This paper presents the findings of a case study of a Christian ministry involved in disaster relief work in East Asia. It examines the motivations of Christians who take part in disaster relief work and the effects of the their work in the affected community.

Sng Bee Bee is currently an independent Lecturer in Communications and Writing Skills with the local universities and a Bible college in Singapore. She has been involved in mission work relating to education in several East Asian countries for a number of years. She has also been involved in organizing seminars for Christian teachers in Singapore. She graduated with an EdD specializing in education management from Leicester University, in the UK. Her research interests are educational change, English Language, and the internet and Christian faith. She can be contacted at beesng@gmail.com.

The Role Christian Values Play in Motivating International Christian Ministries’ Collaboration in Disaster Relief Work

Mission Round Table Vol. 13 No. 3 (Sep-Dec 2017): 41-44

1. Introduction

Disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis devastate whole communities of people, resulting in a large number of fatalities and the displacement of many people. In the past, when a disaster has shattered a community, churches and other Christian ministries have been among the first to respond by providing humanitarian aid and have often played a significant role in disaster relief. Their humanitarian effort—consisting of medical aid, rebuilding of infrastructure, providing equipment for purifying water, rebuilding houses, counselling those suffering from trauma, and teaching children—provides visible, practical, and influential witness of the love of Christ for the affected people. In addition, Christian organisations are concerned about holistic development and their involvement takes place at both international and local levels where they have operated on a long-term basis.[1]

Christian ministries have also been known to have close contacts with and a good working knowledge of disaster-affected communities and are able to provide sustainable development work in the form of education and medical services. In terms of social engagement, Christian ministries often act as an intermediary body between the government and the people, in the sense that they offer social and voluntary services in society.[2] In many countries, Christians also provide social welfare by running private hospitals, drug rehabilitation centres, and HIV relief programs.[3] Christian ministries also play a significant role in disaster and post-disaster recovery work as they are prepared to stay in the region for many years and are committed to sustainable, long-term community development. Therefore, the disaster relief work of Christian ministries has significant long-term impact on communities in which local people can witness Christian love and values in action through the professional work of Christians.

The social engagement of Christian organisations shows that they are participating in the wider shared interests, goals, and values of society. Their motivation for social engagement lies in their sense of duty and moral obligation towards the needy.[4] In addition, the church’s social engagement is a phenomenon that has historical significance. For these reasons, it is important to examine the perspectives of Christian professionals regarding the impact their professional work and accompanying Christian values have made on communities that have been affected by natural disasters. The outcomes of this study will show the impact of an authentic Christian life on one such community.

 2. Research questions and methodology

The questions this paper addressed are:

  1. What is the nature of the disaster relief work performed by the Christian organization?
  2. How do Christian values and beliefs motivate and shape the professional work of the Christian relief workers?
  3. What are the effects of Christian disaster relief work in the affected community?

This paper involves a case study of a Christian ministry which is involved in disaster relief work in East Asia. This study utilized in-depth, semi-structured interviews conducted with professionals who worked in the disaster affected area. These professionals include a businessman, an engineer, an English teacher, a physiotherapist, and a project coordinator. The engineer and English teacher made short trips into the area and were involved with intensive Summer English programs for the youths who lived in the epicenter of the earthquake, while the physiotherapist worked in the physiotherapy clinic set up by the Christian ministry for a year. Pseudonyms have been used for all participants and the Christian ministry involved in this study in order to maintain confidentiality.

3. Background of the Christian professional ministry

A few years ago a major earthquake wrecked whole cities near the epicenter and resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of lives. This disaster drew large numbers of Christians from both local churches and international Christian NGOs who volunteered their medical, counselling, and educational expertise to help the victims. Soon after the earthquake happened, IMC (a pseudonym for an international NGO) began to work with local officials to provide international aid workers such as trauma doctors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, counsellors, and youth workers to help the victims. The local government provided the overarching management of the NGO’s voluntary projects in this earthquake relief work and allocated the sites for the various NGOs to share their expertise in helping the victims. From the time of the earthquake, IMC continued to run English programs for children who were affected by the earthquake. It also provided medical services and training for local doctors who lived near the epicenter of the earthquake.

As this paper will show, the ministry of Christian professionals, operating through an international NGO, plays a significant role in cooperating with local governments to provide training of local doctors and teachers, and to assist the sustainable recovery and development of disaster hit communities. It will also show that Christian professionals are motivated to cooperate with the government to provide urgent medical attention to the people in these areas by their Christian values and biblical teaching that their faith should be shown by their actions of helping the needy.

4. The nature of Christian professionals’ involvement in the Christian ministry: Responses from interviews conducted

IMC’s involvement in the disaster relief work maintains two main foci: medical work in the areas of physiotherapy and training of the indigenous doctors and physiotherapists, and English teaching. Their Christian medical personnel aimed to develop the skills of the local professionals so that they would be more able to contribute to the development of their community. Those who were involved in community development were motivated by the biblical understanding that they should show compassion to the needy. As Psalms 145:9 states that “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made,” they believed they should demonstrate his compassion. At the same time, they maintained that their role was not to proselytize the locals but to demonstrate their Christian compassion through their unconditional professional service.

Peter, an engineer, joined a small team of Singaporeans who went to the area to conduct an intensive Summer English program for students who were affected by the earthquake. Even before this trip, Peter had worked with IMC to develop a prototype business in a rural community that was part of a poverty-alleviation program. This business venture enlisted members of the local population to produce clothes, cushion covers, and other gift products based on indigenous tribal designs.

Peter explained that his belief in God and his love for the people led him to participate in community development work. He also explained that this organisation is not confrontational in preaching the gospel. Instead, the Christian ministry believed that Christians can influence the indigenous people by demonstrating their Christian values and the way they live their lives. He elaborated that the emphasis of their community development work lies in building relationships.

The relief team needed to overcome geographical and cultural barriers to facilitate the relief effort. Callie is a Canadian who has been taking teams of teachers from North America to teach English to the children in the schools in the earthquake affected area. Like Peter, she was motivated by the relationships she has established with the local people. However, she confessed that while she initially found planning the English teaching programs and procuring materials difficult, as she made more trips to the area and built relationships with the students she became more familiar with their needs. She became better equipped to adjust the teaching program to match their learning needs.

Christian professional ministry has an advantage over international NGOs as they have a better working knowledge of the culture and needs of local people than the larger organizations whose presence and work in the community last for a much shorter period of time. James, a Singaporean businessman who has worked in a factory in the country that was affected by the earthquake, was responsible for recruiting counsellors for the affected people. He highlighted the importance of counselling, explaining that the rapid economic development of the country has resulted in growing materialism and individualism which threaten community bonds and has led to emotional problems. In the earthquake-affected parts of the country, counsellors are needed to help the indigenous people overcome post-traumatic syndrome disorder. As James says,

The area needs social workers and counselors, because, as it grows economically, people focus on personal growth and materialism. This results in broken relationships, causing pain and hurt to people. So the needs are changing from seeking basic survival to seeking money, 向钱走,向钱看, seeking material wealth and all that. When people were only striving to quench their basic thirsts and survive personally, people’s relationships were more of a support. But since people are 同苦不能同富, as your neighbor grows richer, you become jealous and all that. You start to have problems and all that. So we have to help them to be reconciled since their needs have changed. Of course, the increasing focus is on attending to their emotional and spiritual needs, while not minimizing their need for basic physical survival. So the role has increased from one of providing basic healthcare to providing other needs. I see three words, what do you call it, 第一是生存 (survival), 第二是生活 (living), 第三是生命 (life). From 生存 to 生活 to 生命, emphasizes one’s relational life, one’s quality of life.

The changing needs of the area have motivated Christians who minister there to review their strategy to ensure that they meet the needs of the local community. Tight regulations led IMC to focus on building the capacity of local professionals so that the State can see the validity of their work in equipping the local people to help themselves. Sally, a program coordinator who recruited teams of professionals from Singapore and facilitated the coordination of their programs in the area, reiterated the need to meet the needs of the community.

The resources that IMC provides for the community have evolved. While previously, hospitals regularly requested medical equipment, rapid economic development means they can now afford to purchase such equipment themselves. However, they do not necessarily have the expertise to use this equipment. IMC’s role was therefore to provide medical expertise to train them to use the equipment. Sally says:

The needs of the rural places where we are working in have not changed. There is a lot of development in the area. So, the hospitals stopped requesting equipment like CT scanners which they used to ask for ten to twenty years ago. Now, what will happen is they will probably show you their CT scanner and they will confess that they don’t really know how to use it. “Can you send someone to help us?” So, what we can do now is to provide the expertise to train them to use the medical equipment. So, we still have a niche in sending specialists. We are very privileged in Singapore to have a lot of specialist doctors who are believers and are willing to go to provide the training to the doctors in the area.

5. Analysis: The role of Christian ministries in disaster relief and development work

According to the interviewees in this research, Christian professional ministries provide needed resources in disaster-affected areas such as medical equipment, medical and education services and training, volunteers, and leadership models. In addition, the interviewees explained that through the relief work of IMC, the local community witnesses how a team made up of people from different cultures can work effectively. This exposure to multicultural teams helps the community to become more open to external resources, training, and exchanging ideas. These ingredients are needed for the development of the community, so Christian workers need to be sensitive to the local cultures. Furthermore, the Christian relief teams are careful not to present a different standard of living to the people in the sense that they can afford more material things than many of the local people.

In addition, the local government officials acknowledged that Christian humanitarian work provides crucial resources to disaster-hit areas in the form of medical equipment and treatment, trauma counselling and education, and that the commitment of the Christians leads to more sustainable community development in affected communities. Social harmony is an important aspect in the local people’s worldview. IMC’s volunteers received the feedback from local officials that they clearly recognise the benefits that Christian work brings in the areas of community development and humanitarian efforts. Historically, the literature on the work of Christian NGOs in China shows that Christian ministries have been responsible for improving education and medical services in the rural communities. They have proven to be effective in improving elementary education, health care, media, and social welfare, all of which have long-term effects on society. The social engagement of Christian ministries provides solutions to problems resulting from the rapid decrease of the agricultural economy and rapid urbanization of the country in East Asia.[5]

The multi-national and multi-cultural nature of IMC Christian teams serves as a model of interdependence and community building for indigenous communities. They also provide a model of how foreign personnel can work with local communities. Furthermore, Christians work towards sustainable development, with the goal of supporting the local culture, developing existing trade and skills, and improving the self-esteem of the people by helping them to be effective in their current type of economy. The tagline of Christian ministries like IMC is: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for one day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a life.”

Cooperation of multi-stakeholders in working towards culturally sensitive and sustainable development is crucial.[6] Greater collaboration from well-resourced and committed agencies such as those of Christian ministries, “could lead to an increase in cohesive, well-informed and grassroots-orientated development policies and service delivery.”[7] In addition, “one of the strengths of faith-based organisations is their longstanding presence and commitment to humanitarian work in developing countries.”[8] Having said this, the key criteria of effective humanitarian work are sustainable development, cultural sensitivity, and partnerships with local authorities. 9

6. Challenges

According to the interviews conducted in this study, the benefits that IMC brings to the local community are tremendous. However, the interviewees revealed that the international nature of Christian work can result in gaps in coordination and facilitation. The labour-intensive nature of humanitarian work means that IMC has to engage in massive recruitment. In addition, its dependence on multi-national volunteers requires coordinating the schedules of the volunteers with the schedule of the recipient communities. This means that coordinators are needed both in the country that receives the relief and the countries that send the relief workers. Close communication is needed among these coordinators so that expectations and needs can be clearly communicated in order for them to be met.

In addition, the interviewees admitted that the immense cross-cultural differences and the sheer load of coordination needed often results in lapses of communication and coordination. This is not to say that international NGOs in general do not face such problems. Rather, it means that the IMC teams need to undergo cross-cultural and team-building training so that the diversity of the cultures and giftings of the team members become the strengths and assets of the teams. Ultimately, it is the commitment and faith of the Christian members that motivate them to work towards filling such gaps.

7. Conclusion

In summary, the nature of IMC’s disaster relief work is marked by an emphasis on professionalism and commitment to skills, attitudes, and values of work. The interviews indicated that team members are also committed to overcome both challenges in the disaster hit areas and coordination of the teams. This entails that they place their calling from God and needs of the affected community above themselves. Colossians 3:12 describes the attitudes and spirit that Christian workers, like those in IMC, should have: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” The IMC Christian workers believe that they show this kindness, compassion, gentleness, and patience through their professional work and the way they relate to one another both in the teams and with the local people. Through this long-term and sustainable work and presence in the community, the local people have been touched by the unconditional love of the IMC workers. This is also the incarnational model of ministry that Jesus himself showed us in the New Testament. As a result, the local people witness Christian values in the work, actions, relationships, and lives of the workers. Gradually, this situation has the effect of transforming the whole community from within as they observe the difference in the lives of Christians. In conclusion, this research demonstrates that Christian ministries can bring significant benefits to disaster-affected communities.

[1] Josef Boehle, “Religious NGOs at the UN and the Millennium Development Goals: An Introduction,” Global Change, Peace & Security 22 no. 3 (October 2010): 275–296.

[2] A. A. An-Na’im, “The Politics of Religion and the Morality of Globalization,” in Religion in Global Civil Society, Mark Juergensmeyer, ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 23–48; Peter Berger, “Religion and Global Civil Society,” in Religion in Global Civil Society, Mark Juergensmeyer, ed. (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 11-22.

[3] Xiaheng Xie, “Religion and Modernity in China: Who is Joining the Three Self Church and Why,” Journal of Church and State 52 no. 1 (January 2010): 74-93.

[4] Boehle, “Religious NGOs.”

[5] Gerda Wielander, Christian Values in Communist China (London and New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2013).

[6] Boehle, “Religious NGOs,” 275–296.

[7] Boehle, “Religious NGOs,” 286.

[8] Boehle, “Religious NGOs,” 291.

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