Saying “No” to Easy Answers
Issue 9, Vol. 2
One of the most difficult things in all of life is saying, “No.” There are so many good things that demand our, “Yes!” This is especially true when dealing with under-resourced communities. Whether it is Liberia or Lafayette, there are many needs that clamor for our attention. How do we address them all? We can’t. The secret is saying “no” to the ineffective answers.
The most prominent solution offered to the world’s social problems is known as “relief.” Relief is a transactional method of helping. If you need your roof fixed, we will fix your roof. Once your roof is repaired, we move on to the next person’s need. Relief tends to focus on the symptoms rather than attacking the root causes. It cures the symptom today, but it does not prevent the same issue from resurfacing again. Mark Twain’s adage, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day” is very true of relief.
Relief is a popular social solution because it offers quick solutions with measurable results. We can count the number of roofs we have repaired, or the number of turkeys we have given away. Relief may appear to be helpful, but it actually creates the greater problem of dependency. Dependency guarantees that the problem will still be there tomorrow.
Development is a very different strategy for solving our social problems. Development is relational, not transactional. It is a long-term commitment. In relief, we do for others. Development is building relationships with others in order to “teach them to fish.” Mark Twain’s old adage went on to say that if you “teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.“ If our problems are truly “social problems,” doesn’t it make sense that the solution is based on relationships?
New Hope is committed to being a development organization for the children and families in Azalea Park. We develop relationship-based programs to deal with the struggles in our neighborhood. We have said no to “relief.” Even within development, on occasion we still have to say, “no.”
Last October, we had to say no to 8 children who wanted to join our tutoring program. We wanted to say “yes” to these kids, but we did not have enough volunteers. It was very difficult to say “no” to 8 expectant kids. Watching 8 dejected children leave our parking lot with their heads down was even more difficult. However, we understand that development is a relational strategy and we can only say yes to the extent we can actually follow through relationally.
Sometimes we must say “no” because the person does not want to learn “to fish.” “David” started attending our program last fall. He was a fourth grader that was reading below a first grade level. He was failing in school and he had serious behavior issues. We were willing to work with him, but we let him and his mother know that it would take a lot of work.
Initially, “David” made great progress. His reading and behavior were improving. One day I asked him, “David, you are making such great progress. What happened?” He said, “I am going back to the future.” I am not sure what he meant, but I think the idea was that he was going to go back and learn all the things he should have learned before fourth grade to ensure his future. We had turned a corner.
Then Christmas break came. When David came back, he had forgotten everything he had learned. He didn’t remember how to read. He forgot his math facts. He started being disruptive. You could see it in his eyes; he had lost hope. One day we were brought to a crossroads; he would either have to straighten out or he couldn’t come back. That was the last time we saw “David.”
One lesson we are learning is that we can’t help everybody; whether it is because of limited human resources or an unwilling child. Sometimes we have to say “no.” New Hope can’t meet all the needs of Lafayette or all the needs in Azalea Park, for that matter. Being committed to relational and community development means that
“We are not called by God to do extraordinary things, but to do ordinary things with extraordinary love.” (Jean Vanier)