For many years a missionary in southern Africa, Dr. Sales serves there under the auspices of the United Church Board for World Ministries.
This article appeared in the Christian Century May 2, 1979, p. 497. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Just by being itself, the church could provide the key to self-help programs that work. It is so easy to concentrate on either/or: either service to humanity or propagation of the faith, as though they were mutually exclusive.
World hunger has served to mobilize the resources of the American churches as few other issues have done. And everyone who, like me, has spent half a lifetime in the Third World can only say “Amen.” This campaign has, however, brought out one result that previous efforts have often missed; it has stressed what has been called the “multiplier factor.” That is, putting something in the belly of the starving masses is not enough, for we should at the same time be helping them to produce for themselves. We should be giving not only ripe corn, but seed corn; not only meat, but heifers. We seek a better kind of gift, that those who receive may themselves produce, that they may feed themselves. Some rudimentary technology and some fertilizer given along with the food will enable the gift to grow, to multiply and bring further blessings.
For the past five years I have lived and worked in a semidesert land, among a people plagued by periodic drought. The Batswana as a nation have tried valiantly to import helpers for this very purpose: so that they will be able to help themselves. Countless pilot projects have been started, many of them moderately successful for a time, some doomed from the outset because they were too ambitious and required too many people with too many skills that a poor nation just does not have. For more than a decade a progressive, dedicated government has highlighted rural development. Yet somehow the dreams fade one by one and the schemes slowly wither -- and more pilot projects proliferate.
What has gone wrong? Can it be remedied? Not long ago a church worker of a denomination very active in this country was interviewed on the radio. He was asked, more or less as a matter of course, what his church was doing for Botswana’s development. He stuttered a bit and then tried to make a case for “just being a church,” and the impression he left was that “being a church” must be something quite unconnected with economic development.
I would like to take up this man’s cause, wield a couple of cudgels on his behalf, and express my conviction as to how “just being a church” could provide the key to programs that work – that multiply and meet people’s needs more comprehensively than seeds, heifers and agricultural innovation alone.
To begin, this worker’s church is among other activities, taking part in the growing program of theological education in Botswana. This program reaches into rural communities as well as towns, and is available to laypersons as well as candidates for ordination. Now had this churchman replied confidently, “Well, my church participates in the Botswana Theological Training Program,” his interviewer would have blinked and immediately -- asked: “What does that have to do with development, self-sufficiency, economic growth?” In that case, the interview might have proceeded as follows.
Churchman: I’m glad you asked, that, because on the surface one might think such training was irrelevant. But when we study the wider picture, its significance becomes apparent.
Interviewer: What wider picture?
Churchman: Consider the help we have had in the past few years from experts in tropical and semidesert agriculture. When they leave, their projects fold up. Why?
Interviewer: I’m not a farmer.
Churchman: Neither am I, but ask yourself this: What does a farmer do when he has been shown a way to triple his crop? He goes out and does it, under the detailed supervision of the expert. Right?
Interviewer (puzzled): Yes.
Churchman: Six months later he has, for the first time in his life, a good crop, one that brings in cash in addition to providing for his family’s needs. He is delighted. First he pays back an installment on the loan he took for the equipment and fertilizer, but he still has some money left. So now he makes a payment on a car.
Interviewer: Is there anything wrong With that?
Churchman: Our farmer now has a new status. His relatives see him as a rich man. They send their kids to him to be educated. He is elected to the local development committee, and he spends time attending meetings. When the next planting season comes around, he gets in some local people to work his crop.
Interviewer: I still don’t see . . .
Churchman: The expert is still in the area. He pays a visit and finds that the farmer is not there and the local people doing the work haven’t the faintest notion of the detailed techniques that brought about that first bountiful crop. So he tries to teach them.
But they themselves aren’t likely to benefit from doing all those detailed hot jobs; scientifically spreading fertilizer and conscientiously watering. They are working for wages. So they skimp and the second crop is much smaller.
Now the farmer has a problem. He cannot both keep the car and pay the next installment on his indebtedness. So he keeps the car and makes excuses to the expert. The third year the expert leaves, and after that harvest the farmer goes under. Then his neighbors all say: “You see. God meant for an acre to yield only ten bushels.”
Interviewer: But what has all this got to do with the church?
Churchman: If you see what went wrong, you will know what the first step must be. The expert knew all about farming; it was not he who failed. Yet the project failed. It failed because our friend the farmer did not have deep within himself some important religious understandings of who he was and what he was doing. It failed because he was not part of a community which gave him crucial support as he launched out into a new way of life, which provided him with the counsel he needed at critical times.
Interviewer: I thought we were talking about development.
Churchman: We are. But what I am trying to show you is that to give a person a skill and a means of livelihood is only the first step toward successful development. If people are to profit and enable others to profit from that skill, they also need to have moral and theological convictions, to have a sense of responsibility and stewardship, to be part of a helping community so that making the adjustment to a new life can be meaningful. In a word, our farmer needs a vision, and that vision must be wide and constructive.
Interviewer: You say this has to do with theological education?
Churchman: Exactly. For the first time, those in rural areas can acquire the skills needed to understand the church in this deeper way I’ve been talking about. Our program makes this possible. Among those we train may be this very farmer, or his neighbor. Another may become his pastor. Because these people have gained this wider vision, they can help the farmer to make sense of his skill and integrate it into a new and different life style.
Interviewer: Well, thank you, Pastor X, for telling us some of the activities your organization is involved in. Next week we will be speaking to Mr. Y of the Small Business Encouragement Unit. Until then, good-bye.
At this point a note of reality ought to be injected. Chances are that the words “hunger” and “development” will never convey to very many people a connection with theological education or, for that matter, “being a church.” As an interested party in this discussion, I have approached numerous possible donors in Europe and America asking for contributions to our theological training program. Their candid reply has been: “We aren’t much interested in theology right now. We are putting our funds into development projects.”
But for what I have called the “multiplier factor,” some skills -- and even attitudes -- that have little to do with agricultural know how are absolutely crucial. And it seems to me that executives in church agencies ought to be among the first to recognize this fact. The man who declared that people do not live by bread alone also said that he could provide food and drink of a sort that would alleviate hunger and thirst forever. That is the “multiplier factor” which concerns me.
My thoughts along these lines were sparked by a visit from Neil Richards, who was taking part in a world hunger survey. He spoke of the work being done in villages of northern Ghana by a development team consisting of an agriculturist, a literacy expert, a nutritionist, a nurse and a minister. I confess that my first thought was: “I see why the others, but what is the padre’s role?”
Then I came across the phrase “multiplier factor” and began to sort things out. Finally, when a local government official rebuffed our program’s request for an educational site, on the grounds that we should know development has top priority in Botswana, I realized that I had to speak up.
It became clear that some effort must be made if the well-intentioned but hitherto largely futile, experiments in self-sufficiency were to be injected with the devotion and, yes, the sense of duty that seem to characterize a dedicated Christian. It is so easy to concentrate on either/or: either service to humanity or propagation of the faith, as though they were mutually exclusive. True development must surely be of the whole person in a whole community.