirit. Unless you repent you will die in your sins and rebellion.

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