Front Porch Deep Dive
A blog post by Mike:
A few of you have been asking about what is referred to as our front porch ministry. One friend recently wrote:
“Do you think you could provide a snapshot of: types of needs, volume of needs, support and resources available to meet those needs, what you have learned about engaging in those interactions in a Gospel-centered way, etc.?”
Much of the work of our Serge team here is focused on helping the people of Bundibugyo in long term, sustainable ways (CSB, BundiNutrition, BundiWater, BundiMedical, Bible Translation). We are thankful to work on a team that has a 30-year history of this type of work here.
But long-term investment takes a long time to show results. And as we invest in the future of the people of Bundibugyo through these projects, there is a constant barrage of knocks at the front door of every missionary here: people asking for help…now.
Coming from Southern California, I was accustomed to being asked for help by a panhandler or person affected by homelessness downtown or in a parking lot at the mall. Sometimes I gave money, sometimes food, sometimes nothing. I’ve served at a rescue mission and donated clothing. But this isn’t Southern California. And while the climate and topography are obviously different, the cultural differences are far greater than where we come from.
First, most people here have no savings of any kind. Work can be scarce, and the only local industry is growing cocoa whose harvests are inconsistent and don’t provide enough money for most families to live on. Therefore, any sickness, school fees for kids (school is only partially subsidized by the government), a bad cocoa harvest, any difficulty at all and people need help. Labor is not paid well and there is little to no outside investment to provide opportunities for work. On the rare occasion that a family has extra money in their pocket or if they receive an inheritance or some other good fortune, immediately their family and neighbors come calling for help. Which leads us to our second point.
As in most of sub-saharan Africa, the way you have and maintain relationships is by lending and paying back money. Relationships are therefore transactional by nature. A book on the local culture wrote: “this society is a complex web of favors asked and favors owed.” These favors or loans are usually very small amounts but asking for them is considered a normal, regular practice. So much so that if you have not borrowed or lent with a person you may not consider them a friend; it is the litmus test of relationship. On top of these loans, friends and family are expected to “help” each other for issues both small and large. If someone dies or if someone is sick or if someone is born, you go and ask your relatives and neighbors for a small contribution, a bit of help, and it is expected that they will give, even when they barely have enough to provide for their own family.
Two other seemingly contradictory factors that will not be explored in depth here are that this culture places an extremely high value on equity or fairness, and that deceiving someone to help you is not necessarily frowned upon here. There is a burden to not put yourself ahead of everyone else, and yet do whatever you can to get what you need.
Add in that we’re living in a global pandemic. During this second lockdown (began in mid-June 2021), many people are out of work, kids aren’t in school and aren’t eating at school, and needs are higher. Only 2% of the adults in the country have been vaccinated and there are not more vaccines to be distributed (vaccine inequality is real). We know that COVID numbers are going up in this district and throughout the country, and people are desperate.
Drop our 11-acre fenced property into this situation. Each family has their own finished home and our own vehicle. The mission employs about 12 Ugandans full time and another 12 or so part time. We have indoor, flush toilets. We have smart phones and computers. We come from America. It is often concluded we therefore have an endless supply of money at our disposal.
We live in a place that is desperately poor and everyone has far more needs than resources, where it is normal to ask for help or borrow money from your neighbors, and where we missionaries stand out by where we live, what we look like, what we drive, and how we live.
Thus, we get a lot of requests for help.
Anywhere from, but not limited to, two to five times a day, basically every day, we are approached for help. Most come via a knock on the door which turns into a conversation on our front porch, sometimes requiring translation. Other times we are approached for help when we are walking in the community.
The asks have quite a range. The circumstances have been changed for anonymity, but these all might come at anytime while the grounds where we live (“the mission”) is open to visitors, Monday through Saturday, 9am-6pm.
- A 12-year-old boy that we know well says he hasn't eaten in two days. He lives with his ailing grandmother who is too weak to work much. His father is somewhere in the DRC and his mother has left him and lives in a new town with a new husband. Another time the boy may need money for a haircut, new shoes or pants, or school supplies. He asks for some type of help about twice a week. Most often for food.
- A neighbor’s grandmother has died. He is expected to contribute but has nothing saved. We’ve helped him with small loans in the past, but he never paid them back.
- A man who works on the mission full-time doing landscaping gets paid a decent wage once a month. His daughter is at the hospital and needs medicine from a local pharmacy, which costs about a day’s labor. He asks to borrow the money and will pay back later in the month on payday. We currently have 15 similar loans, all outstanding, with individuals in the community.
- A woman knocks on our door urgently. We know her somewhat as she previously worked on the mission for another family. She is crying and on her knees asking for help. Her sister needs a C-section at the hospital now, and she needs money to help with this situation.
- A young man in his mid-twenties who we somewhat know asks for 2 months rent. He has many excuses for why work has not come his way. His rent is past due, and he promises he will pay us this week.
- A neighbor who asks for help quite frequently. He has a low paying job, but many mouths to feed, including his sister and their family. He often comes for help with a sick child.
- A 16-year-old girl is the oldest of 6 kids in a family we know fairly well. Her father has a decent job and is a very kind man. We helped them with food during the last lockdown. He has been sick for a week, and they need help with medicine.
- A man who we’ve employed as a welder a few times, a skill that lacks demand. He is married and has two teenage sons, one who has sickle cell anemia, a terrible disease that requires regular treatments and blood transfusions. He’s at our door every two to three weeks asking if we need anything built or welded, and if not, if we can contribute for the hospital bills or food to buy.
- A 10-year-old boy who lives near the mission with his extended family. He has epilepsy and his seizures frighten his relatives who don’t understand the disease and think he has a demon, so he’s ostracized. He needs a ride to the hospital to pick up his medicine. Or school supplies, clothes or food.
- A disabled woman we’ve never seen before rides up on a wooden, hand-pedaled cart that the mission gave to handicapped people in the district a few years back. She struggles to have enough money for food and rent. Today, as she worried about not having enough money for rent again, she realized that if someone bought her land and built her a small house, she wouldn’t need to pay rent anymore. She came to our house as a total stranger and asked if we had the $4000 to make this happen.
- A woman and her two daughters come with a note saying they have no food. They claim to be the sister of someone we kind of know, but we have never seen them before. They seem desperate.
- A man we’ve hired a few times to work on special projects in our yard comes to the house to ask for help at least twice a month. He and his wife have HIV, as does about 2% of the population. His work is inconsistent, but his medical bills are not. His wife gave birth last month and is in the hospital. He is asking for money to bring her food.
- A friend visits and requests help for school fees for their son who is in secondary school. They need $120 for this semester. What they don’t mention is that the child has at least three more years of school left and the family does not have the means to pay any of it.
- A very old man shows up after a hard rainfall. He said his roofing has holes, his house is wet, and he needs a new roof.
- A woman comes asking for money to start a palm oil business. Her adult son has just died, no one in the family is working during this season, and she needs to make some money.
- A father comes and says thieves came in the late afternoon and ransacked his house, stealing his mattress. He is asking for sheets and a mattress.
- A 15 year old girl is excited about her upcoming birthday and has written out a budget. She is asking if we can contribute to any of her requests.
- There is going to be a baptism soon, a father is collecting money for a celebration.
- A disabled man selling mangoes comes every week. We have a mango tree in our backyard but we buy the mangos anyway.
- The mother-in-law of a man we know has died. The funeral is in another city. His family needs transport money.
The more difficult asks are the dozen or so men that hang around the mission or show up at our house every week or two with a different request each time. Again, it's usually food or medicine, but may also be money to give to a neighbor for a death in the family, clothing, rent, help to start a business or purchase land. But these same 12ish men, we see them all the time. They always ask for help. They seem to be addicted to receiving help and we often catch them in lies. We know this happens by some, but not by all.
So what do we do?
We run through several factors and try to weigh them each. Do we know the person? Do they have work? Have we helped them before or recently? Do they have an outstanding loan with us? Do we believe them? Will giving them money actually help?
We may pray about the request individually or as a couple, or simply decide on the spot. We try to be wise and not enable people, knowing that alcoholism is rampant here, mostly with the men.
We ask for details about their situation. If someone asks for money for medicine, we ask for their kitabo (book), which every clinician requires at every hospital interaction.
We also try to have compassion. We listened to a sermon last year on the Good Samaritan and one thing that stuck is that God calls us to have compassion. We try to empathize with their situation. We often pray for them whether we give or not.
We also must watch our own moods or mindsets. It is easy to begin to resent even hearing the door knock! We might be working, eating, reading, resting, or spending time with our family. It never feels convenient to answer that door and have that conversation, and we have to pay attention to our own feelings and needs, too. If we are feeling stretched too thin, we put a sign on the door that says we cannot answer the door for a few hours.
And we want to be generous! So many people have been so generous towards us. We moved here to help people, having been sent by financial gifts of more than 100 people and families in the US. We didn’t move here to be stingy!
We recognize we can’t fix all the problems, but we are called to help with some. We see that giving out money is almost always a short-term solution but most of these needs require money right now.
So we weigh wisdom and compassion, grace and credibility, relationship and timing, generosity and responsibility.
The front porch ministry is a small part of our presence here but is the most complicated cross-cultural opportunity we regularly engage in.
We hope this part of our life here teaches our family to be present in relationships with people, looking for opportunities to engage and serve others. But this daily ministry also pushes us deeper into our long-term investment into this place.
When Kacie teaches and works in Bundibugyo Hospital, she is helping families lead better and stronger lives. While I spend time with the staff and students at CSB, we’re pushing a generation of students towards a university education, so that they might return to the district with training in medicine, engineering, agriculture, and teaching, and find jobs which lift the people of the district up even further.
The long-term work here continues. BundiNutrition continues to teach families with children who are malnourished how to avoid the situation in the future if possible. BundiWater continues to deliver fresh water to areas in the district that have none. BundiMedical continues to work on medical infrastructure in the district. And the translation project, after creating a written alphabet for the local language, closes in on translating the whole Bible.
And in the meantime, we answer each knock and try very hard to engage with each request with dignity and compassion for the daily need at hand.