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Monday, January 14, 2019

"Having Nothing, Possessing Everything" (Michael Mather)

TITLE: Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places
AUTHOR: Michael Mather
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2018, (160 pages).

How can we help the poor and the needy? How can we be of help to the less fortunate? How do we go about making a difference? These are some of the questions many of us ask, especially during the festive season and times of giving. While the intentions are good, the mentality behind the questions are not as good, especially when we fail to understand the contexts of the poor. What makes us think that we are their heroes? How can we have the audacity to think that we can help them according to our own terms? This is something that pastor and author Michael Mather had before he had a change of mind and heart. A major paradigm shift is to learn to see people as peers rather than people inferior to us and needful of our gifts. Having worked in two lower income parishes for 31 years, Mather learns that the best way to help is to encourage people to do what they could do for themselves. In 1986, he ventured into the ministry to the poor at the inner city streets. Using a "white mainstream Protestantism" approach to ministry to the poor, he would be serving in the soup kitchen, providing a food bank, organizing summer programs for kids, and other giveaway initiatives. Such projects may seem charitable at first but on hindsight, it does not empower people as much. In fact, it could be disempowering. What rocked the author was the violent deaths of 9 youths in the neighbourhood. With each death comes the singing of "Amazing Grace" during funerals. He soon discovers that the way to help the poor was to "shine a spotlight on the glories of the people" in the neighbourhood. In other words, give the people the dignity that rightfully belongs to them. Don't be condescending or presume we are the savior of their predicaments. Don't do things for people when they could very well do things for themselves. Spurred by the idea of an "Asset Based Community Development" (ABCD) which seeks to empower people to use their gifts, Mather writes this book about his personal journey from giving people food to eat toward helping them help themselves. The key reason why needy people remain needy is because of projects that create dependency. So he listened. He facilitated participation. He started paying attention to the uniqueness each individual brings with them. The very people who could help the poor are the poor themselves! Thus the mantra: Focus on what the people have instead of what they lacked. Thus, the title of the book summarizes the essence of this message. People outside think that they needy had nothing and needed everything. The truth is, they possessed everything in spite of public perception of their poverty.

Instead of giving people food or clothing, recognize their creative gifts to help themselves. Focus more on the giftedness of the people rather than the gifts for them. Instead of great church programming, focus on being neighbourly. One example is to learn to fill out grant applications differently. Rather than listing down all the needs of the community, create a litany of gifts and skills they have to help themselves. One of the key problems of our contemporary help systems is the default of using institutions to care for the poor. So much so that Christian and Church leaders divert or delegate care to some official channels. This lacks personal touch. For when we become too institutionalized, we forget what it means to personally care for others. Instead of looking to serve the poor, why not talk about ending poverty altogether. This forces one to look at how poverty is defined. Giving handouts has the unwitting result of keeping needy people needy. Once we define poverty as poor decision making or inadequate education, we have a more tangible strategy to help the poor to help themselves. Create an "abundance fund" to pay people to share their gifts with us. Churches can create a welcoming place for all.

My Thoughts
Good intentions are good but often not good enough. What is needed is a paradigm change rather than persistent implementation of old ideas. This is what Michael Mather had personally experienced and is passionate about reinventing the way we do ministry to the poor. The mantra is: "Never do something for someone that they can do for themselves." There are many counter-cultural ideas. One thing that sticks out is the way they treat youth programs. It is a refreshing way to learn about how they avoid creating youth groups or youth programs, but to create opportunities for youths to exercise their giftings. Hospitality is essentially about creating a safe space for youths to share their own ambitions and gifts. Let me offer three thoughts about this book.

First, this is a much needed corrective to our conventional ways of trying to help the poor. When we try to do things for them when they could very well help themselves, we deprive them of opportunities to exercise their gifts. Indirectly, we are taking away their dignity and opportunity for productive work. While not everyone are willing to work, at least we can look at addressing poverty problem more constructively. This requires a constant willingness to learn. Constant because it takes a while to uproot an entrenched paradigm. Learning because it is a relatively new idea which needs time for tangible awareness and applications. Whatever it is, the first step we need to do is to stop the growth of poverty. If we cannot solve it altogether, at least stop it from getting worse. This means our charitable projects must not become unwitting ways to lock the poor down in their conditions. In other words, do not disempower them.

Second, this book shines a curious light into youths and youth programs. Though it is written primarily to address poverty, there are gems of ministry wisdom with regard to the younger generation. The young can also become disempowered when we try to do things for them. They are more creative than many people would have thought. A common idea is that youths are the future. Few would have perceived that they are already leaders in their own right. In fact, many are ready to lead now, if we could encourage and guide them. Good intentions can become barriers to gifted people. For instance, the phrase "vision is the destroyer of essence" is problematic. The 'vision' part tends to come from well-off people, totally disconnected with the needs of the people. The essence part is essentially dumbed down when vision becomes overly important to the policy and decision makers.

Finally, this book's message causes us to take a hard look about our intentions. When we say help the poor, are we helping ourselves more? Are we doing it due to some guilt-tripping? Most importantly, focus not on the program but on the passion. Don't regurgitate what other churches or other organizations had done for their various ministries, but to share what inspires us or what makes us excited about. This is about the heart instead of the handout.

For anyone involved in or is thinking of doing ministry toward helping the poor, social justice, or related outreach initiatives, this book is a must read to help change our conventional perspective. It is definitely a more long-term idea and surely a more constructive one.

Michael Mather is pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. He is also on the faculty of the Asset- Based Community Development Institute at DePaul University. As a preacher-consultant-storyteller, he speaks all over the country about community development and urban ministry.

Rating: 4.57 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of William B. Eerdmans and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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