The Interpretive Lens of Economic Development

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I see challenges, problems, and obstacles much differently than I did when I started off as a paid ministry professional over 20 years ago. It seemed like regardless of what the problem or ailment was the answer was always “Jesus.” I mean, how could you go wrong with that? Problem: global hunger. Answer: Jesus. Problem: poverty. Answer: Jesus. Or in my case … problem: unruly teens in the youth group. Answer: Jesus. (amen)

In my youthful naiveté I didn’t see nor understand the complexity and layers of problems or obstacles whether mundane and local or overwhelming and international. When I’d look at a community and saw poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, neglect, and more I though the basic answer was “give them Jesus.” Then with the wave of His hand Jesus would vanquish all of the ailments of a community. My job was introduce people to Jesus and His church. While I don’t want to minimize that I simply didn’t see nor understand.

I’ve used this following example before, but since I recently rewatched the documentary Urbanized I was reminded again of this. There was an IHS (informal human settlement) in South Africa that had been experiencing a high rate of violent crime. What was exciting and encouraging was that a remedy was applied that dropped the rate by 40%. It was amazing to watch and ponder. Even more so I’d then talk with my students about this scenario and other implications from this. Oh yeah, what was the remedy? A well-lit walkway with safe houses and parks throughout this community.

Wait, a human problem was partially solved through an urban design intervention? Yes. Yes, indeed. When we look at a lot of what ails a community … substance abuse, poverty, domestic violence and more there is usually a source. In the same way that in South Africa the source was an urban design issue, the source in many communities today is tied to something else mundane … jobs. More specifically, job opportunities and the climate of the local economy. Think back when much was written, researched, and talked about in inner-city America. The core issue can be tied to not only systemic racism, but loss of economic opportunities. When large manufacturing firms or industrial jobs moved out then a vacuum was left in its wake. With little to no other economic opportunities what happened? Domestic violence ramped up because Dad has has been out of work for a long time. The informal economy then leapt to the forefront with such things as drug trade and prostitution. People will do what it takes to survive. All because the company execs wanted to save money and move their operations overseas.

Often time policies emanating from city hall, the state capital, or D.C. can send ripple effects across the land. Those who’re vulnerable to these economic shifts are left stranded and desperate. Why do we have an immigration issue at hand? Because of decades of U.S. foreign policy that created civil war and unrest in places like Guatemala so people have little choice than to flee. Whether we’re talking inner-city America of the 1970s or rural communities now or countries like Guatemala its an issue of economics. What is needed? Simply put, economic development.

What if? What if your church or church plant could play a tiny role in the economic development of your community? Maybe it’s starting a business, launching an incubator that catalyzes other new businesses, or job training. It’s not sexy nor cool, but is desperately needed. This is the heart and passion of Intrepid.

Sean Benesh