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Help wanted

The needs and suffering of the world don't have to leave us feeling helpless

Issue: "Upside down," April 9, 2011

WORLD readers, anguished by news of the day, sometimes write to ask my recommendations for doing more to help in our broken, fallen world. It's a big question and I am one small person, anguished too.

Like others, I'm tempted to give up before even the simplest act of compassion, the smallest charitable contribution. And, as one reader put it, the prevalence of "our protected lives here in the United States" makes it easy to retreat. That was true before the Tohoku earthquake and its tsunami-and our natures are base enough to muzzle conscientious calls to action even in the face of the shocking hardship the disaster has brought Japan.

So recently, rather than a simple, sympathetic reply to such letters, I contacted three men I trust who man the front lines in varying capacities-an academic, a relief group executive, and a pastor.

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Through his work with nonprofits and others, economics professor Brian Fikkert, co-author of When Helping Hurts and director of the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, finds many facing reduced, recession-era giving, and he had this surprising thing to say: "I have scads of people wanting to volunteer part-time. The truth is I have no way to incorporate them." It takes time and human resources to train volunteers, he said, and many groups lack the management to do that. "One role that many can play is to be outstanding advocates for existing organizations they love," he said. "We need people to tell our story to their networks, bringing us the financial resources we need to stay afloat."

So be a cheerleader. Even if your own personal giving is down (and for many, it is), talk up the work of organizations you see doing good work with good gossip spread strategically in your church, Bible study groups, workplace, and among friends. Don't simply lament the awful videos you've seen of northeastern Japan, the images of hungry children waiting in the cold for noodles; tell others what-and who-can help.

Ken Isaacs, vice president of Samaritan's Purse, had seemingly the opposite advice: "Give our name to them." But large organizations are generally more equipped to connect with those who yearn to help. The Samaritan's Purse website, like others I checked, has a button for "employment opportunities" and also issues "volunteer alerts"-the latest is for unskilled labor to assist in New Jersey flood cleanup projects. For church teams and individuals looking to volunteer, partnering with those already set up to provide disaster relief (a few others include Food for the Hungry, Mercy Corps, World Relief, and World Vision) is a better place to start than the CNN headline ticker. And for those who want first to hone their skills, many groups provide DART (Disaster Assistance Relief Training), and nearly every state has a Red Cross chapter offering training or refresher courses.

And finally I checked in with a pastor friend in Pakistan. His work regularly involves fighting the disasters of poverty, persecution, and-recently-earthquake and flooding. He answered my question with a story: "Yesterday, I was in the market on my usual, routine tour to ask questions and help people to think in the right direction. Muslim shopkeepers told me of one young Christian girl begging at a bus stop, when an older woman got off at the stop and started beating her. People rushed to her to ask why, and the woman replied, 'She is my daughter. I work hard to make a living for my children and my own child is begging. This is not God honoring.'" My friend wrote that he left the shop "and wept before the Throne of the Living God and asked for His divine help for those who are suffering even though they are working hard."

This pastor wants charitable givers first to taste and see the enormity of daily suffering, that poverty for many appears inescapable, and help far away. "Through loving, caring, and above all praying hands, we can make the big difference that no UN or any big government in the world can do," he said. In fact, all three ended their advice the same way: Please tell your readers to pray.

Email Mindy Belz


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