Serving the Poor: The Importance of Dialogue

Ann Morisy tells the story of a group of Brazilian Christians several years ago that visited church projects for homeless people in London. They were shocked by the fact that homeless people were:

  • Treated as recipients of aid rather than partners
  • Not substantially involved in the decision-making process about the project
  • Were assisted individually, not as a group.

Morisy writes,

“In contrast, the churches in Sao Paolo concentrate on working with homeless people to organize festivals to draw attention to their plight and gain the support of the public prior to lobbying for changes in social policy. In Brazil, the aim is to help homeless people find their voice and gain confidence in their own abilities in order that they themselves can change things. The Brazilians summarized their call to churches working with homeless people as, to move from sympathy to solidarity.”[1]

These Brazilians were influenced by Paulo Freire, the influential Brazilian educator who developed adult literacy programs in Brazil and Chile. Freire stressed the importance of dialogue in improving the lives of those in poverty. Dialogue, not merely “helping,” is the key to improving lives and transforming communities.

“Freire suggests that the frame of mind that helps dialogue needs to be one which:

  • Is deeply humble;
  • Has ‘faith in people’s ability to fulfill their vocation to become more fully human;
  • Acknowledges that each of us is developing in our thinking and understanding, rather than static or fixed.”[2]

What Is Dialogue?

For Morisey, “The essence of dialogue is that each person who is party to the communication is open to the possibility of being changed by the testimony of the other.”

Seeking Patterns

If dialogue is going to occur, volunteers need to join together with those they help to ask deep questions about their experience. What patterns emerge?


  • A food pantry where volunteers are encouraged to have informal one-to-one conversations with customers, and are trained to do so.
  • A thrift shop that organizes a monthly advisory group, drawn entirely from customers, to determine which types of clothing are most needed.
  • An informal policy discussion once per month where volunteers and customers can discuss what is fueling poverty in the neighborhood. Why is income so low? Lack of education? Lack of jobs? Poor transportation options?

The Danger of Overwork

The danger is that community projects burn up precious energy in volunteers before reflection ever takes place. “Volunteers involved in the venture are said to be too busy or uninterested to extend their commitment to thinking as well as doing.” Yet by posing questions about our experience, Morisy believes, we may gain a better understanding of what’s needed to transform our communities.


Source:  Ann Morisy, Beyond the Good Samaritan, (London: Bloomsbury, 2003), 61-82.

Photo:  Doran, “Building Dialogue.”  12.9.2012.  Flickr Creative Commons.

[1]Ann Morisy, Beyond the Good Samaritan, 72.

[2] Ibid., 67.


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