This past week we concluded a three week training session at a local church. This particular church is very active in urban missions. They provide shelter through CARITAS, participate in feeding programs, the members sit on a number of non-profit boards, they assist with housing rehab for the elderly and donate money to local charities. They are a very active church.
At the conclusion of our training one of the comments we got back from a participant was that “We still do not know what Embrace Richmond “does”.” I wish I could say this was an uncommon comment but I have heard it after trainings before. It always disturbs me and I am continually trying to figure out ways of overcoming this challenge. However, this week, as I prayed about this comment, I realized that perhaps the problem is not in the way we are answering the question; perhaps the problem is with the question itself.
We are a society obsessed with “doing”. When we want to get to know someone, often the first question we ask is “What do you do?” We define people and organizations by what they do, more than who they are. However, what Embrace Richmond “does” is empower others by “being present” with people in their own communities and helping them to “do” the things God is calling them to do for the benefit of their neighbors.
Like all non-profits we have programs that are about “doing”, like our Faith Works program which provides youth and families with short term, hands on missions experiences, and our Community Works program that provides transitional employment to homeless and at-risk individuals. However, all our programs are about empowerment, not about us “doing” something for someone else. We have no program to provide shelter, no feeding program, no furniture program, no clothing program and no financial assistance program. We do none of these things as “programs” yet we do all of these things. We do provide shelter, we do provide food, we continue to provide furniture and clothing, and on occasion we provide financial assistance. However, rather than create a “program” we choose to provide these services through relationships that empower rather than programs that often breed a sense of entitlement.
I think rather than asking “What do you do?”, we should be asking “What kinds of relationships are you forming?” Non-profits that spend all their time “doing” and no time “being present” to their participants may have impressive short-term outcomes but programs do not change lives, people do. Every person I have met who has successfully escaped the cycle of poverty did so by building strong relationships with a healthy network of support and a relationship with a God. This is the power behind the AA/NA model and why case managed care and peer based programs like The Healing Place are so successful.
So, the next time you “check out” a non-profit, don’t spend all your time reading the annual report, judging the quality of the board members, or evaluating the outcomes; instead listen to those who are a part of the communities where the non-profit works and judge success through those relationships. Do you see people who are empowered to address the needs of the community themselves, or do you see people dependent on the “programs” of an outside agency? Which do you think is healthier? I guess I should be thankful no one can define what we “do”; it means we are doing the right thing by simply being present with those we care about and empowering them to do good works. To God be the glory…we are not willing to claim credit for any of it.