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Toxic Charity

by in Action, Features, Sliding Gallery

Charity has become an unquestionable good in our society, but I believe that there are many times when the good of charity should be questioned. I first began questioning how our helping could be hurting when I saw a video (like the one below) from Dr. Robert Lupton, a ministry coordinator in Atlanta. I eventually read his book titled Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How To Reverse It) which ended up being a very revolutionary book that changed the way I think about charity and ‘missions’. In his book, Lupton offers many examples of how charity can further the oppression of the marginalized. Charity can be emotionally degrading because it implies that the person receiving the charity can not take care of themselves and rather than teaching them how to do that, we give them free handouts… just enough to survive. Dr. Lupton suggests it is this kind of helping that will often hurt the recipient. Not just the actual recipients are hurt either, sometimes it’s other businesses and whole communities. As an example, it can financially hurt local community business when we send truckloads of clothes and shoes to African villages as this can potentially drive the shoe and clothes makers out of business. I know, our efforts are always done out of what we believe are the best intentions, but they are often poorly thought out and can sometimes do more harm than good. 

As a resident of the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver (DTES) I see and have experienced the first hand effects of poorly thought out charity. Over the last year and half I have seen and participated in a constant flow of charity groups from many religions pouring into the DTES. Food, Water, Soap, Razors, Candy. This flow of charity in the form of free handouts has lasted so long that many people feel entitled to it to the point where people asking for money or food might get mad if you say no. Let me tell you a short and aggravating story. Some friends and I were walking to the park for a picnic and I was carrying a box of bag lunches. I knew it would look like we were handing out food, but there were only enough for our group. As we were walking, a homeless man walked past and without looking at me he reached his hand right into my box attempting to take a bag of lunch, assuming that we were handing them out. I stopped him and we just kept walking, but obviously I haven’t been able to shake that experience. In that moment I was so angry; not at him of course, but at our society that creates such entitlement.

In his book, Robert Lupton shares many stories like mine of charity that hurts, and even missions that do great damage. He tells a story of a youth group that goes on a missions trip to Cuba to help a Christian University re-do their tile floor. They spent over 20,000 dollars for the group to go down, and they give a donation of 10,000 dollars. The whole time they are working, there are local tile workers waiting outside. The local tile workers know that as soon as these kids leave they will be hired to fix up their sloppy job. The University has to spend a lot of money and effort to house and feed the group. From a practical, rational level this missions trip doesn’t make much sense, but the University can’t say no to them because the 10,000 dollar donation makes up a large chunk of their annual budget. 

Another story Dr. Lupton shares is from personal experience. At the beginning of his ministry in Atlanta he set up a Christmas sponsorship program where gifts and food would be provided for underprivileged families. It was going great until he realized that every time families arrived at a house the father of the family would disappear. After talking to a few of the fathers he found out what sort of pain his ministry was causing. As a result of the process all the fathers felt they were having their dignity stolen from them as they were being shown again that they were unable to provide for their families. Robert took some time to think about how he could provide for the underprivileged families in his area during Christmas while still protecting the dignity of the fathers. He came up with the idea to start a Christmas store. His ministry still collected Christmas gifts, but instead of handing them out he set up a store where parents could come and purchase gifts at extremely low prices. The money raised went right back to the same parents because they were also hired to work at the store. He spent time considering his actions and he came up with an excellent solution that that was a real gift. It provided gifts for underprivileged children, dignity and employment for their parents. Everybody wins!

What do you think about what I’m saying? Does it make sense? Is any of it resonating with you? If so, then I highly recommend you read Dr. Lupton’s book and look over his ‘Oath‘. Obviously this book encouraged and challenged me to rethink the ways I consider charity and it. There are many things in our society that we need to rethink and I think that the way we ‘do’ charity is near the top of that priority list. 

Read the book and the oath, present the ideas to your youth pastor and your youth group, initiate charitable functions that benefit the recipient and fulfill the humanity of all those involved. You’ll be an agent of change for the better!

The Church is TOO Generous to the Needy

:: by Jared Braund of Vancouver, BC
I’m a student of The War College in downtown Vancouver, living in the 614 community, pursuing God in the poor of the Downtown Eastside. I’m currently living out my passion for the janitorial arts, but would one day like to be a writer.

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