Saturday I returned from a short-term mission trip to Denver with our youth. I was pumped by the diverse and intense experiences we had together serving the urban poor. I preached on how the week gave me a new perspective on prayer in yesterday’s sermon and how excited I am to see future mission trips.
Then this morning I read a short article in L Magazine titled: Toxic Charity. It is an excerpt from the book, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). In the article, Robert Lupton argues that many of the service projects that churches and nonprofits perform with good intentions are not really helping the needy. Americans work hard at serving others, but do rarely consider the outcomes of such service.
What is so surprising is that its outcomes are almost entirely unexamined. The food shipped to Haiti, the well we dig in Sudan, the clothes we distribute in inner-city Detroit — all seem like such worthy efforts. Yet those closest to the ground — on the receiving end of this outpouring of generosity — quietly admit that it may be hurting more than helping. How? Dependency. Destroying personal initiative. When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.
The article started me wondering about some of the service projects we assisted in Denver. One was the David Clifton Carpenter’s Cupboard, a food shelf in Wheat Ridge, CO. David Clifton was homeless for a time early in his life and had gone to churches for help. Afterwards he started a food shelf to help others like himself. But in my one day of service at his food shelf, I wondered if it was helping people transitioning out of poverty or was simply a “band-aid” that continued a cycle of dependency. From my limited observation it appeared that many families came every week for the free food.
Robert Lupton writes,
To be sure, not all charitable response is toxic . . . But our compassionate instinct has a serious shortcoming. Our memory is short when our recovery is long. We respond with immediacy to desperate circumstances but often are unable to shift from crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development. Consequently, aid agencies tend to prolong the “emergency” status of a crisis when a rebuilding strategy should be underway.
One agency that I believe has long-term development in mind is Habitat for Humanity. It seeks to transition people out of poverty by helping them move into home ownership. One of their mottos is “Not a handout, but a hand up.” Habitat home recipients must first complete 500 hours of “sweat equity” working on Habitat homes, complete a course on homeownership and sign a mortgage agreement that is not more than 1/3 of their income before receiving their home. Habitat is not toxic charity but transitional charity.
What do you think about charity and service for other?
Lord Jesus, teach us to love our neighbor in ways that honor you.
Thank you for your thoughtful reflection and questions. I think this is always something to keep in mind. At times direct charity or services is appropriate (Lazarus at the gate). If someone is hungry do we not feed him or her because we don’t want to enable them to stay hungry? (What does James tell us?)
At other times we need to be at work in changing unjust systems. But are we working according to our agenda or self-proclaimed gospel, or are those we serve empowered to name what they need.
There are no simple answers. Hopefully our questions can bring us deeper in relationship with one another so that it is not we who are “serving” standing apart from “those poor unfortunate wretches.”
Thanks again for your food for though, John.
Peace and all good, Pat
Pat, we live in a complex economic world and there are no simple answers. I agree that when we see a hungry person, we need to respond and feed them. The old proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you feed for a lifetime,” still applies, but it is complex in the specific application.
Indeed! If we give someone on the street, are they using the money for alcohol or drugs? Is that any of our business? Should I just give anyway? I don’t think you can find an issue that isn’t complex anymore . . . if it were ever possible. It’s good to keep asking the questions. So, thank you!
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