The perils of well-intentioned cross-cultural assistance
Am in Vlorë, a dusty and concrete port city situated in a beautiful area of southern Albania, for a Langham conference (here’s the sunrise from my room yesterday). All seems to be going really well, which is no small relief.
I was chatting to a friend this morning, who told me about a classic example of good intentions going pear-shaped when crossing cultural divides.
Emerging from decades of suffering under the world’s only officially atheist communist regime, Albania was in terrible shape in 1991. The church was barely existent – and the national economy was a disaster. No wonder, then, that as people came into pastoral work, financial support was a huge problem. And naturally, overseas churches wanted to help. But such help can really backfire, unless there is real care and cultural sensitivity.
My friend told me about a church in a small, relatively remote village, which would have an annual summer camp at the seaside. The venue was very basic, to say the least. Basically a field, without many facilities or toilets etc. But it was a great event, and it was an annual highlight for the church community for several years.
A church in the US (though it could have been from anywhere, since churches from many other countries have done similar things) developed a relationship through this fellowship and sought to help. So a couple of years ago, they kindly sent over a sum of money (not a large amount from an American perspective but huge for Albania). This enabled the church to book a small hotel – and everyone, naturally and wonderfully, had a great time.
But this was a one-off gift. Generous, well-intentioned, but limited. And there was no way that the church could repeat the booking. However, having tasted the (relatively) high life, no one wanted to go back to their field.
Consequently, the church has not had any camps since. Their gain had been great but short-lived; in the longer-term, their loss was huge.