The Responsibility of Church for Society – Review of Wisdom from 1946

Christians live today in and with nations that are either dying or over which the threat of doom hangs like a heavy cloud. Some of them are miserable in abject physical poverty; some seem hopelessly divided within themselves; some are powerful and affluent beyond the imagination of past years but full of internal anxieties and badgered by fears. In a general atmosphere of spiritual confusion political decisions are made uncertainly and hesitatingly. Apprehension of disaster has taken the place of the hope of progress as the dominant mood and motive of action.

niebuhrDoes this not feel like 2017? Incredibly, this is Richard Niebuhr in 1946. Chillingly prescient and refreshingly balanced, his entire chapter on “The Responsibility of the Church for Society” (10 pages) is worth reading. The central argument is that Christians are responsible to God, and for society. Churches fall into the error of either mistaking our responsibility “to-whom” or “for-what”.Our first error is acting as though our responsibility is to society rather than God. Niebuhr makes it clear that clear that whether creating “good citizens” or “effective revolutionaries”, the church has lost its sense of responsibility to God as author and King when it “tries to render account to men for its stewardship of religious values”.

The opposite error is to act as though we are responsible to God, but only for ourselves. This church isolates and protects, abandoning “secular society” to its own demise. It follows the example of Noah, building an ark to rescue itself rather than that of Jesus, stepping into a broken world. Here, Niebuhr adds the important caveat that unlike the earliest churches, Christians “have done not a little to make the secular [Western] societies what they are”. His view is that we are deceiving ourselves when we say that we are only pilgrims and strangers:

The American, Russian and British empires as well as the German and Italian, challenge the Church to a sense of responsibility, therefore, which the Roman Empire could never call forth. They were not suckled in their infancy by wolves but nursed and baptized by the Church; it instructed them in their youth and has been the companion of their maturity.

So with this grave responsibility, what are we to do? Niebuhr is hesitant to prescribe, but offers three postures for the church to take in regards to society; that of the apostle, pastor, and pioneer. As an apostle, the church must proclaim to the society in which it exists that Jesus is Lord:

As the apostolic Church it is the function of the Christian community to proclaim to the great human societies, with all the persuasiveness and imagination at its disposal, with all the skill it has in becoming all things to all men, that the center and heart of all things, the first and last Being, is utter goodness, complete love. It is the function of the Church to convince not only men but mankind, that the goodness which appeared in history in the form of Jesus Christ was not defeated but rose triumphantly from death.

Like the first apostles, our stages are both throne rooms and street corners, our audiences both Kings and masses.

The second role that the church takes on is that of the pastor, seeking out the lost and lonely to bring healing and comfort. We act not out of guilt or duty, but out of love for each member of the flock. Niebuhr argues that “because of its pastoral interest in individuals the Church has found itself forced to take an interest in political and economic measures or institutions…and to understand the corporate character of human sin”. As the pastors of society, we reform systems and structures, and also give of our own resources to care for those in need.

Niebuhr’s final image is most compelling. In seeing the church as a “social pioneer” he imagines a lived out tension between our accountability to God and for society. As pioneers, we are not disconnected from society but always draw it forward. We act as a redeeming part of society, not attempting to control the entire project but to invite it forward into the light. Writing in 1946, Niebuhr identifies nationalism, racialism, and economic imperialism as the key areas in which the church must repent and act as a leader in drawing society away from.

Niebuhr completes the image by showing how this “representational responsibility” parallels the role of Jesus Christ. Christ came and lived in and among humanity, but did so only to offer us a better life. Niebuhr concludes:

“In pioneering and representative action of response to God in Christ, the invisible Church becomes visible and the deed of Christ is reduplicated”.

Though we have a long way to go, I see glimpses of what this could look like in the places where I am involved. I see it in the wave of Canadian churches who stepped up to privately sponsor refugees as governments bargain to keep them out. I see it in my city, where Christian organisations have taken the lead in rescuing food from dumpsters and distributing to people who need it, eschewing the politics of control and credit and inviting wider society into the process. I see it in my own neighborhood and workplace, where churches have gathered together to provide food for children who need it. Though my efforts are muddled at best, I want to keep learning how my work can draw those around me into the love of Christ.


Times I cried in 2016

170x170bbThe first time was a surprise. Everyone was out of the office, so I decided to put on some music. With Malawi’s high data costs, I wasn’t really supposed to be streaming, but a band I liked had released a new EP. The empty office turned out to be more important than I thought. I sat enraptured as I listened to See the Love, by The Brilliance. The collection is a lament for all the pain, hate, and brokenness so overwhelmingly big and dark, and a cry for peace and love across difference. I found tears falling as I saw that pain reflected in my daily experience in Malawi.

The second time was embarrassing. I volunteered a kids club at my church in Lilongwe, and we finished the year by watching The Prince of Egypt. I was near the front, in charge of distributing popcorn refills to a crowd of kids crammed three to a desk in a stuffy classroom. I hadn’t seen this movie for years and found myself drawn into Moses’ journey. When Moses met God at the burning bush, I felt overcome by his sense of wonder.

Moses takes off his shoes and brings God all his excuses. “How can I stand up against all this evil? Who will listen to me?” Flames burst and Moses is drawn up into the light, reminded of God’s power and purpose. I shall be with you, Moses.

Moses goes home and shares his vision with his wife (more tears). I tried not to let the ten-year-olds see me but they kept coming up for more popcorn, oblivious to the drama before them. In Malawi, lonely and displaced, my emotions were always a little closer to the surface. As I sat watching God give Moses a mission to accomplish, I realized how much I longed for the same: to be awed by God’s power and drawn up into his purpose.

You can probably guess the last time. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you were there. I stood under a tree on a sunny summer morning, the dappled light covering a crowd of smiling friends. I turned to see a woman in a white dress with flowers in her hair. No tears came in that moment, but inside, the feeling was the same: drawn up in light, lost in the glory of it all. Here were hope and purpose.13315690_1254935667864331_931651089424059889_n

There were other times, too. Some are forgotten, and some are not yet right for sharing. But these three somehow sum up what 2016 was for me. It was a year where pain and hopelessness became deep and personal. It was a year I cried out in loneliness, longing for God to show me his plans. It was a year of joy as moments of truth and intimacy filled my life like dappled sunlight. This year I cried when I saw glimpses of home.

Here’s to Hoping

I’m on my knees, gingerly reaching under the bed. Blue latex gloves will protect me from filth but not a stray needle. The bed’s occupant left the shelter last night, and I’m cleaning out his possessions, getting the bed ready for the next guy.

Under the bed, tucked carefully away in the far corner, are a pair of shoes. Brown leather, well worn, but high quality; like your Dad might wear to church. I strain to grab them, walk down the hall, and throw them in the garbage.

Before I got hired at the men’s shelter, they asked me: “Working here, you are going to be dealing with mental illness, addictions, stress, and conflict. How are you going to cope?” In the interview, waxed eloquent about my morning meditation and church group, but as I drive home I can’t get the shoes out of my head. What kind of person throws out a homeless man’s shoes?

It isn’t just the shoes that haunt me. Over the last months, I’ve watched addiction, mental health issues, poor choices, and poor institutions leave people broken and empty. Images flash to mind:
A father frantically calling lawyers after his children were taken away. A teenager too nervous to sleep in the shelter; assault charges preventing his return to a group home. A senior on first name basis with ambulance attendants because the hospital is the only place where anyone will care for him.

What hope can I offer these people? How do I cope?

In Youth Work, Naomi Nichols describes how people experience the Ontario shelter system. She describes the shelter as a boundary community; a place where ‘the street’ and ‘the system’ meet. Nichols reflects a trip to the mall with a shelter resident who casually told stories of rape, abuse, and addiction. Nichols questioned how the teen could be so vulnerable in such a public setting. She realizes that this personal disclosure is a precondition for the teen to receive shelter and welfare. To cross the boundary and access social services, you must be vulnerable, intimate. At the same time, to offer support to those on the street, the shelter worker must be professional, impartial.

Nichols argues that this relationship is fundamentally jarring. The contrast between their intimacy and my impartiality pulls at me. But it has done more than just tug me from my comfort zone, it has left me struggling to find my footing. I watch the same people face the same problems over and over, helpless to intervene. I signed on to bring hope and healing, and now it seems that all my efforts might barely preserve the status quo. After a while, poverty is not jarring, it is wearing.

Prayer comes as an afterthought, a duty I’ve neglected. It seems irrelevant to the mundane world where I distribute blankets and dispose of old shoes. I don’t even know what to ask for. I hang so tightly to my desire to cope, but deep down I know I’m not enough.

Weary, I return to the one who promises to lift my burdens. Trust and rest remain distant hope rather than personal experience. My heart is still broken, my vision clouded. But as I close my eyes, a light breaks through.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

There’s hope here, too.

A note left at the front desk: “Dad, I forgive you. Please call.”. A late night conversation, “Will you pray for me?”. An unexpected visitor, “I’ve found an apartment and a job, thanks for being here when I needed it.”

I’m on my knees.

Getting Both Shoes On

Our results show heavy usage of the donated TOMS shoes; indeed, the modal response was that children in the treatment group wore the shoes every day of the week. However, our study finds that the donated shoes did not significantly reduce shoelessness and had insignificant impacts in most of our key categories [health, school attendance] that would indicate transformative impacts.

argentina_shoes_blake-copyThis is from Bruce Wydick et al’s study of TOMS in El Salvador, released last month. The economists’ advanced statistical analysis confirms the long-held suspicions of most practitioners: TOMS have no “transformative impact” on children’s health or education.

Despite this, TOMS is by many measures the most successful social enterprise of all time. TOMS has given away more than 50 million shoes and spawned a host of copycat operations. My friend Justin put it:

“TOMS may have missed the point in doing effective social good, but they absolutely nailed effective branding. They understood the need to parse a complex issue into a simple message…that’s why their motto, “one for one,” is genius. In just three words you know exactly what they do and you have a cause to believe in”

This puzzles and frustrates me. Bringing communities out of poverty requires nuanced understanding and complicated intervention. However, raising money to bring communities out of poverty requires simple messages and relatable solutions. We need land reform and electoral accountability, we give goats and shoes.

Wydick and his team get this. They recognize that in-kind donations of food and clothes play a huge role in helping people in rich countries connect with the people they are donating to. They understand that despite the best theoretical knowledge, organizations have no choice but to follow the practices that allow them to keep operating.

So instead of lambasting TOMS for naive programming, the researchers offer a set of strategies for organizations to do better.

Like most scholars, they address the importance of foregrounding local needs and reducing dependency. For example, in El Salvador, the government already provides all schoolchildren with shoes. Moreover, the worm that causes the most foot infections has been eradicated in El Salvador.

Also, when physical goods are given out, Wydick and his team suggest that they should be given as rewards for positive activities like attending health checks. This builds a sense of accomplishment instead of dependency.

Finally, the authors introduced the idea of a “median impact narrative” as a contrast to the sort of ‘silver bullet’ stories so prevalent to the field. They suggest that instead of telling the story of an outlier, we tell the story of the average. So instead of a microloan spawning a multinational corporation, talk about the average impact that an intervention will have on each and every beneficiary. The authors of the paper created a statistically average ‘José Mantaro’ to describe TOMS’ impact:

“José Mantaro lives in San Francisco de Javier, El Salvador,…José’s family does not own a refrigerator, television, or radio, but both he and his brother have a bike…José walks 30 minutes to school, where he is in the third grade, but he has not yet learned to read or write.”

“José received a pair of TOMS shoes immediately after the baseline study in June 2012…He spent a little bit more time collecting water for his family and a little less time per day watching TV. An honest appraisal would suggest that receiving the shoes did not bring about transformative changes in Jose’s life…Yet the frequency with which he wore the new shoes indicates that the shoes donated by TOMS were nevertheless a welcome and appreciated gift.”

Of course, this reads a bit corny. It’s hard to imagine getting it by anyone in a marketing department. But the idea intrigues me- can we effectively pair statistics and stories? Perhaps for a more useful intervention, this kind of authenticity would be good marketing. I want to take part in development that effectively responds to real needs and inspires people to join the process. No answers yet, but I’m learning!

If you skip over the wild bootstrapping part, the paper is very readable, as is Wydick’s blog post on median impact narratives. I would recommend them both!

Not that Michael Jackson!

I wrote this a few weeks ago, but it wasn’t quite appropriate to post during the pre-wedding rush. 

An Anglican church was a strange place for Statistics Canada training session, but after landing my first hope of a post-university job as a ‘spare enumerator’ for the 2016 census, I wasn’t complaining.

The job was a long shot anyway because I applied I from Malawi without a contact number. I remember staring at my resume, wondering which one of a half dozen addresses was most relevant. My fiancé’s cell phone ended up being the link that connected me with the trainer on Sunday afternoon. I showed up for training at the church the next morning.

There’s seventeen of us sitting in the room. Folded cards determine our spot around the table. On the front was our names, and on the back, the census tract each of us was assigned. 2709-01, 2709-02, 2709-03, etc, around the table. Each person was assigned a tract near where they lived and was given a map showing their section of the city.

My card held only 2709-     .
I was a spare, so I didn’t get a number or a map.

I knew this going in, but didn’t realize how much of an outsider that made me. I avoid making friends with the fellow enumerators because I can’t think of any good directions for small talk. Where do you live? What do you do? Tell me about your family? I dare not ask because answering any of these questions back would require lengthy and awkward self-disclosure.

I shrink in a little more as we talk about people who don’t fit the system; who count in multiple places. According to the census methodology, people should be counted in their ‘main dwelling’— “where a person lives most of their time, that is, where they spend the major part of the year – a place one would call home.”

By official rules, my home is in Hamilton with my grandmother. That’s been my address since I was nine, but I’ve never actually lived there. In the last six weeks, I’ve had five different addresses.

We break for lunch, but I’m still too shy to talk so I pull out my book.

imagesAt Home in the World is by Michael Jackson— the aging Australian anthropologist not the Thriller star. The book traces Jackson’s journey to central Australia to learn how the aboriginal Walpiri people understand home. Driven from a nomadic lifestyle by European invaders, the Walpiri now struggle to reconcile their traditional lifestyle with welfare cheques and land-claim bureaucracy.

Their struggles are familiar to anyone knowledgeable about indigenous reserves in Canada. For the Walpiri, home does not require walls and windows.

The book reads like a story, with Jackson and his wife traipsing around in their Toyota, sleeping under the stars and driving long desert roads to visit grizzled elders and sacred sites.

Jackson tells the story of meeting Zack, an elder who takes Jackson to an old mine called ‘The Granites’ where he used to work. The place was notorious for the harsh conditions and maltreatment of aboriginal laborers. Yet this is where Zack brings Jackson to help him understand who he is. Jackson concludes: “The Granites was where [Zack] had met his hardship head on, had been tested, and had endured. This then, was also home.

Home is not a place apart from the all the storms of life, it is a place found in the thick of it.
Jackson adds: “One might say that home is not always somewhere cut off from the world. Sometimes it is a place in the world where one triumphs over adversity…

Today, Tess and I got to walk into our first apartment. It wasn’t as clean as we wanted, so we drove to Walmart and bought a big blue bucket and some bleach. We spent the afternoon on our hands and knees, scrubbing the bathroom and cupboards and listening to loud music. The stress/demands of submitting resumes, making seating charts, and catching up on readings were still there, but something about the rhythmic scrubbing helped them fade.

“Home is not always somewhere cut off from the world. Sometimes it is a place in the world where one triumphs over adversity…”

This then, was also home.


How do you use power well? | Final presentation

Last week was the Waterloo International Development program’s ‘Capstone’ program. We spent the week debriefing our experiences, culminating with a final presentation before our peers and professors. I talked about my experience of power in Malawi, and how I struggled to use it well:

After the presentation, one of the panelists, Hari Stirbet, who had taught me two courses, asked me a question. As best as I can remember, here is how it went:

Hari: “I’m going to be a little bit politically incorrect here and ask a question. Jacob, I know that spirituality has shaped you significantly- that you are a Christian. How has that impacted your understanding and what you said?”

Me: “Well, the last thing that I said in the presentation — thank you, for this question— that power is to be given for others.

For me, that has been shaped by Jesus. If you look at the life on Jesus, just before he was executed, he was eating dinner with his friends or disciples, and in the Gospel of John it records that “Jesus knew that all power and authority had been given to him”, and then he gets up and gets a towel and washes his disciples feet.

And whether you believe in Jesus as the Son of God, or even as a great teacher, you see that he had all this power and he used it to serve and give for others. And so for me, this understanding of power has come from knowing Jesus”

Malawi in Selfies

Tomorrow I will get on a plane and leave Malawi. The past few days have been filled with goodbyes to the people and places that have become a part of everyday life. As I reflect, I am struck by the number of stories that I’m bringing back with me. Naturally (for a 22-year-old), many of these moments were captured in selfies

When my colleague Jocelyn left the office, the staff at the National Youth Council of Malawi went outside to take goodbye pictures. This shot happened spontaneously after the bulk of shoot, which explains why Jocelyn (back) isn’t actually paying any attention.
Taking the picture is my supervisor Promise, who is NYCOM’s officer for Research and Evaluation. As an intern in his department, my main task was to read the reports sent in by youth organisations across the country and send feedback on their work. The others in the picture Brenda, Felix, and Charles (front to back), support much of the rest of the Council’s work, which includes registering and training youth organisations across Malawi. Over countless cups of tea and avocado sandwiches, the group has become very close, and I will miss them a lot.

Working for NYCOM had its adventures. The picture on the left was taken just after a we had gathered a group of civic leaders and youth together for a forum on youth involvement in volunteerism. It was inspiring to meet and hear opinions from youth leaders from across the city. After the event, everyone piled into the back of the old NYCOM truck- known affectionately as “the Lawnmower”- for a ride home.

The picture on the right was taken a few months later, when a group of us met to draft a national framework on volunteerism based on some ideas that emerged in the forum. What better place to draft a framework than the UN offices? We played it cool during the meeting, but some friends from Makwelero and I had to stop for a picture in the lobby before leaving.


The picture above was taken at a training for AWANA leaders at my church. Just after Christmas, I signed up to help lead the churches weekly kid’s program. I was incredibly nervous when I sat down at this training, but by the end of the session, this close knit group had welcomed me in. Over the next months, I got to know them better as we spent hours leading relay races, teaching Bible verses, and fighting for team points (Go Blue!). Between this group and a Tuesday night Bible study, I was graciously welcomed into the church community, and saying goodbye has been hard.

This picture is amazing because Jocelyn actually snuck up behind me for an underwater photobomb. So impressive.
We were snorkeling off of a little island in Lake Malawi- probably Africa’s most underrated tourist attraction- where we we had come for a weekend away. Traveling in Malawi always has its adventures, including attempting to hotwire a Hilux and pass police checkpoints with eight in a Corolla, but this particular weekend was all blue skies and calm water. 


These pictures are of going out for dinner with my housemates. I spent the last eight months sharing life with two university classmates (Amy and Rachelle). We were joined by Tanya (Sept-December) and Jocelyn (January-April). Through culture shock, power outages, and stress at work, going out to eat became an important way to decompress. Notably, here we are eating pizza (left) and curry (right), which represent the sum of best of Lilongwe’s dining options.

While we may have gotten bored with Lilongwe’s restaurants, we managed to stay interested in each others’ lives. After eight months, we can answer for each other’s favourite Hogwarts professor, brand of apple juice, or flavour of Fanta, but we still genuinely enjoy each other’s company and have become our own type of family. This will be the hardest goodbye.

As life in Malawi closes down, these captured moments become increasingly precious. This has been a unique chapter of life and there’s lots of change ahead. Looking back reminds me of how much I’ve grown and learned this year. Each of these pictures remind me that in a place where I expected to be an outsider and find difference, every relationship marked by welcome, beauty, and similarity. In Africa’s ‘warm heart’, I was surprised to experience a piece of home.