When reading the transcript of the meeting of the World Council of Churches in Nicosia, Cyprus, in 1969, I was struck by the idea that “relief work” in so many NGO contexts had been dissected to the point of incoherence. Agencies that aspired to life-saving aid found themselves offering relief at the expense of works. It has become important for governments and NGOs, and also now for the Church, to recognize that while they need to give, giving alone is not a sufficient form of empowerment. Refugee and host communities also need to grow.
In the immediate aftermath of disasters and migrations, relief is the fundamental need. The usual necessities are in the queue: food, water, shelter, medicine, hygiene, trauma care. But after months and certainly after years, at the point where crises leave the stage of emergency and become protracted, relief must be supplemented by development.
In the most basic sense, relief is focused on the short-term and development is focused on the long-term. Both are essential, but the temptation is to confine oneself to relief and leave development for someone else. Development requires staying.
Due to the nature of humanitarian aid and the fact that disasters and wars just don’t take a day off, the problem of stopping-at-relief is rife. Agencies and churches step in after a bomb drops or a siege ends or an earthquake hits, but after a few weeks or months of aid, they move on to the next disaster. The Church must not be like that. The Church must care forever. The Church must stay.
An emphasis on development includes more than consistent giving or planning. It requires a wide view. The Church can help to develop disheartened people: emphasizing life skills, offering psychological healing, and conducting professional and spiritual training. The Church can help to develop collapsed economies: building businesses, coaching workers, and investing. And the Church can help to develop brutalized societies: constructing and outfitting schools, sponsoring churches, and rehabilitating and stocking hospitals.
Aid logic and simple common sense tell us that for every 100,000 refugees, a certain number of schools, hospitals, and jobs are required. Such contributions are not one-and-done. They cannot be digested in a day, cured in a week. Development work demands consistent contribution—not eternally, but for years.
I will never forget a development project I reported on that focused on reconciliation and trauma healing in Aleppo, Syria. A project representative spoke about the effort not just to relieve immediate needs, but to impact people and the country more deeply, to build peace and respect at the focal point of a country at war. The project centered around an interactive theater program emphasizing common humanity and the prospect of healing after and even in the middle of the conflict. The show’s run, which was expected to draw a few hundred people, ended up bringing up more than 1,200 Syrians of all creeds and allegiances, and included ongoing conversations on reconciliation and overcoming trauma. Attendees literally passed through sniper lanes to participate in the show and accompanying dialogue.
Apart from the personal and social repercussions of the production, the thing that struck me most was the representative’s words: “I am part of a team that never uses the word hopelessness.”
That attitude is a key to development work—which is why the Church has more potential to succeed in it than others. Development is hopeful because it is not focused on the hunger and cries of the here and now, but looks ahead to a brighter future. The Church can be present when NGOs leave. The Church can contribute when other agencies reallocate their efforts. The Church can be hopeful, today and forever, because it knows its labors for the Kingdom are never in vain.
The Church must act now, but always be looking ahead. We must ask questions like: How will the Church be present in a place during war and post-war? How can the Church help to rebuild? How can the Church be a consistent, reliable helper during crises and in the years that follow?
In our giving, we should also ask now and again what we’re growing.
The Lord is dependable not only in our hour of need, but in all hours. God is with us when we need help, and also when the danger is gone. He is interested not only in our present but also in our future. And he gives a sure hope.
The Church can too.
 World Council of Churches. The Report of the Consultation on the Palestinian Refugee Problem. World Council of Churches Division of Inter-Church Aid, Refugee, and World Service. Geneva. 1970