Those of us who work in the world of faith based non-government organizations (NGO´s) are well accustomed to the snubs of our “secular” peers. Often we´re seen as little more than the offspring of overly zealous missionaries who partnered all too well with colonial powers. As a result, we’re constantly attempting to distance ourselves from the stereotype of a Bible-thumping fundamentalist who triumphantly arrives to save the heathen from their poverty and ignorance.
The Messiah Complex that typified the majority of those first outsiders who arrived with “good news” that turned out to be bad news for so many traditional cultures around the world isn´t simply a remnant from the past. In today´s world, the Messiah Complex takes two distinct forms: there are still those proselytizing and charismatic religious groups convinced that their way of thinking and believing is the only correct way–that they are the bearers of ultimate truth and that it is their duty and vocation in life to convince those of us on the wrong side of conviction to join them on the right side.
And then there are those other groups who feel perhaps a bit uncomfortable with the colonial legacy of missionary zeal but who nonetheless are convinced that they have something good and exclusive that needs to be shared or given to the rest of the world. Most often these groups take the guise of faith-based NGO´s whose assistance-based programs are focused on helping the poor through the good intentions and generous donations of the more affluent. They believe that poverty is synonymous with any lifestyle that differs from the typical consumption of western countries and have mastered a publicity machine where pictures of slender, barefoot, brown-skinned children touch the heart-strings and wallets of their mostly white-skinned donors.
Yes, the Messiah Complex is still alive and kicking, and for those of us faith-based NGO workers who have taken up residence in so many places around the world, we loathe the comparison. In order to escape this identity that is imposed upon us by the weight of history, most faith based NGO´s have found refuge in professionalism.
To distance ourselves and our work from this Messiah Complex, we´ve determined that it is necessary to follow dutifully the professional norms and standards set forth by the hierarchy of the NGO world. We may maintain our faith-based vision and mission statements, but the actual work we do is largely shaped by the yardsticks of log-frames, planning, monitoring and evaluation schemes, and results-based management techniques established by this hierarchy.
We believe that if we can present ourselves as sufficiently professional by international development NGO standards, then we might be forgiven for our historical ties to the Messiah Complex and perhaps even be taken seriously. Though we may convince ourselves that faith and values make us distinct from other secular NGO´s, our aspiration and ambition towards “professionalizing” our organizations makes the actual work that we do on a community level indistinguishable from the work of any other NGO, secular or faith-based.
Perhaps this drive towards professionalism was necessary. In a sense, it helped many faith-based NGO´s rethink issues of poverty and development and move away from the Messiah Complex and it´s narrow-mindedness and paternalistic bigotry. But at the same time, we´ve left behind a part of our identity that differentiated us from the rest of the NGO world and also held the possibility of something deeper and more meaningful.
Father Rogelio Ponseele is a Belgian priest who for the last half decade has been living in a forgotten corner of northeast El Salvador. He came during the violent decade of the 1970´s and has been there ever since living alongside the peasants in the poorest villages of the country and sharing the reality of the communities where he has lived and worked. When the Civil War came, his decision to be a part of the people led him into the mountains to walk with his neighbors who were seeking to build a country of justice, inclusion and peace. Father Rogelio is older now, and many groups of college students and North American volunteers doing their semester long immersion into the reality of Central America come to visit him and hear his story.
During one such visit, after hearing Father Rogelio recount the many years of walking beside the people of El Salvador, a young man majoring in international community development at a prestigious North American university asked: “When you first came to El Salvador, how long were you considering staying here?
Father Rogelio, laughing to himself, replied: “I didn´t come for a visit. I came to stay–to be part of the community and the difficult reality of the poor of El Salvador.”
That answer was beyond the realm of understanding of those North American college students. Unfortunately, it is also not very well understood or embodied by those of us currently working in faith-based NGO´s. On our quest to professionalize the work we do, we´ve also taken on the traits of the avant-garde professional world. Our lives and mentalities are defined by an unconstrained mobility and by the infinite opportunities that come up in our professional worlds.
We may very well sign up for a year-long job in Brazil with some faith-based organization and after six months be checking out idealist.org for other opportunities and job openings in Bolivia, Botswana or Bangladesh. We become experts in results-based management or organizational development or agro-ecology practices or any other number of specializations within the NGO world and instantly the doors of the planet are opened to us. There isn´t a country in the world where some faith based organization doesn´t work, and once we get our foot in the door and establish our professional capacities, we can go anywhere in the name of Jesus or in the name of international development.
We may use the religious language of feeling “called” to work in some country or another, but often times we make sure that calling corresponds with our own professional aspirations and qualifications. There seems to be more and more people who come to the faith based NGO world looking for a “professional” organization that offers them a stable work environment with well-drawn up work responsibilities that correspond with their particular abilities and thus allow them a chance to develop professionally. Correspondingly, there seem to be less and less folks who enter the faith-based NGO world because of some sort of ideals or values related to serving the poor, or fighting for justice, or building peace. In short, there is less and less “mystique” within the faith-based NGO world.
And what is this mystique that we seemed to have lost? Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian theologian who began the liberation theology movement in the Latin American church writes of this mystique when he says that “the preferential option for the poor is much more than a way of showing our concern about poverty and the establishment of justice. At its very heart, it contains a spiritual, mystical element, an experience of gratuitousness that gives it depth and fruitfulness.”
Regrettably, we seem to have lost that “mystical element” because the root of our decision to work for development or justice or peace no longer grows from a preferential option to identify with the poor and incarnate ourselves amongst their reality. The gratuitousness of walking with the poor their path to liberation has been replaced by baseline studies, needs assessments and project indicators that too often objectify the communities where we work but do not commune.
Consequently, our work has also lost the “depth and fruitfulness” that comes with becoming part of the communities where we live and work and assume their reality. Today, we have young people from the global north supposedly helping communities in the global south achieve community development. Ironically, very few of these community development workers have ever meaningfully belonged to a community of their own. They may accumulate experiences from one place or another, but never belong to a place long enough to be a part of it. Similarly, there are agricultural “technicians” who don´t make their living from the land but who are supposedly teaching farmers how to better farm. There are engineers who are helping communities to implement rainwater saving technologies but who then return home to turn on faucets fed by municipal water systems.
Even from the standpoint of professionalism, one could argue that professional development comes mostly from the ability to dedicate time to a place. There is no short-term course or training that can take the place of living in one place and learning from that place, it´s people and it´s reality.
By committing ourselves to professionalism alone, the faith based NGO world has been reduced to just another cog in the machine of international development. What we need is the courage to redefine the Messiah Complex; to revisit the fundamental and underlying purpose of our decision to live and work amongst the poor.
The essence of this new type of Messiah-ism can be seen in the promise offered in Deuteronomy 15:4: “There will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess.” This promise is also an invitation to those of us who work in the faith based NGO sector. It is an invitation not just to work towards a society where there will be no poor amongst us, but also an invitation to participate in the inheritance of a community that is walking together towards that ideal, already made real in the flesh of our Messiah, Jesus. It is an invitation to move beyond our role as privileged outsiders “helping” underprivileged communities and move towards a rightful belonging to those communities in the way of Jesus. In the end, it is an invitation to let go of a little bit of our professionalism in order to fully participate in communities where the real work of the construction of the Kingdom of God is taking place.
That is, after all, what our Messiah was always about.