Unintended Consequences

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January 8, 2012

Today I read

a post from the Globe and Mail highlighted by Dan Dyck on the MC Canada facebook page about a retired teacher and church member who decided to start helping people file their taxes. As a result, many people received tax returns from tax credits they hadn't used and from not filing in previous years. The article suggests that the decrease in homeless population in the church's region may have to do with one volunteer's help with paperwork. 

I was struck by the beauty, simplicity, and irony of this story. One person decides to help out in a little way, with something she thinks she can do. Her unintended consequences go far beyond what she expected. Even Revenue Canada is involved and helping out. How ironic. The system that is meant to gather money from people in a society to use for the sake of the society actually makes things worse for some people on the margins, and it takes one person to do something different within the system to change things for the better.
 
Now of course, studying peacebuilding, I learned all about unintended consequences that are negative. People trying to help can end up doing more harm if there isn't a larger awareness of the system that they're trying to influence. If you haven't already, try reading The Sparrow for a glimpse into the worst case scenario of good intentions gone wrong.
 
But sometimes things go right. Likely, things will more often go right when there's a better understanding of the culture, community, and needs of individuals and groups within the system. This means that simple things initiated by people who know how to do them and who know the people they're working with can be the most effective.
 
If we think about all the wisdom, knowledge, networks, and abilities of those within church communities, it spreads across a wide section of society. Even if we don't initiate major mission projects, budget for grandiose plans for change, or structure an organization to do the work of monitoring and evaluation for us, something can still be done by the people who know how to do it. 
 
Working small, relationally, and within community causes unintended consequences on the larger scale. And isn't that what Jesus did in the first place?
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