Four Levels of Community Services
Work can be done to meet needs in any community at four different levels. Groups often assume that the level where they work is the only thing to be done. There are, in fact, at least four different levels at which something valid can be done about any social concern.
Level 1. Church volunteers, in the Seventh-day Adventist Church and in most other faiths, usually work at the level of “relief,” providing immediate supplies and services to meet the most basic lack of drinking water, food, shelter, blankets, clothing, etc., by individuals and families. Most government welfare programs work at the same level, providing a check or a voucher to enable families to purchase basic necessities. Relief work is often needed. In some emergencies it is a life-or-death necessity. Disaster response teams, refugee camps in areas of upheaval, and homeless shelters in large cities are all necessary to the survival of suffering people.
In Churches that Make a Difference, Sider, Olson, and Unruh state that this level of community service is like giving fish to someone. But it is better to teach a man or woman to feed their family than it is to continue to provide emergency meals or food parcels forever. Once an impoverished person has been empowered to meet his or her own needs, he is in a position to thrive and grow. She can regain her dignity and invest her talents in productive activity.
Level 2. We can also work at a second level, “economic development.” For example, families in developing areas can be provided with seeds and tools along with information about improved farming techniques. Another example may be a “Op Shops,” where used clothing and household goods create jobs as well as provide a method of distribution that protects the dignity of the poor. This is primarily done by ADRA in our conference.
Sider, Olson, and Unruh break down this level into two parts: (1) Individual Development, which includes transformational ministries that empower a person to improve physical, emotional, intellectual, relational, or social status. This is like teaching people how to fish. But personal transformation has limited impact if there are no jobs, or if a family is spending most of its limited income on rent because there is not affordable housing. Therefore (2) Community Development is needed, which renews the building blocks of a healthy community, such as housing, jobs, health care, budgeting and education. This is like providing fishing tools.
Level 3. Some Adventists also work for “systemic (structural) change” (also known as advocacy), seeking to change the institutional policies and laws that encourage unjust or unhealthy conditions An example is efforts to impact laws that make housing affordable or work or living conditions more humane, or to help disadvantaged people gain access to resources and opportunities that will make their life better. Sider, Olson, and Unruh would say this is like making sure everyone in the community has equal access to the fishing pond.
Level 4. This level can be called “community action.” At the community action level all of the other levels (relief, economic development, and systemic change) are brought together in a well planned strategy, implemented by a coalition of organisations, to make a neighbourhood a better place in which to live. Bandages are important when a person is bleeding, but it takes more than a “band-aid approach” to make a real difference. We encourage each ACS organisation to decide locally at which level it can currently work, ever striving to increase its capacity to work at more challenging levels.