Vulnerability in a theology of radical abundance -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Vulnerability in a theology of radical abundance

By Steven Weir

The statistics of vulnerability are stark; globally a child dies of a preventable cause every three seconds while millions more go to bed hungry every night. This issue highlights Habitat’s work with vulnerable populations. Habitat often steps into the space between the promises of political rhetoric and reality. This is a space that can only be filled by a theology of radical abundance, borne out of both a public and personal responsibility in response to the good news of the gospel.

“Vulnerable populations” is a term used by development agencies to refer to social groups that are discriminated against, marginalized and disenfranchised from mainstream society. It is also used by social service agencies to refer to groups whose needs are not fully addressed by traditional service providers, especially those groups with increased risk or susceptibility to health-related problems. Their vulnerability is often evidenced in higher mortality rates, lower life expectancy, reduced access to care and diminished quality of life.[i]

Vulnerable populations include ethnic minorities, victims of conflict and the poor, and in greater number s children, people with disabilities and the elderly.

Whatever the definition, these populations share common characteristics that make them more susceptible to “falling through the cracks.” Their vulnerability originates from their financial constraints, lack of resources and services, and the lack of public awareness to their situations. All find it difficult to advocate for or provide for all of their own needs, and rely on others to fill the gap. This contributes to a lower social status and lack of power in personal, social and political relationships.

The Sustainable Livelihood Framework (see page for more information) is a dynamic model of poverty eradication now being used by HFH to ensure that our program designs provide more than a new shelter. It describes the interconnectedness of symptoms listed above. The model suggests that each of us improve our ability thrive through three interdependent livelihood strategies:

  • by increasing our assets,
  • decreasing our vulnerabilities and
  • addressing inequalities in government regulations and societal systems.

Program designs that incorporate all three of these strategies will have the most leveraged impact on a family through mutual reinforcement.

We can see this in action in South Africa, Zambia and Mozambique in child head- of- household families who have lost parents due to the ravages of AIDS. Through HFH’s broad community participation process, improved homes give these parentless families a physical asset – a home - that reduces vulnerability to weather and disease; improved community awareness improves their social standing which reduces the vulnerability of siblings being split up and sold into child prostitution. This work coupled with local advocacy for secure tenure and income-generating opportunities through partner agencies prevents a spiral into despair, moving the whole community toward a radical abundance of hope. We believe that none of us can live in dignity in our community until everyone in our community lives in dignity. HFHI’s orphans and vulnerable children program is a critical first step in these countries.

Vulnerability is not limited to the poor but in many ways is a space shared between rich and poor. I have been surprised at the overwhelming national sense of vulnerability and fear of the “other” since returning to the US after living abroad for most of the last 15 years. It plays out in the politics of immigration, broader protection, security profiling, ethnic and religious prejudice, and is now exacerbated by the economic vulnerability felt by families of every income level as the imploding global financial system impacts our life savings and security. Fear creates a sense of vulnerability by reinforcing the theology of a zero-sum world.

A homeless man recently invited me into his small covered space in the midst of a torrential downpour tentatively offering, “You don’t need to be afraid of me; it is dry under this awning.” There was barely enough room for both of us as we waited for the storm to pass. This man’s generosity echoed that of the small boy who saw his few loaves and fishes multiplied to benefit others in need. It is often from those who have the least to give that we witness the miracle of radical abundance. Fear can keep us from recognizing and sharing God’s blessings extended from the most unlikely of sources.

Every family impacted through Habitat’s participatory community process reduces vulnerability by eliminating the fear of “other” – Catholics building with Protestants in Belfast; Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Christians working side by side on a peace build in Sri Lanka, rich and poor, high caste and low caste. Working with the vulnerable has long been a hallmark of Habitat for Humanity. May those of us with economic plenty, learn a vulnerability of spirit that will allow us to see the radical abundance often experienced by those we consider the most vulnerable.

Steven Weir has worked with Habitat for Humanity for 14 years, and is currently the vice president of Global Program Development and Support. He and his family moved to Sri Lanka in 1993, where he served as an International Partner for 2 years. From 1995-2007, he worked as vice president of HFH’s programs in Asia and the Pacific. Prior to this he was a Founding Board member of and active volunteer at East Bay HFH, Oakland, Ca., USA.

With a background in architecture, Weir worked for 16 years in that industry before joining HFH in 1993. Weir has published and presented several research papers on poverty housing and development issues.


[i] The information contained in this paragraph was paraphrased from a combination of sources including WHO, UN, and several US federal agencies.