How to Develop a Vanishing Community

In January, my wife and I started to read through the Bible chronologically. As I woke up in a village in Gulu, Uganda, 70 miles from the Sudan border, I was amazed that our reading plan text for the day was Matthew 25. It was somewhere between standing over seven graves with a family impacted by the LRA (Lord's Resistance Army), taking a shower outside with a bucket and riding on a dirt bike (boda) into the village that I contemplated once again what it meant to "love the least of these."

My wife, Kat, has been serving in Uganda since June, working alongside women who are refugees from the north, displaced more than six hours south of Gulu in a town called Jinja. She noticed that when she asked them what their goal was for their family, almost all of them responded by saying, "We just want to return to our home in Gulu.”

Wait a minute—community development is supposed to be all about sustainable methods to alleviate poverty in this generation with the goal of providing the next generation with a future filled with high standards of education, religious freedom and a life free of preventable diseases, malnutrition and war. So, how do you do community development in an area where everyone wants to leave?

I don't profess to have an exclusive list of answers to this complex situation, however, I have spent an extensive amount of time on the field in countries with displaced people (Ethiopia, Haiti, Mozambique and now Uganda), and it is important that we proceed under the spiritual framework I believe the Bible clearly outlines for us when referring to refugees. Here are five practical ways we can still facilitate community development within a displaced-people group.

1. Recognize the community's desire to leave

Long-term damage can be done if an organization does not understand that the ultimate goal of the community is to leave and return to their homeland. This goal will be understood quickly by taking time to visit with the community and walking with the community leaders. An understanding of this is extremely critical to program decisions.

2. Address both physical and spiritual needs

Dr. Ron Sider said: "People are both spiritual and material beings. Addressing only half the problem only gives you half the solution." Obviously a major goal amongst a displaced person is to return to the land where they grew up and/or started their family. Being forced to flee your home because of violence, natural disaster, drought, famine or politics dramatically impacts your vocation, diet, relationships, church affiliation, community involvement and your overall sense of security. However, when walking alongside displaced people, we have a tremendous opportunity to share the Gospel of Jesus and explain that our life on this earth is merely temporary. If indeed a displaced person and his or her family never have the opportunity to return to their earthly homeland, but trust Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they can rest in the hope their Home is in heaven.

3. Teach the value of forgiveness

Many people who are forced to live in refugee camps and/or are displaced from their home for a certain amount of time can most likely attribute their relocation to a man-made decision. CNN's Anderson Cooper even suggested recently that "famines are man-made" because we live in a world of over-consumption. Therefore, if true healing will ever come to a family that has been displaced, it must start with forgiveness. Jesus gives us a tremendous mandate of forgiveness when He says, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you” (Matthew 6:14). In the specific situation in Uganda, the inhumane acts of torture, rape, kidnapping, vandalism and murder by Joseph Kony and the LRA can almost seem unforgivable. However, several refugee women in Jinja, Uganda, pray daily for Kony and have forgiven him for his mistakes. What a beautiful day that will be if Kony would lay down his guns and trust Jesus as his Savior because he saw the faithfulness and prayers of a few of his very own victims.

4. Teach basic sustainable methods that are non-exclusive to the current location

Imagine an NGO spending two to three years and thousands of dollars from donors to teach a community of people how to grow a certain crop under the category of "sustainable agriculture," only to see that community pick up and leave a year later to return to their homeland where they can't even grow that particular crop. If proper preliminary information were obtained before launching into sustainable programs, then the leadership would recognize that this community is a "temporary location." They would also recognize that they have a tremendous opportunity to teach general sustainable methods the people can use when they relocate, while also meeting the needs of their current location and situation. Such topics could include, but are not limited to, general health and nutrition education, disease prevention, general farming and crop production techniques, educational value and spiritual development to help craft their worldview. Not only will this help the group to live biblically in their current location, but this will also equip them to make healthy and potentially life-changing decisions when they return home.

5. Effectively communicate the long-term implications of the community programs

If the people you are serving do not comprehend and personalize the value of the programs you are facilitating, then they will not take ownership of the methods being taught. This can result in what appears to be a short-term success, but in the long run is simply a waste of time, resources and finances. Therefore, take the time to explain why you are doing a particular activity, class, technique or program, and give time for community members to ask questions and give input. After all, this is their community.

Jesus' example of sitting with, dining with and walking with the poor is one all ministries, churches, organizations, NGOs and people who call themselves Christ-followers should constantly strive to imitate in our daily lives (see Micah 6:8). Whether we are involved in short-term missions, relief teams or long-term development strategies, domestically or internationally, we can all recognize we are not in our final home yet and, therefore, we should be faithful in our transitional locations.

Jeremy Willet is the co-founder of The Hunger Strike, currently responding to the East Africa famine/drought and assisting with long-term development projects with partner Food for the Hungry in more than 14 countries.

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