Walking with the Poor, by Bryant Myers

Written by on September 24, 2011 in Helping Without Hurting, Notes By The Way with 1 Comment

I suspect Cambodia would be better off if most of the foreign organizations and people doing development and compassion work left.  Of course, everyone would think they are among the few that should remain.

I’m reading a new book, Walking With the Poor: Principles and Practices of Transformational Development, by Bryant Myers (1999).  I hope it will help answer some questions that I have.

How can I walk alongside the poor in a way that lifts them up, rather than lifting up myself? How can I lead in a way that doesn’t seek control but respects the ability and freedom of the poor to make their own choices for change?  What can I do to support genuine, lasting transformation in individuals, communities, and society?

Who is this for?

In the Foreword, Paul Hiebert says Walking with the Poor is “a masterpiece of integration and application in thinking about Christian ministry.”

Christians have a mixed reputation in development. Frankly, so do non-Christians. Human beings helping others, despite our best intentions, have similar habits of playing god and under-appreciating the abilities of the poor to help themselves, even as we talk about mutual respect and empowerment.

The book is for people who want to follow Jesus alongside the poor. It’s an important book calling for much needed changes in understanding and practice. As for my blog, it’s for anyone who wants to listen and join the conversation.

Key ideas

Myers states some key ideas at the outset. I’ll list them here:

1. The Western worldview separates the world into material and spiritual sides of reality but struggles to see how the two meet and overlap. As Westerners, we tend to focus selectively on material OR spiritual reality, faith OR reason, secular OR sacred, etc.  When we want to get things done, we choose tools for either/or, but we struggle to operate in both at the same time.  Most non-Western people do not separate material and spiritual reality, but they perceive their lives in the overlapping space where both meet. They perceive unseen realities at work in the material world (such as luck, taboos, ghosts, spirits, gods , God, etc). In practice, Westerners speak of acting holistically, but it doesn’t come naturally to think that way.

2. Separating material and spiritual reality affects our definition of poverty. Westerners, and people who adopt a Western worldview, tend to define poverty and its solutions in material terms.  Jayakumar Christian, an Indian development practitioner who works with World Vision (and continually challenges that organization to its core), says “poverty is experienced most fundamentally by the poor as a marring of their identity and that this is caused both by the grind of being poor and also by being captive to the god-complexes of the non-poor. ” (Italics added.)

3. Myers says, “to the idea that playing god in the lives of the poor results in a marring of the identity of the poor, I add that it also mars the identity of the non-poor…The poor and the non-poor need God’s redemptive help to recover their true identity as children of God made in God’s image and their true vocation as productive stewards, given gifts by God to contribute to the well-being of all.”

I’m concerned about what the author calls “god-complexes,” a term that fits all to well. You would think Christians wouldn’t develop “god-complexes” (or perhaps you think the opposite). It suggests Christians have a concept of God that doesn’t really work in the “real world” (e.g., Since God apparently isn’t acting quickly or clearly enough in the people I want to change, I have to produce results myself). Are non-Christians and other religious or spiritual people prone to god-complexes, too? I think so.

I’m not reading this book to play with ideas but to consider what the author says critically and put what I learn into practice.  Welcome to the journey, and I’ll share more after I read Chapter One.

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About the Author

About the Author: Andy Gray is a writer and photographer living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and working with Alongsiders International. You can find him puttering around the streets of Phnom Penh on his Suzuki Viva 125, running stoplights and driving on the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalks like a local. If you see him in a coffee shop, he'll be the one typing and deleting the same line over and over again. .


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  • Caroline

    PLEASE continue. VERY interesting.