Understanding cultures can help success of missions

By Jordan Corona

People are different. And that’s OK, according to Steve Corbet in a lecture on Monday.

Corbet, one of the keynote speakers at the Rethink Missions conference, wasted no time talking pragmatics and responsibility in missions. Just hours before, Dr. Jayakumar Christian, of World Vision India, lectured on the Christian community’s response to a world of poverty and bad power structures.

Participants in the Rethink Missions conference picked up plastic cups of Dr. Pepper float at the banquet room in Cashion and took their seats when the introductions began.

Steve Corbett co-authored the book “When Helping Hurts.” He’s a community development specialist and distance-learning trainer for the Chalmer’s Center for economic development. Also, he works as a professor of community development at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Ga. and has worked numerous times abroad in relief and community development.

Corbett began his response to Christian’s talk, describing some attitudes to keep in mind about the business of making a difference with unfamiliar communities at home and abroad.

“I think we have to accept the power we have,” Corbett said. “You can’t pretend you’re not a powerful person.”

He pointed out the American middle class whose average income ranks in the top five percent of the world’s wealthiest.

“We’re the rich young ruler in scripture,” Corbett said. “I don’t feel guilty about that, but boy do I feel responsible. But if I want my power to be used well, I need to be sure I don’t misuse it even though I don’t intend to.”

That responsibility, he said, ought to translate to humility that puts one’s understanding about a culture into perspective.

“In Spanish, you can’t say ‘wasting time,’” he said, ”You can put the words together but it’s just not there conceptually.”

He said dynamics like that could lead to questions about whose reality counts more and what constitutes a moral dilemma.

“We don’t always have an accurate understanding about the way things are, even though we think we do,” Corbett said.

When it comes to deciding what sort of work to do with communities, Corbett suggested a scene from the book of Genesis. He said that community development, like the Garden of Eden, requires tending and care, and initiative to “create bounty.”

This could mean helping to start businesses and helping the community’s quality of living.

Corbett said poverty is complicated, so he distinguished between “relief” and “development.” It’s the difference between “doing for” and “walking with people.”

Corbett said there are times when the right solution is immediate assistance like in a time of crisis.

He quoted from the global non-profit, The Hunger Project, “About 10 percent of all the poverty in the world is because of a crisis.” And then he said it was difficult to transition from relief work to development.

“Start small, start fast,” Corbett said. People don’t like to talk too much without seeing results, he said, when dealing with any culture, any community, it’s important to keep the specifics of situation relevant to the solutions.

Corbett described three tools for solution development when working in communities.

Participating, Learning and Action is a resource of methods and tools for folks involved in community development.

Listening during conversations can be effective, Corbett said, if they’re conducted with respect to a people’s specific communication traditions.

Asset inventories are helpful, Corbett said, if the plan is to mobilize them to solve a problem.

Corbett took questions after from the audience. After the microphones were turned off, he stayed for a moment and talked with a few Rethink Missions attendees.

Flippin Ark. graduate student Terra Lemeron said, “It seems like the main thing he was trying to say was that individuals are so complex, there’s not going to be any perfect strategy for elevating the world and its problems. But we need to contextualize the things that we do.” Lemeron is working on a dual master’s degree in social work and divinity.