What Counts as Help?

Our family has a new baby, and this has us thinking about the nature of help. What is help? Is it the neighbor who cooked a fancy gourmet meal for us (that none of us, all sick with colds, could eat) and left our kitchen in shambles, using every pot and pan in the place? Is it the friend who decided we needed reorganizing, as in one of those reality home shows, and moved our clutter so we haven’t been able to find a thing since? Or is it the anonymous giver who left a simple pot of chicken soup and washed the dishes in the sink while we were napping?

The question is not merely churlish or academic; it is the stuff of daily headlines. Debates over the role of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. role in Iraq, the USA Patriot Act, refugees resettling in the U.S. and food aid to Africathese are all debates about what it means to help.


This year about 20,000 refugees, people running for their lives, fleeing persecution and death in their home countries, have been denied admission to the United States because of a change in antiterrorism laws. Catholic relief and resettlement agencies have long been at the forefront of helping refugees establish new lives in the United States. But because of today’s interpretations of the material support bar, people who were robbed by violent or terrorist groups, or who paid ransom for the release of a kidnapped relative, are now barred entry to the United States for helping terrorists. Whole categories of refugeesthose from Colombia, for exampleare now banned from the United States because they supposedly helped groups who were torturing, robbing or kidnapping them.

Most of us would agree that intention has to be part of the definition of help and that actions forced at gunpoint do not amount to help. Certainly anyone with a toddler may believe that help is defined by good intention. I know that when our three-year-old helps in the kitchen, this does not mean the task will be done more quickly or efficiently. But even as we scrub pumpkin muffin batter from the ceiling, we don’t discourage such help. We only hope the good intention of helping will mature over time into a greater capacity to be truly helpful.

Good intentions alone do not cut it for adults. We have the capacity to do better, and to know better. No one doubts that officials at FEMA intend to help people in need because of natural disasters. But no one believes that good intentions alone absolve FEMA of responsibility for its disastrous performance in response to Hurricane Katrina.

Similarly, good intentions do not equate to help in Iraq. Georgetown’s Professor John Langan, S.J., compares the U.S. military intervention to transform Iraq to undertaking surgery without an X-ray or anesthesia or the consent of the patient. Generals who argued that insurgency and civil war would result after the toppling of the Hussein regime were disregarded. Even if you believe that the United States intervened with good intentionsto stop Iraq from acquiring weapons of mass destruction or to emancipate the Iraqi people from a dictatorial regime that abused human rightsthose good intentions are not enough. We had the capacity to do better, and we should have known better. The questions now about whether or for how long or in what capacity the United States should remain in Iraq are largely questions on the nature of help: Does continued U.S. presence in Iraq help or hinder stability there? Should the nature of U.S. help be determined by U.S. domestic politics? What do the people of Iraq think would be helpful?

As the holidays roll around, images of bounty here contrast with images of need around the world, especially in Africa. Food aid seems straightforward. Didn’t Jesus tell us to feed the hungry? Yet the food the United States wants to give can be unwelcome in Africa. An influx of free foreign food can undermine the local market, bankrupting farmers able to produce such food themselves. Genetically modified (G.M.O.) grain, sometimes purchased as part of farm subsidies to U.S. farmers, is seen as a threat to future African harvests. A G.M.O. taint could ban future African trade internationally, since many importing countries reject G.M.O. products. Catholic Relief Services responds to these issues by working with local partners. This may require buying food locally where possible so as not to disrupt local markets or milling modified grain before shipment so the seed will not contaminate future crops.

Jesuit Refugee Services addresses these issues with a mission to accompany, serve and defend the rights of refugees and forcibly displaced people. By focusing on accompaniment, J.R.S. does not divide the world into victims and helpers but affirms the fundamental human dignity of all, seeing beyond peoples’ needs to their humanity. Solidarity requires moving beyond ignorance and apathy concerning others’ needs. But dignity requires recognizing others’ worth and participating in the helping process. How do others define their own needs, and what do they believe would be most helpful?

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us will count our blessings and look to share them by helping others. But as we do so in our neighborhoods and our world, let’s do so reflectively, with greater understanding and awareness of what it means to help.

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11 years 8 months ago
I enjoyed reading Maryann Cusimano Love’s column, “What Counts as Help” (11/20), and I especially appreciated her mention of the 20,000 refugees fleeing persecution and death in their home countries who are denied admission to the United States because of our antiterrorist laws. What she failed to mention was that these refugees are often held here in the United States in locked, windowless dormitories and prison cells while their cases are being determined. These refugees come from Cameroon, Albania, China, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan, Haiti—essentially from all over the world. They come by whatever means they can, usually with false papers, seeking refuge in the United States. But instead of a warm welcome, these noncriminals are sent to a detention center while waiting for an immigration law judge to decide their fate. They wait weeks, months, even years for a decision to be made. Their hope of a better life often gives way to loneliness, confusion and despair.

I visit a young woman from Ethiopia who has been held in the Elizabeth Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J., for two and a half years. This young woman fled Ethiopia a number of years ago after her father and brother, political activists with the Oromo Liberation Front, were killed by members of the Tigrean-dominated government. She herself was raped by these same political thugs.

Unfortunately for this woman, her asylum case has been denied and she is now waiting for deportation back to Ethiopia, a country where she has not lived for many years and has no family nor friends. She has great fear of returning. But despite all the turmoil, disappointment and uncertainty in this woman’s life, she remains ever gracious to everyone who visits her at the detention center. I often wondered how she could not be more bitter and depressed about her situation, so I asked her. She told me that naturally she does get depressed at times but that her strong faith in God carries her through these dark periods. Her philosophy is that God must have some plan for her and that her life is in his hands. She can only wait and pray for God to take care of her.

I also am praying that some immigration official will read this letter and cause him or her to reflect on the need to treat those seeking asylum here in the United States with more compassion and dignity. In this holiday season, as we celebrate with family and friends with lots of food and drink and where many of us have more material things than we will ever need, how can we turn our backs on those seeking asylum, those seeking to share in just a little of the tremendous bounty of the United States?

11 years 8 months ago
In her article “What Counts as Help,” (11/20) Maryann Cusimano Love suggests that peace cannot be achieved where widespread poverty afflicts populations in conflict over financial and natural resources. The Catholic Relief Services experience in Rwanda graphically supports her point. I read along, agreeing that “war is still very much with us,” that world and U.S. military spending have increased to obscene levels, and that “budgets indicate our mistaken priorities.”

What went unmentioned was the elephant in the room: the fact that the world’s richest nation is responsible for the highest level of war expenditures. Our government continues to build and trade arms, stockpile weapons and fund the development of new ways to deliver death and destruction. We occasionally read about billions of dollars lost or defrauded while most of Iraq’s infrastructure remains in ruins.

It is our country that resists treaties and systems designed to benefit all populations. In the meantime, our government and its leaders promote destruction in the third world, proclaiming that we must “fight the enemy over there to keep our country safe.”

We must put our guns away, bring our young people home, start dialogues with our so-called enemies and be more neutral in foreign relations before we can commit ourselves to the Gospel imperative of building peace on earth.


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