Most people who work in social service or economic development know the "babies in the river" folk tale. It has a few variations, but essentially the storyline is as follows:
The residents of a village are gathered by a river for a picnic when someone notices a baby in the river, struggling and crying.
The villagers’ panic subsides as someone successfully saves the baby; but to their horror, they notice another screaming baby in the river. Before they know it, more and more babies come down the river. Fortunately, the villagers are up to the task and quickly organize their efforts. Some people are in the water and others take care of the babies on land. But as the work continues unabated, several villagers stop working and run upstream.
"Where are you going?" shouts one of the rescuers. "We need you to help with these babies!"
"We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!"
It is a horrific story really, but it remains popular because it so clearly articulates the need to address the root causes of society’s problems. We can develop great organizations that alleviate suffering, but how much better would it be to eliminate the root cause?
As a Christian, the above folktale took on even more meaning after hearing a sermon on the prophet Micah’s often quoted verse:
"What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6:8
During the sermon, the pastor posed a very provocative question. Do we get it backward? Might it be that Christians love the idea of justice but are content to do mercy? Are we content with mercy ministry – meeting people’s immediate needs – while failing to realize that Micah’s call is telling us to do justice?
Almost immediately my mind combined the folktale with the pastor’s question. If we are getting Micah’s call backward, then according to the story, Christians are content to wade into the water and continually retrieve and treat the victims of injustice without walking upstream to address the root cause.
To use a popular proverb about the difference between mercy and justice, could it be that Christians are content to give people fish, but not teach them how to fish?
I’m not trying to bash Christians or the church here. There is a good reason why I (we) may be content to stay out of the justice business. Mercy ministry is challenging and has high burnout rates, but the work is fairly straightforward: you give people what they lack. And in this age of having to quantify your effectiveness, it is very easy to gauge the success of mercy ministries. We know X number of people need our services and if we get Y donations, we can serve Z number of people.
Hiking upstream, conversely, can be difficult because the solutions to injustice are usually complex. To combine the folktale and the proverb: sometimes when you hike upstream you find that people may know how to fish, they just don’t have access to the river. Justice ministry is a long-term endeavor that can get into complex situations that are sure to make people uncomfortable. And some of these people can hold power.
As a Christian, these are the questions I asked myself during that sermon. But as a Habitat employee the question is just as apt, "Is Habitat a mercy ministry or a justice ministry? Are we doing mercy or are we doing justice?"
For now, I'm going to have to leave you with that question.
But if this topic interests you, please join us for an informal luncheon where several community leaders will begin a dialogue on mercy and justice and how they incorporate the concepts into the organizations they lead. But it is a dialogue so come with your own ideas and experiences and together we'll learn from each other!
Oh and if you're interested, I'll have a little take-home essay for you about whether Habitat is a justice ministry or a mercy ministry!
Habitat Kent's Lunch Dialogue:
Embracing Justice and Mercy in Your Organizational Strategy
Mr. Fred Keller, CEO, Cascade Engineering
Reverend Doriane Parker Sims, Kingdom Life Ministries
When: Wednesday, March 9th 2016 12pm-1pm
Where: Habitat Kent Main Office 425 Pleasant St. SW, Grand Rapids
Mark Ogland-Hand is the faith and individual giving manager at Habitat for Humanity of Kent County. Mark has been involved with Habitat for Humanity for over 20 years in various roles including volunteer, construction site supervisor, and fundraiser. Mark is part of the Habitat International Interfaith development team.