Chapter Five: Beyond Us-Based Giving

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(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

“Look at most any promotional package for a mission trip and you will get the distinct impression that lost, starving, forsaken people have their last hope riding on the willingness of U.S. church groups to come and rescue them.”

The Christian Compassion Industry is a big business. The Federal Trade Commission is tasked with keeping businesses fair and free. But they don’t look at religious charity – and perhaps we need something that does.

Most of our trips are to places needing long-term development. Most of the short-term projects are crisis-type projects. These mission trips have value, but should be packaged as insight trips or exchange programs.

The Toxic Mission Report

Theme: what serves the interest of the church does not necessarily benefit those being served.

Churches look for Return on Investment, an increase in volunteerism, but don’t always track how effective that volunteerism is on the front lines. They might send a lot of people out to help with a project, and not consider covering the costs to the mission they are “helping”, the resources they devour to do their good.

Lupton asks:  “When a church makes decisions about serving others, are the ones being served the urban poor or the church?”

A Balanced Portfolio

In planning for retirement, we are counselled to have a balanced portfolio to protect from risk. It is a sort of mutual fund approach to investing. Individuals and churches tend to try the same thing with their charitable and missions giving. But to make a real difference in people’s lives requires a focused approach.  Entrepreneurs that start new businesses and create new jobs also buck the diversified approach and focus on something particular – their vision, their hope, their passion. Diversified is a big business investor approach. Diversified volunteerism increases number of church volunteers – activity not outcomes. Lupton says “to achieve measurable change in the lives of the poor and the communities they inhabit, focused, not diversified, investment is required.”

Chapter Four: Need vs. Relationships

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(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

“Cure without Care is like a gift given from a cold heart.”

Lupton starts this chapter with a tale of two food distributions.  The first is at a local church food pantry, with a long line of people waiting for food. There is a well-organized distribution system.  Plenty of rules: One visit per month, must have legitimate ID, on bag per household, proof of poverty qualifications. The second, a few blocks away, people in a food co-op are boxing up food for redistribution to group members. All are involved. Each pays $3 a month to turn that into $30 in food for each of 50 households. Everyone is engaged. Their involvement fosters community.

The rules for charity in the first example lead to an efficient distribution, but can be toxic to human dignity and building relationships. Get to close to the people being served, and charges of favoritism can make your life miserable. This is why Food Security for America is assisting and encouraging churches to help people set up co-ops.

“Food in our society is a chronic poverty need, not a life-threatening one.” Lupton says. “And when we respond to a chronic need as though it were a crisis, we can predict toxic results: dependency, deception, disempowerment.”

Another telling story comes from the Q&A session following a speech Lupton gave to a multi-church benevolence group. One person was pestering him about his concerns that food distributions could be toxic.  Finally Lupton said: “Why do we persist in giving away food when we know it fosters dependency?”

To which he got as unexpectedly candid response: “Because it’s easier! It costs much less in time and money to run a food pantry, and that’s what the churches want! Churches want their members to feel good about serving the poor, but no one really wants to become involved in messy relationships.”

Ouch! What a telling tale. I personally wonder if that is the same reason people like government programs to take care of things. The added benefit of having the government do it is then it is other people’s money.

Need-Based Relationships

“Relationships built on need do not reduce need. Rather they require more and more need to continue.”

Lupton gave an example of this. One of the workers at a soup kitchen struck up a conversation with one of the patrons. A sharp-looking, neat mother, she had lost her job and was staying in a shelter. Her injury made it hard to find employment. So the church woman helped her into an apartment and a job search. She always had prospects, but never found a job. Around Christmas church members surprised her with a shower of Christmas presents, only to find other families, from other churches, had already done the same thing.

The relationship was based on need. Meet one, another would come along. Dependency ensues.

Giver-recipient relationships do not build trust. The poor stay outside. The resources owned stay inside. Rules come from those in control. Trusting relationships require outsiders to become insiders, recipients to become dispensers and makers of the rules, the ones to build community.

Chapter Three: The Anatomy of Giving

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(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

It is important that giving be truly free. It must never degenerate into charity, in the pejorative sense. Alms-giving is Mammon’s perversion of giving. It affirms the superiority of the giver, who thus gains a point on the recipient, binds him, demands gratitude, humiliates him and reduces him to a lower state than he had before.

  • Jacques Ellul, Money and Power.

In this chapter Lupton tells about his first Christmas living in one of the neighborhoods he was helping to develop. After years of commuting, he had finally become a neighbor. He was sitting with a family on Christmas Eve, when a knock came on the door. A family was there delivering gifts for the inner city family.  The mother’s nervous smile concealed her embarrassment. The giving family came in and presented, the kids unwrapped.  No one noticed that the father quietly slipped away. This was the first time that Lupton realized how all this generous giving emasculated a father in his own home.  How children learned that the “good stuff” comes from rich people and is free. How not all charity is good charity.

The holiday season is full of giving. While giving is supposed to be a joyous process, Lupton was now seeing a darker side. When this giving is a charitable event, there is an emotional price tag attached.

“Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and charity becomes toxic,” Lupton says.

The solution to this is the idea of parity vs. charity. It is a delicate process to establish real parity between individuals and groups of unequal power. Lupton calls this holistic compassion – relationships built on reciprocal exchange.

When Justice Meets Mercy

I had asked a question about justice and mercy in a previous post.  I think Lupton gives some answers to my questions in this chapter.

Compassion is a powerful force. It compels us to do amazing things for people in need. “Mercy is a force that compels us to acts of compassion.” It collides with Injustice. What power does mercy have against injustice? This explains why the Bible places even emphasis on both mercy and justice.

Act Justly. Justice is “fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.”

Love Mercy. Mercy is “compassion, kindness, or forgiveness shown especially to someone over whom a person has power.”

Twinned together, these commands lead us to holistic involvement. Divorced, they become deformed. Mercy without justice degenerates into dependency and entitlement, preserving the power of the giver over the recipient. Justice without mercy is cold and impersonal, more concerned about rights than relationships…

Mercy combined with justice, however, creates:

  • Immediate care with a future plan
  • Emergency relief and responsible development
  • Short-term intervention and long-term involvement
  • Heart responses and engaged minds

But does this give us a definitive answer about giving to the homeless person on the corner? Lupton asked three different people. Gary Hoag —  “generosity monk”  — says yes – freely received freely give. Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission, LA – says sometimes, but money is least helpful thing we can do, a last resort.  Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, said “Absolutely Not”

Always. Sometimes. Never. Sound like it still requires us to be personally engaged in listening to the Spirit for what we should do.

Pop Goes The Weazel

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Boy, the lyrics to this song aren’t like anything I learned in elementary school! A whole lot of Anglophobic lyrics about the British needing to watch out for the Americans.  Still, the catchy tune is familiar. And one can learn a lot about period politics if we avoid inserting our own period’s biases into the mix.

So, here it is: have fun listening and learning.

1

When de night walks in, as black as a sheep,

And de hen and her eggs am fast asleep,

Den into her nest with a sarpent’s creep,

“Pop goes de Weasel.”

Oh all de dance dat ebber was plann’d

To galzanize de heel and de hand,

Dar’s none dat moves so gay and grand

As “Pop goes de Weasel.”

De lover, when he pants t’rough fear,

To pop de question to his hear,

He joins dis dance, den in her ear,

“Pop goes de weasel!”

2

John Bull hells, in de olse cow’s hum,

How uncle Sam used Uncle Tom,

While he makes some white folks slaves at home,

By “Pop goes de Weasel!”

He talks about a friendly trip

To Cuba in a steam war-ship,

But Uncle Sam may make him skip

By “Pop goes de Weasel!”

He’s sending forth his iron hounds,

To bark us off de fishin’ grounds –

He’d best beware of Freedom’s sounds

Oh “Pop goes de Weasel!”

3

De Temerpance folks from Souf to Main,

Against all liquor spout and strain,

But when dey feels an ugly pain

Den “Pop goes de Weasel!”

All New York in rush now whirl

Whar de World’s Fair its Flag unfurls,

Bet de best World’s Fair am when our girls

Dance “Pop goes de Weasel!”

Den form two lines as straight as a string,

Dance in and out, den three in a ring –

Dive under like de duck, and sing

“Pop goes de Weasel!”

Chapter Two: The Problem With Good Intentions

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(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

In this chapter Lupton delves into the area of unintended consequences. He begins with an example from his own church working with a Honduran village.

Their plan was to build a long-term relationship with the village. So they sent an initial visit team to do a survey. The most obvious need was water. Women in the village carried water from a source miles away, devouring hours of each day in the heat. The church had money and contacts with well drillers – so they drilled the well. Everyone in the village rejoiced when the water started flowing. Lives had been changed.

But the next year they returned to find women carrying water again. The pump was broken. So the church fixed the pump. Each year they returned and found a broken pump to repair. The village always waited for their benefactors to fix their well.

In contrast, another village, in Nicaragua, had a different mission partner. Opportunity International, a Chicago-based micro-lending organization, sent a developer to help the villagers create a plan for the well. The villagers put together a budget and business plan. They got a loan conditional upon investment of a small amount of their own money as well. Then they hired a local engineer to help dig the well. Finally they set up a water commission to set fees, collect bills, and generally run the utility.

The village provided the labor. When the water flowed, so did pride in the village. They had so much water they soon started selling to a local school and adjacent village. They were now owners and managers of a money-making asset.

After reading the entire book, I would say the comparison of these two plans and results puts the whole book in microcosm. Both situations showed good intentions, but the one created dependency, and the other created empowerment.

One of the features of today’s “compassion industry” is the short-term service trip. An entire system has evolved to help people go overseas, or travel to “premier” destinations within the United States, so they can have “meaningful” mission experiences. Many of these trips end up being make-work. For example, one church got painted six times in the same summer, while another church was built but never used because the community didn’t need it.

So how does our motivation to invest in the lives of others get distorted? Perhaps it is because we view it through the needs of the giving organization instead of the interests of those to be served. Breaking this out, Lupton created a couple of bullet lists, one for expectations, and one for reality:

Most mission trips do not:

  • Empower those being served
  • Engender healthy cross-cultural relationships
  • Improve local quality of life
  • Relieve poverty
  • Change the lives of participants
  • Increase support for long-term mission work

Most mission trips do:

  • Weaken those being served
  • Foster dishonest relationships
  • Erode recipients’ work ethic
  • Deepen dependency

We need to listen to those being served by these trips. For example, the president of a seminary in Cuba felt conflicted about the Americans who came to lay tile in a new dormitory.  It took time from her people to serve the Americans, cook them food they would eat, and then redo the crooked tiles – since none of them had experience laying tile. In the meantime, experienced tile layers waited outside her gates, hoping for work. The $30,000 the trip cost the Americans could have done much more for her. But she didn’t dare speak up, for fear of losing the smaller supporting donations the church gave that was essential to the college’s continuing work.

The interesting thing is how a business person, as a business person, would easily see the low Return on Investment for these projects, but the minute he gets involved in service work, he seems to lose that common sense and defaults to the traditional charity model.

So what is the alternative? Lupton gives examples of what he calls “Ministry Entrepreneurs”.

Opportunity International is a good example. It gives microloans to people in underdeveloped countries to help them grow local businesses. They encourage individual saving and initiative among the people they provide loans to.

So, how well do micro-lending and traditional church charity go together? Lupton asked an Opportunity International representative that question. The answer: churches with church partners “destroy the initiative of my people.” Anywhere a church had a church partner, micro-lending was non-existent. People saw no reason to borrow and work when the church would simply give it to them. People learn to wait for the next mission group rather than do the work themselves.

Closer to home, Lupton mentions a community development corporation set up to help a section of Atlanta.  They listened to the locals, and then brought in resources to do it the way they wanted.  But they were still concerned that all those high powered people from the CDC might steamroll over the locals. So they decided to subordinate the CDC to the neighborhood association. In the mention of goodwill, they also failed to provide guarantees and contingencies to cover the loans and investments. And things still worked, until one attorney got upset at another attorney for stealing a contract, and tore the goodwill of everyone apart.

The lesson: Unselfish self-investment can be free, but it should:

  • Never be mindless
  • Never be irresponsible
  • Always calculate the cost
  • Always consider the cost
  • Always be a partnership

Chapter One: The Scandal

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(Note: Spoiler Alert. This post is writing commentary on the book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). This book is being discussed on April 11 by the Avondale United Methodist Book Club. Those who want to read the book before forming opinions are advised to read this column after reading the book. For the rest of you, consider this a long-winded review and commentary on the book, and please comment your thoughts.)

In the United States, there’s a growing scandal that we both refuse to see and actively perpetuate. What Americans avoid facing is that while we are very generous in charitable giving; much of that money is either wasted or actually harms the people it is targeted to help.

— Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity

With the above sentence Lupton begins his critique of charitable giving in the United States. A 40-year veteran of urban activism, Lupton will go on to describe general trends, illustrated with specific examples from his own experiences, and those of others. But in this first chapter he lays out the basic facts he has uncovered.

Long before President John F. Kennedy urged us to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,” compassion and service have been a universally accepted part of the American vision. Serving others is high on the list of American virtues. But we seldom take a long-term look at the outcomes of the service. Many on the receiving end indicate it may hurt more than help, by creating dependency and destroying individual initiative. “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them,” Lupton says.

For examples Lupton brings up the $1 trillion in aid sent to Africa in the past 50 years. The result: a continent worse off than it was before. In the United States we have our war on poverty: entitlements, programs, charities. The result: a permanent under-class, dismantled family structures and eroding work ethic.

Government programs get slammed for their waste and side effects, but Lupton says religious programs are often worse. Free food and clothing encourages growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity and increasing dependency. We descend on neighborhoods to do clean-up work they could do themselves, and fly thousands of miles to poor villages with oodles of loot that turns the residents into veritable beggars.

I think of my own self. We don’t need assistance, but every year the schools foist the form for reduced price school lunches on us, and when our salary was low enough, we did subscribe for a couple of years. There were several years, in fact, when my raises were just enough to put me above the line, so it cost more to pay for our own because I earned too much. It was a real incentive to NOT get a raise at work.

“Giving to those in need what they could be gaining from their own initiative may well be the kindest way to destroy people.” – I think this quote is a good comment on parenting skills as well. Not that we should see our charity as parenting (though too often it ends up being a sort of indulgent paternalism too).

So how do all our good works turn into bad results?  Because we judge the results based on the rewards we get through serving, not on the benefits received by those we serve.

Those benefits often never reach the true recipients – as in the graft of aid going to Africa – and when they do, the return is small. The amount of money spent on a mission trip to Central America to build a home could have been used by the locals to build 10 times the number of structures, for example. The benefit is to the giver more than the receiver.

Religious mission trips/junkets, have become a billion-dollar tourism industry that yield negligible benefit to the daily lives of the people being served.

America is very good in crisis mode. We deliver lifesaving aid in time of calamity, but we have trouble sticking with it into the long recovery mode. Knowing this, agencies continue to couch things in the language of crisis long after we should be in the long-term development mode. Ergo New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, where six years after churches were still sending free food and clothing to “victims”.

As Lupton notes, “When relief does not transition to development in a timely way, compassion becomes toxic.”

But he is quick to point out that not all charity today is toxic, but we can do better. We need to take action to change the “compassion industry” before it becomes discredited. Lupton has been a part of that change in his 40 years working with charity and development.

One of his suggestions is to take a page from the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, and create an “Oath for Compassionate Service”. He suggests the following:

  • Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.
  • Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.
  • Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.
  • Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.
  • Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.
  • Above all, do no harm.

Over several upcoming posts I will explore the remaining 9 chapters of Lupton’s book, and see what find out about practicing kindness without harm, so it is not toxic for giver or receiver.

#2: Love Divine

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(Part of a series singing through the hymnbook I grew up with: Great Hymns of the Faith)

1

Love divine, all loves excelling, Joy of heav’n, to earth come down;

Fix in us Thy humble dwelling, all Thy faithful mercies crown.

Jesus, Thou art all compassion, Pure unbounded love thou art;

Visit us with Thy salvation, Enter ev’ry trembling heart.

2

Breathe, O breathe thy loving Spirit Into ev’ry troubled breast!

Let us all in Thee inherit, Let us find that second rest.

Take away our bent to sinning, alpha and Omega be;

End of faith, as its beginning, Set our hearts at liberty.

3

Come, almighty to deliver, Let us all Thy life receive;

Suddenly return, and never, Nevermore thy temples leave.

Thee we would be always blessing, Serve Thee as Thy hosts above,

Pray and praise Thee without ceasing, Glory in Thy perfect love.

4

Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be;

Let us see Thy great salvation Perfectly restored in Thee;

Changed from glory into glory, Till in heav’n we take our place,

Till we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love and praise.