What would it look like if churches actively worked for the transformation of their communities? What if churches, led by the vision laid out in the Bible of God's shalom - peace among individuals, harmony with creation, the world functioning according to the intended design of God - were the catalyst behind humans flourishing in their context?
What would it look like if the church was doing this in your community? Your city? Your country?
It might look like the work World Vision is doing in Cambodia.
In August of 2015 I traveled to Leuk Daek. Ten years ago, it would take you three hours to get to Leuk Daek from the nearest paved road. Those living in the Leuk Daek district were nearly destitute and isolated - accessible most reliantly by boat. The tiny dirt road followed the Mekong River and, during the rainy season, became the river.
In 2000, when World Vision began work in the area, only 36.3% of the homes had clean drinking water. A sobering 12.3% of homes had access to a toilet. Nine in ten homes did not have a toilet of any kind. That includes an outhouse - otherwise known as a designated hole in the ground.
Life was about survival, which meant educating children was a luxury most couldn't afford. Two out of five students dropped out of primary school. This wasn't just a community of vulnerable families, this was a vulnerable community.
But, today, that's no longer true. The community isn't just surviving, it's thriving.
When you drive the now-paved road through the district, it's hard to imagine what it was like a mere decade ago. Changing a community takes time - lots of time. Think about your community. How long would it take to change the effectiveness of your school? The rate of sexual abuse among girls? Drug use? Access to food for needy children and families? Would you say 10 years? How about 15? World Vision has been in Leuk Daek for 15 years and the community is completely transformed. Now, 91% of homes have clean drinking water, 94.1% of homes have access to a toilet, and 93.4% of girls are finishing primary school.
As impressive as those statistics are, they aren't the story. The story is that World Vision is no longer needed in Leuk Daek.
When World Vision begins to work in a community, they don't come in as experts who know what needs to be done. There are already experts there who are fully aware of the problems and needs of the community: the people who live there. Working with leaders, volunteers, and residents, World Vision provides an assessment of the issues, determining what to address first. In one community it may be irrigation for crops. In another it may be building a road. And, in another it may be education. Every situation is different because the needs of every community are different.
World Vision prioritizes equipping local residents to take responsibility for the development of their community. It would be easy to hear that people need water, show up with the equipment and dig the well; people would have clean water, problem solved. What sets World Vision apart is their commitment to bettering the lives of people by empowering them to solve their own problems.
One example of this strategy is the Leuk Daek Agriculture Co-operative (AC). Four years ago, the AC was started and registered with the Cambodian government as a business. Residents could buy shares which would make them members of the AC, sharing in its profits, decisions, and work. When it began in 2011, the AC had 162 members, 143 of which were women, with a total of 394 shares. Today, there are 177 members with 470 shares.
- Provide various farming loans
- Buy fertilizer to sell at a lower price to commune (village) farmers
- Advocate for children in school
- Work to improve the community one day every week (pick up trash, build latrine, etc.)
- Set 2% of their profit aside to help children in need. Right now that means 3 children are being cared for by the AC
- Help the most vulnerable families in the community by providing jobs
- When the Mekong River caused the shore to erode and collapse a community family's home, they built a new house.
- Helped the families of two AC members who died by providing for the coffins
- Put drain tiling in so water can flow out of fields
- Helped a divorced woman who has four children by employing her, enabling her two youngest to attend school
- Sell purified water in two communities near the Cambodia-Vietnam border
- Give free water to schools and to families affected by HIV
- Sell water at a discount to poor families
Leadership of the AC is elected, and those who serve don't take a salary because they believe what they're doing is important.
And it is. It's changing lives. More than that, it's changing a community. A community that was once in crisis is now able to stand on its own.
It makes me wonder, "Do our churches have this kind of impact on our communities? Are we known for loving our community this much? Installing this much pride, this much hope, this much generosity in our community?"
Transformation happens when we take responsibility for the world around us. Whether it's our spiritual lives, our relationships, or our community, transformation isn't a passive process. It requires everything of us. As Jesus said, "In order to find your life, you must be willing to lose it." I can't help but wonder, what would it look if we, the church, were more active in transformation - personal and communal - and committed to the flourishing of our communities for 10-15 years?
Maybe church and faith wouldn't get "farewelled" by our community and culture. Maybe we'd get asked to stay.