Beyond Giving Fish: Creating Sustainable Change through the Christian Reformed Church

Written on 11/05/2018

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Author: Adele Konyndyk

If you are involved in responding to poverty or have ever thought about the best way to help others, you’ve probably heard the expression Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.

This common proverb is often used to help explain that the best way to assist others is not to provide a one-time handout but instead to teach skills people can use for the long term.

Recently, late-night talk show host and author Trevor Noah offered another take on this axiom. In Born A Crime, his best-selling memoir of his South African childhood, he said, “People love to say [that phrase]. What they don’t say is, ‘And it would be nice if you gave him a fishing rod.’ That’s the part of the analogy that’s missing.”

In other words, sustainable change and lasting transformation are complicated to achieve. They require going beyond short-term solutions or simple formulas. Sometimes they involve training, sometimes they also involve the distribution of supplies or tackling existing systems within communities.

Several agencies of the Christian Reformed Church in North America work with vulnerable people around the world. Through their work, God’s children are finding new ways to challenge the very systems that prevent people from flourishing and working together to bring about positive change that lasts.

It Takes a Network to Sustain a Church Plant

Jeff Heerspink is a pastor of F Street Neighborhood Church in Lincoln, Neb. He has learned that providing financial resources is only part of the complex equation involved in creating sustainability in ministry.

“I’m not the guy who goes to a conference and says, ‘Oh, I found the secret formula to saving our church,’” said Heerspink.

Located in the urban core of Lincoln, Neb., F Street Neighborhood Church is one of two Christian Reformed church plants in Classis Heartland. It operates differently than the established churches in the region and faces unique challenges, particularly in terms of sustainability.

“It’s a really impoverished area,” said Heerspink about the neighborhood where the church is located. “It’s 95 percent rental housing. Most people are either young college students or older and on a fixed income. There is a lot of drugs, prostitution, addiction—all of those things.”

Heerspink notes that God has provided financially for the church from the very start—a donor bought the church’s building for them and the congregation has received support from Classis Heartland and Resonate Global Mission. But finances are only the first step toward long-term sustainability for the church.

“We as the church have a huge vision that we need to raise people in the neighborhood to be the next ministry leaders,” he said. “I believe they will be the mighty warriors for the neighborhood. But as romantic as that is, as exciting as that is, that’s a long journey with a lot of people who come and go.”

To help with the vision, Heerspink participated in Cultivate, a year-long Resonate program that brings together a network of church planters for trainings and teachings on topics such as leadership development.

As Heerspink noted, however, there is no “secret formula” for a sustainable congregation. That is why the network of ministry leaders learning—teaching each other to fish—is key.

“I think sometimes you feel alone [as a church planter],” said Heerspink. “Especially when you’re a church plant in the middle of a classis of established churches. It’s hard to find people who understand you . . . that’s why I think Cultivate is good. It brings you into a peer group of people to process and bounce some ideas off of.”

Heerspink participated in Cultivate in 2016, just as F Street was transitioning from being a multisite location of its parent church, Northern Lighthouse Ministries. While that was two years ago, Cultivate’s network is still there for him today. There are ministry leaders who work in similar contexts he can call when he needs feedback on an idea or feels stuck. They are part of a network of church planters who are constantly learning together.

“We’re a church plant with hurting, broken, and complicated people,” said Heerspink. “[Having that network] gives us ideas, it gives us encouragement, it gives us hope.” 

It Takes a Market to Sustain a Livelihood

This idea of God’s people working and learning together to bring about lasting change in their own lives, also gets World Renew’s U.S. executive director Carol Bremer-Bennett excited.

“Because of broken systems, people are sold—and buy into—lies,” she said, pointing out that people in poverty are often persuaded to believe falsehoods about themselves, “like ‘you’re poor, you’ll always be poor’ or ‘you are alone.’”

World Renew seeks to overcome these false realities and help people change their story in positive ways for the long term. It does this through community development, disaster response and rehabilitation, and the promotion of peace and justice in dozens of countries around the world.

Often this work involves programs that tackle multiple aspects of poverty at the same time. Consider James’ story, for example.

James lives in Kenya and used to believe that he’d always be poor and alone. He finished high school two years ago, but his family’s circumstances made college impossible. Instead, he struggled to make a living as a small-scale farmer.

The hurdles for James included his lack of education and poor income, but also lack of access to markets to sell his produce. When James did find a buyer for his crops, he was often competing against other farmers who were selling the same produce at peak season. This resulted in low prices for everyone,and a sense of hopelessness for James.

“He was really anxious about his future,” said James’s mother. He needed access to a market to sell his cauliflower, a way to find fruitful work, and a newfound hope for the future.

World Renew staff worked with James and 16 other young people in his village to explore possible ways to improve their farming and link them to markets where they could make a fair profit and not be exploited.

The young farmers enthusiastically used what they had learned to improve their livelihoods. James alone planted 1,000 cauliflower plants, 300 cucumber plants, and 300 celery plants. He is very encouraged by his success so far.

By working with a local social enterprise in James’ community, World Renew helped James and other local farmers find access to a market with a reasonable price for their harvested produce, a market that will last long after World Renew’s work in his community is over.

“If what I have started seeing from our access to this market is sustained,” said James, “I know my life will be significantly improved.”

“Just the fact that my son is hopeful in life,” said James’s mother, “is already an achievement.”

It Takes Changing Systems to Sustain a Family

Another great example of sustainable change is happening in Tanzania. Oliver, a 34-year-old mother of five, lives in rural Tanzania and is a member of a women’s savings group that was started with the encouragement and training of one of the church partners supported by World Renew.

In her community, people do not have access to formal banking systems. As a result, it is difficult for them to earn interest on their savings or have access to loans when they want to start or grow their business.

Oliver also faced the hurdle of being a woman in a society where men controlled the household finances.

“I depended on my husband for everything, and all of the burdens were on him. Because of this there was a lot of conflict in our home, and I thought of ending the marriage,” she said, pointing out that in addition to creating a burden for her husband, this system made her feel useless and helpless in her own family.

But Oliver wasn’t useless or helpless. World Renew’s church partner helped Oliver and her neighbors recognize that they had some very powerful resources at their disposal they had never considered. They had the strength of their community. They also had very small amounts of money that they were saving.

Recognizing these strengths was the first step toward lasting change. Next, community members were coached to start up a village savings and loan association (VSLA) in their village. A VSLA is a communally run bank that allows people to pool small amounts of money together they can use to provide each other with loans. This give families access to capital and income from investments that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

When Oliver joined the group, her life and marriage began to change for the better. She added her savings to the VSLA and was allowed to borrow 400 Kenyan shillings (approximately US $4). She used this loan to buy cassava, which she was then able to take to sell at the local market. Soon, even after repaying her loan, she had a profit of 300 Kenyan shillings. 

She celebrated by using a part of these proceeds to buy beans for her family—something she had never done before. “They were quite surprised to be served beans that night! My husband asked me where I got the money, and I explained what I had done; he was impressed,” she said.

Oliver continued to participate in her VSLA, borrowing money, investing it in new livelihood efforts, and making a profit. She and her fellow group members learned the value of working together to save funds.

One day she decided to buy her husband a gift with the money she was saving: a T-shirt. When he came home from work and found it, he smiled with surprise and gratitude.

“Since then, joy and happiness has returned to our family,” said Oliver. “My savings also improved because my husband started supporting me as I save. Today, there is no quarrel at home. Decision-making is shared. There is peace here. I feel good, confident, and a productive part of my family.”

Oliver and her husband have since bought solar lighting and a metal roof for their house. They can afford to pay their children’s school fees and have laid a cement foundation for a permanent home. Even more exciting than these developments for their family, however, are the transformational changes that have taken place in their marriage and in Oliver’s understanding of her own abilities.

Because the program was offered through a local church partner, Oliver has also been growing in her faith and has a relationship with a church that can nurture her spiritually in the future.

Jeff Heerspink, James, and Oliver are all examples that sustainable change takes more than just giving someone a fish. It even takes more than “teaching someone to fish.” 

Instead, creating sustainable change takes faith in the transformative power of Christ—“the fisher of people.” Through local church partners and Christian Reformed Church ministries, people are learning to see themselves as imagebearers of God, capable of shifting systems and changing their lives and communities for the better. This is what sustainable change is all about.

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