True Grit in the Face of Poverty

Reflections on Hope and Oaxaca

(Extended version of piece appearing in Christianity Today, December 2015 print issue)

This year we moved to a small village in Oaxaca for six months to study Hope.   Oaxaca might seem a curious place to find Hope.  It is the poorest state in Mexico, and many of the poor in villages like ours do not seem very hopeful.  The same social and political problems that have plagued similar places in Latin America have lingered here for centuries: vast inequality, corruption, unemployment, violence against women.  Children in Oaxaca suffer one of the worst educational systems in the hemisphere.  These things do not inspire hope.  They can cause hope to wither into a dry fatalism.  “Mexico, it is the country of the future,” say the locals, “and always will be.”

Oaxaca_mapI think through the logistics of the day’s fieldwork as I navigate my mud-spackled Toyota pickup between the potholes filled with brown water from last night’s deluge, down the dirt road in our village, toward the highway that leads to the office of Fuentes Libres in Oaxaca City.  Fuentes Libres is a non-profit microlender affiliated with our denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, and kindly agreed to participate in our research project.

The experience of Fuentes Libres is similar to that of many non-profits working with microfinance:  It doesn’t work as well as expected.  This is consistent with the recent controlled studies of microfinance, which show average impacts to be small.  Like the subjects in these studies, most of the women taking microloans in Oaxaca still struggle to make ends meet.  Their microbusinesses are mostly stagnant.  Barely any of the women have hired a single employee.  Hope is low.  It is in this context that we will carry out an experiment, a “hope treatment” among 600 microfinance borrowers.   A film crew from California will first create an inspirational documentary on the organization’s most successful borrowers.  We will then screen the documentary in half of the organization’s community banks, along with implementing a biblically-based hope curriculum and a goal-setting exercise.   We will do our best to increase hope among this group of women—and see if hope works. x

CameraZOOM-20150703120226810My truck passes the maize field of our neighbor to the north, Davíd.  Davíd planted his field two months ago, just before the rains came.  A bag of seed hangs around the waist of the sower and for every step down the earthy row, two kernels are tossed into the dirt and buried by foot.  There is a rhythm in the work:  step, plant, cover… step, plant, cover… a rhythm that has been echoed through the centuries of families who have lived and died in this Zapotec village since 500 years before the birth of Christ.  With the help of the whole family, the whole field is planted.   My neighbor Davíd hopes for a bountiful harvest.  But there are different types of hope.

Consider the difference between 1) “Davíd hopes that it may rain on his field tomorrow” and 2) “Davíd hopes to irrigate his field this coming Saturday.”  Both forms of usage reflect optimism with uncertainty.   But there are differences.  The first use of hope is Wishful Hope, or “hope that.”  “Hope that” is an important form of hope, but it lacks human agency.  Davíd hopes that something happens, but he has little or no influence over it.  The second use of the term reflects Aspirational Hope, or “hope to” in which optimism and human agency share a relationship.

Both Wishful Hope and Aspirational Hope are important to the Judeo-Christian worldview.  We see Wishful Hope among the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, hoping for a deliverer (Exodus 3), in prophecy of the redeemer (Isaiah 52-53), hopes that were ultimately fulfilled in the person of Moses, and then Jesus, respectively.  As the prayer of Francis of Assisi helps us to remember, there are things out of our control that we may hope for, but must entrust to God.

The biblical David exemplified Aspirational Hope in his expansion of the domain of Israel (2 Samuel 8), Solomon in his construction of the temple (1 Kings 5-6).  In the New Testament we see Aspirational Hope throughout the book of Acts and in many of Paul’s letters, where God accomplishes his purposes through the Spirit-filled aspirations of the apostles (e.g. Acts 27).

Both Wishful Hope and Aspirational Hope are important, but they are not equally valuable in escaping the traps of poverty and hardship.

I turn left off our road past the house of Rolando, my friend from the small Baptist church that our family has attended while living in the village.   Rolando runs a small business with his father and brother-in-law in which they deliver giant blocks of ice to restaurants.  A few days before, Rolando dropped a 250-pound block of ice on his big toe.  The toe reacted by manifesting the striking hues of a tequila sunset: blues, purples, oranges, crimson reds all together.  It grew to twice its normal size.  I caught a glance of Rolando’s toe as he flashed it to the teenagers at church, who reacted with the appropriate shock and awe.  Although hoping he might return to work soon, he balked at the counsel of many of us to visit a doctor’s office.  My friend Rolando prefers Wishful Hope over Aspirational Hope.

Daughter_Feeding_Burro_Outside_Our_HouseAspirational Hope is related to the agency delegated by God to human beings as stewards of creation (Genesis 1:28).   Yet within this agency we rely on him to use our resources congruently with his purposes and the well-being of creation and the human community.  Our hope lies in his desire and ability to 1) Inspire us, 2) Guide us, and 3) Strengthen us in this task.

Congruent with this general idea, psychologists have deconstructed Aspirational Hope into 1) Goals, 2) Pathways, and 3) Agency.  For example, a single mother trying to make ends meet in a place like rural Oaxaca might aspire to send her daughter to high school (not free in Mexico).   For her to entertain a genuine hope of realizing this goal, she must be able to identify a pathway down which she can travel to this end: perhaps increasing her savings to make a key business investment, or trying a new business strategy.  Last, she must believe that her effort down the chosen pathway will pay off—related to the view of her own agency, or “self-efficacy.”   Beliefs about one’s agency are just as important as agency itself.  Part of effectively working with the poor is being able to help people recognize not only pathways out of poverty, but their agency to successfully navigate these pathways.

I catch a glance out my truck window at Yásmin, our neighbors Jesús and Sylvia’s dog, lying in her favorite spot in the middle of the road.  Yásmin might be the friendliest dog in the Spanish-speaking world, a Mexican mutt made of Collie and Shepherd and everything else running around in the village dog pack at night.  It seems that Jesús and Sylvia don’t have the time to groom her, so Jasmine has dirty-blonde dreadlocks like Shane Claiborne and my daughters think she looks pretty cool.  As my 5-year-old daughter astutely observes, Yásmin is a “licky dog,” and at three-and-a-half feet tall she is one of Yásmin’s  most accessible targets.  It seems like the whole day she lies there in the road, patiently waiting for us to come by so she can join us on a walk and give my daughter licks.  Wishful Hope is a great quality in dogs.

Silvia_and_Miriam_in_ArticleSylvia runs a papeleria, a tiny school supply store, and her 15-year old daughter Míriam is a really good student.  Míriam told us that she gets all A’s in school and wants to be a doctor.  One day my 10-year old daughter saw a stethoscope in a medical store and said we should buy it for Míriam.  It was a real stethoscope, not one of the cheap toy ones, and so we bought it and gave it to her.  Nobody cried as much when we left the village as Sylvia and Míriam, and we think it might have been the stethoscope.  Aspirational Hope is a powerful thing.

The Christian movement of the first century challenged the popular view of hope at the time. Christianity described a world in which the choices and actions of ordinary human beings were consequential.  The Greco-Roman culture viewed hope as foolish, seeing the course of human events as driven by fate.  Any sense of true human agency was futile, always trumped by the capricious will of the gods.  In this context the Apostle Paul upheld the greatest virtues as Faith, Hope, and Love.  Although the greatest of these was Love, Hope’s place on the medal podium was radical for the day.

Fatalism is the opposite of Aspirational Hope.  Fatalism can creep back into Christianity, such as in some strains of Catholicism, like the strain that exists in Oaxaca.  The village priest, Padre Julian, broadcasts his sermons over a loudspeaker of impressive size and power mounted atop the Catholic church a block from our house.   However, the broadcast resonates throughout our living space like it is mounted on something merely a few feet away.  With such impressive amplification, Padre Julian knows that people can be edified by his sermons even when they are working many miles away in their fields.  I know fatalism is a problem in our village if for no other reason than Padre Julian is constantly admonishing the local flock against it, often several times a day.

The power of hope to influence people’s actions, effort, and outcomes is obvious to most people, and increasingly even to academic economists, who sometimes take a while to catch on.  A lack of hope, especially for the poor or the sick, can bring paralysis.  If one’s choices and actions have little influence over a situation, then why bother with the effort?  Hopelessness often leads to its own dismal, self-fulfilling prophecy.  A person brimming with hope believes that faith and action are consequential.  And hope is associated with a number of positive consequences.

In The Anatomy of Hope, Jerome Groopman documents the multiplicity of studies demonstrating how hope facilitates a body’s healing from injury and disease.   In Making Hope Happen, Shane Lopez, probably the world’s leading authority on hope, reviews studies showing that hopeful people are more productive, less absent from work, happier, healthier, and more resistant to setback.  Hopeful people also live longer.  A subsequent meta-study undertaken by Lopez and his coauthors finds that hope accounts for 12 percent of the variation in academic achievement.  Psychologists are working toward disentangling causality in the hope research (with some help from economists), but the consensus is that hope matters.  And for many it may be a life or death issue.

After pulling out onto the main highway, I reach the first stoplight where a man ignites a cotton ball on a stick soaked in gasoline and then extinguishes the flame inside his mouth.  He then approaches the stopped cars to ask for money for this admittedly breath-taking stunt.   I choose not to donate because I don’t want to incentivize a man potentially blowing off his head with a gasoline-soaked cotton ball or facilitate the slow but certain onset of brain damage from inhaled gasoline fumes.  But it causes me to consider the hopelessness this man must experience to feel that he should earn a living this way.  I have the urge to give him 200 pesos if he promises to take the day off, but I know he wouldn’t.

Isabeth_Zárate_CoDirector_FuentesLibresArriving at the office of Fuentes Libres, I am greeted by Isabeth, who described to us how the organization offers hope to the indigenous women in their community groups. They provide them not only microcredit, but programs to combat domestic abuse, youth violence, programs that offer spiritual development. Not to disagree with Isabeth, but I think much of what brings hope to these women is simply knowing that someone cares about what happens to them.  And by Fuentes Libres caring about what happens to them, it may help them realize that God cares about what happens to them.  When Christians put themselves in a place to become the active limbs of Christ, we are able to bring hope to the poor because hope is not often spurred simply through material interventions.  It is spurred by the loving, patient, encouragement of the one who walks along side to build aspirations, navigate pathways, affirm abilities.

We find this in our research on child sponsorship.  As part of this research we gave 540 children living in the slums of Jakarta a box of 24 colored pencils and asked them to draw a self-portrait.  About half of these children were sponsored through Compassion International, where they receive the loving care and mentorship of Christian adults for many hours a week, the others being siblings or children on the waitlist.  Then we coded the pictures based on 20 drawing characteristics psychologists have found to be correlated with better or worse mental health.  For example, a self-portrait that is frowning or crying is correlated with depression, a missing mouth with insecurity, choosing light colors with optimism.  What we found from analyzing these pictures was that child sponsorship was responsible for increasing an index of hope by over half of a standard deviation—which for the layperson—is a whole lotta hope.

What we found in the Compassion children may reflect yet a third type of hope, an Overarching Hope, a hope that embodies a stronger and more general sense of optimism that is not tied to a single event or outcome.  It is a hope that whispers “in the end, everything will turn out all right.”  Overarching Hope allows for resilience in the face of failure and disappointment.  It is vital to what social scientists now call “grit,” the socio-emotional skill discovered in research by Nobel economist James Heckman to be strongly associated with successful life outcomes.  We all know Christians strong in Overarching Hope.  They are the ones for whom sayings like “All things work together for our good” and “Nothing can separate us from the love of God” are not merely bible verses; they are words of truth tattooed to their soul.  They are people like Ramona Tejas, one of my heroes in our hope documentary, for whom poverty quashed a childhood ambition of becoming a doctor.  So Ramona started a pharmacy, which is thriving after a burst of microloans.  But make no mistake, the driving motor is Ramona’s character, not the microloans.  Overarching Hope releases our minds from the pervasive concern about whether we’re going to “be OK.”  It literally sets us free psychologically to pursue higher callings.

We have analyzed the early results of our Oaxaca experiment.  The documentary on the women like Ramona was able to increase an aspirations index in the treatment group by a quarter of a standard deviation.  And although it is too early in our experiment to establish statistical significance, we find that women who received the hope treatment realized sales and profits about 18 percent higher than those in the control group.  While it is still early in the study, we are finding hints that it may be possible to increase hope and that hope matters in important ways.

Hope matters, and it is a gift we can give to those in need by building their capacity to hope.  This can be done through tangible giving.  It can also be done through prayerfully helping the needy to build aspirations, discover new pathways to replace the old, and recognize and affirm their abilities and gifts.   Hope itself is a gift, and should be given away freely.

Follow Across Two Worlds on Twitter via @BruceWydick.

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