One of the most influential experiences during my first trip toSouth Africa as a college student involved a missionary from the United States I’ll call Anna. When I first met Anna, a middle aged woman from the Pacific Northwest, she had been living in Cape Town for a few months. On a year long mission trip, she came with the intention of spreading the gospel and helping people who were living in poverty. She ended up working with a group of teenage boys who were homeless, hungry and orphaned (whether physically or emotionally). The boys were not in school nor did they have any other support system.

Anna had a good heart and good intentions. She met with the boys fairly regularly and led traditional Bible studies with them. They would listen to Bible stories (remember, most of them had not been to school and therefore couldn’t read) and then try to participate in the reflection and questions that Anna posed to them. There was usually a small meal for them, too.

During her stay, Anna had to leaveCape Town for several weeks. In order to tide them over while she was away, she left a jar of peanut butter and a Bible for the boys. I was very disturbed by the fact that she left a group of homeless youth with nothing but peanut butter and a Bible. The fact that Anna left rather suddenly and without much notice had complicated ramifications (trying to develop lasting relationships and sustainable strategies takes consistency) but that’s not what bothered me. It was the fact that, to those boys, the church had only provided them with a book they couldn’t read and one small jar of food to be split between all of them.

This cannot be all that we, as Christians, have to offer. If it is, then I think we must seriously reconsider our understanding of the gospel.

In keeping with the theme of churches and development work, it saddens me that there is so much potential and possibility within the church and yet we often reach out in terribly impractical and unrealistic ways. Our churches are full of talented individuals who have wide ranging skills and interests that could benefit a group like these boys.

Poverty is extremely complicated. I certainly don’t have the solution. But I do believe that we must build the type of relationships that allow us to know each other’s needs—physical and spiritual. Homeless boys have physical needs that take priority over spiritual ones, at least initially. Have you ever tried to pay attention in a meeting or at school on an empty stomach? The Bible is full of power but handing someone who is illiterate a Bible is like handing me an email written in Chinese—pretty meaningless. We must take context and situation into account when building life-affirming relationships.  How do you think we can be most successful in our missions?

Emmi Gordon is in the second year of her M.Div. program at the University of Chicago.  Prior to her studies she lived for several years in South Africa and noticed the effectiveness of Christian aid programs and wondered why Christian programs in particular were so successful.  She is posting a series of reflections on this topic in the coming weeks.  Your own thoughts and reflections, as always, are welcome.