Chapter Four: Need vs. Relationships


(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.


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