Faith-based organisations can empower the poor

Dr Susan Mellows at her graduation ceremony last week.

Faith-based organisations (FBOs) can help to empower those who are economically deprived by equipping them with job skills and by restoring their human dignity.

This is according to research done by Dr Susan Mellows who obtained her PhD in Practical Theology on Monday April 4, at Stellenbosch University’s April graduation.

For her doctoral research, Dr Mellows did a case study of Learn to Earn, an faith-based organisation with campuses in Khayelitsha, Hermanus and Claremont to understand how its students, who were formerly unemployed, make meaning of their human dignity when spirituality is practised as an integral part of their skills development training.

Learn to Earn was started 31 years ago to address social injustice, promote social transformation and alleviate poverty. Over the past 15 years, Dr Mellows has visited this organisation, attended its fundraising activities and followed it on social media.

According to her, Learn to Earn manages to meet the students’ economic, emotional and spiritual needs by making spirituality part of its skills development programme and by conveying the message of their infinite worth and by affirming their human dignity. This, in turn, helps facilitates autonomy in the students as they find their way out of poverty.

“Through its core skills development programme, Learn to Earn prepares its students for employment and entrepreneurship by improving their capability to earn an income. Learn to Earn focuses intentionally on empowerment.”

Dr Mellows adds that it provides training to almost 600 unemployed people who register per year, mainly in the areas of baking for profit, graphic design, office skills, basic computer literacy, basic handyman’s work, woodwork and sewing.

“At Learn to Earn, people discovered their true identity, instead of believing what others said they were; their self-worth was restored and their human dignity was affirmed. With their dignity affirmed, the students were able to earn an income and to overcome the feeling of powerlessness. Social transformation occurred as they were able to escape the belief that they were worthless and that nothing was ever going to change.

“As the participants were now in a position to envision a different future for themselves, and to live out their passion for newly discovered talents, they gained a sense of purpose or vocation, which improved their mental and emotional well-being and helped them to restore fractured relationships.

“It is important to keep in mind that the participants had, prior to their arrival at Learn to Earn, been experiencing emotional stress through the relentlessness of daily survival in not being able to provide food and other necessities, the fruitlessness of seeking employment and unmet financial responsibility. Many felt powerless to change their circumstances, believing themselves to be worthless and having diminished human dignity.”

She points out that once the students appreciated their human dignity, they used their skills to achieve financial autonomy, which enabled them to meet their family obligations, to set goals for themselves, such as starting a business or studying further, and to accomplish those goals.

“The fact that staff at Learn to Earn also expressed belief in the participants’ ability to transform their circumstances, led to an increase in self-confidence and renewed self-esteem. This improved their self-worth and reduced their emotional distress. Feelings of hope dispelled fear and anxiety about the future. They also acquired a new desire to serve their communities and to contribute to society.”

She says her research will benefit other faith-based organisations, academics, and churches.

“This study could encourage the church to expand on its social justice initiatives, as it is apparent how transformation can and does occur through holistic spirituality within an faith-based organisation. The findings may also stimulate the church to engage in dialogue and to form partnerships with faith-based organisations who are involved in development-type work, in order to support them in their efforts to alleviate poverty.”