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The perils of giving without thinking

A project I worked with that served homeless men in Tokyo once received a gift of a carton of bras for nursing mothers. People do not always use their heads when their hearts bid them to help the poor. As it turned out, one of the homeless men who did use his head figured out that by cutting the bras apart, the cups could be used as heel pads in worn-out shoes.

My UCA News colleagues Rock Ronald Rozario and Stephan Uttom in Bangladesh have reported a situation where five Church-related schools, founded by an Italian priest for poor tribal children, closed suddenly because of a lack of funding. 

As has often been the case when western missionaries try to respond to a need, the priest relied upon his mission society and friends in Europe to fund the activity.

That worked until he was transferred to another diocese and his funding connections moved with him. His failure to plan for the day when he would no longer be around to provide funds for the schools meant they had to close.

This case is not unique. In fact, it is sadly common among projects begun by western missionaries in Asia.

Immediate needs and the energy involved in meeting them often lead project founders to postpone work on self-sufficiency until an activity is up and running.

Of course, sometimes missionaries also act out of their own psychological need to be a sort of Santa Claus or a control freak—the source of all largess and administration, so they unconsciously see other sources of funds and other potential leaders as competition.

In any case, unless plans and steps toward sustainability of finances, personnel and administration are part of the activity from the very start, the day when a project can survive without its founder will seldom come.

Of course, most projects are started in places where people do not have the resources to support a necessary work. If they had those resources, the project would probably be unnecessary in the first place. So, outside help in the form of funds and personnel are essential if the service is to ever take place.

That is where the ancient example of St. Paul comes into play. Paul collected funds from the various Churches he organised and then sent or brought the proceeds to the poor Church in Jerusalem. What Paul and the other Churches were doing was not simply providing financial support, they were expressing their unity, their communion with their fellow Christians in Jerusalem.

When Christians in other countries send aid to Churches in poor countries, they are not merely making bank transfers. They are (or should be) affirming their communion with their brothers and sisters in other lands.

And the money should be received with that same sense of communion, though it too seldom is. The Churches of Europe and North America (especially Germany and the United States of America) are too often seen as little more than banks.

Part of the fault lies with missionaries who came to Asia from the west. They called upon their home Churches to support their work as they supported their going overseas in the first place. And that support came.

However, the missionaries seem to have forgotten or never thought to include in their efforts to form local Churches the understanding that one day those Churches would also have to become giving Churches at home and abroad.

So, although the local Church was unable to support those schools in Bangladesh, why did they have to rely only  upon Italian largesse to function? Where were the Chinese, Filipino, Thai and other Asian Catholics who could easily support more of the Church’s services in their own countries as well as throughout the continent?

As Churches in the west find themselves, for various reasons, less able to be as generous as in the past, the Catholics of Asia must develop a stronger sense of communion with their less fortunate sisters and brothers.

As individuals and as Churches they must emulate the Pauline communities and the western communities that helped bring the Churches of Asia to the point where they can and must take fuller responsibility for the life of the Church.

Those who wish to serve the poor must use their heads as well as their hearts lest they simply set up future disappointment and even damage the evangelisation efforts of the Church.

“Villagers say bad things about priests and nuns because they have closed the school,” said eight-year-old Ratri Soren, a girl who cannot continue her education because someone with a good heart failed to use his head in answering that heart’s call.



Tokyo-based Maryknoll Father William Grimm is publisher of UCA News