How to help the vulnerable in any crisis

Not all poverty is created equal, especially during a crisis. As our country faces the second half of a year with COVID-19 and are also experiencing natural disasters, it’s important to know how to plan. It can be helpful to think of three broad categories of poverty or crisis alleviation: relief, rehabilitation, and development.

By Brian Fikkert 

  • Relief is an urgent, temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering in a crisis. When someone’s life has been interrupted by a natural disaster, a pandemic, or an economic crisis, it’s time to “stop the bleeding.”
  • Rehabilitation begins as soon as the bleeding stops and seeks to restore people to the positive elements of their pre-crisis condition. Here, we move away from doing things for someone to working with them to take steps together to improve their situation.
  • Development is a process of ongoing change that moves everyone involved – both the materially poor and materially non-poor – closer to right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation than they have been in the past. Like rehabilitation, development is not done to people or for people, but with them.

In normal circumstances, most low-income people who approach you or your church for assistance are not experiencing a one-time crisis. They are battling a chronic state of poverty created by a complex set of forces. Development – not relief or rehabilitation – is usually the proper approach in this situation, as simply providing material resources can actually undermine people’s willingness to address the chronic conditions that are contributing to their material poverty.

However, in a time of crisis – such as the current situation facing us all with the outbreak of COVID-19 – relief or rehabilitation is often the appropriate response. Many people may find themselves in financial crises for the first time due to sickness or sudden job loss.

In a time of crisis, relief or rehabilitation is often the appropriate response. Many people may find themselves in financial crises for the first time due to sickness or sudden job loss.

In these cases we need to help people quickly, providing both material and non-material assistance to stabilize their situation and to restore them as much as possible to positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions. In a time of crisis, we should definitely err on the side of generosity.

So what does this generosity look like during a global pandemic, where most aren’t gathering and physical contact is limited? The answers will look different depending on where you are, but here are a few ideas to get you and your church thinking:

  • Adjust your intake process for benevolence. For example, many churches wisely insist on meeting people face-to-face before assisting with financial needs. However, depending on the situation in your community, these meetings may no longer be permissible or safe. Consider temporarily offering meetings over the phone rather than face-to-face. Many utility bills or other financial needs can be handled over the phone or online.
  • Modify your existing ministries. For example, if your church hosts a food ministry, consider shifting to a “grab-and-go” or delivery model for the short term rather than gathering large groups. If your church hosts financial education classes or similar development-focused ministries, connect with your participants over the phone or via Google Hangouts or Zoom to pray for them and assess any needs they may have. What changes can your church make to keep helping without spreading the virus?
  • Start a new, short-term ministry. Pandemics and disasters are likely to disproportionately affect many people who were already vulnerable: the elderly, people working at hourly jobs, those without transportation, etc. Many people are unable to get groceries, prescriptions, or other essential household items. Some are cut off from friends or family until the crisis is over. What opportunities are there to rally and safely address some of these needs?
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