When a book-reading group (pictured here) in my congregation recently choose to read and discuss Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It), by Robert D. Lupton, I was a bit skeptical.
My concern was that this might turn out to be some kind of semi-sophisticated rant about welfare queens and maybe even about why we should cut expenditures for food stamps so all those lazy children would know what it's like to work for their supper.
But I was wrong. And I'm glad I was.
Lupton writes from the charity trenches about the various ways in which well-meaning people, often people of good-hearted religious convictions, wind up doing the wrong things when they want to do the right things.
The sad reality is that too often our charity doesn't lead, as it often should, to an end of charity. Which is to say that we often don't give in ways that will allow recipients to develop skills and approaches that can make them self-sufficient and independent. Instead, we give without much thought just because it feels good to give and, in the process, we encourage in the recipients the expectation that our giving will continue. That, in the end, leads to anticipation on the part of the recipient and eventually dependence instead of independence.
We've all seen this in our personal relations, so it shouldn't surprise us when we see it in our charitable work. My grandchildren, for instance, know that I usually carry a pack of mints, and they have come to expect that I will give them one from the pack soon after I see them. I insist that they ask with the "please" word and that they say thanks. But in some ways I feel as if I've created an expectation that borders on entitlement. My own grandfather did the same thing with me and my sisters when he would give us a nice crisp dollar bill whenever we left to head home from having visited him and Grandma.
My parents tried to teach us not to expect that each time, but it was hard not to.
Those may be silly examples, but when you write such stories on a larger scale, you find churches making so-called mission trips to other countries and painting a building in Nicaragua that six other church groups already have painted that year. What is needed, instead, Lupton argues, is to spend time listening to those in need and figuring out what they think they need and how we might help them reach their goals -- their goals, not ours.
The ultimate goal should be to create independence, not dependency.
"Service," Lupton writes, "seeks a need, a problem to fix, an object to pity. But pity diminishes and respect emerges when servers find surprising strengths among the served, strengths not initially apparent when the served are seen as the nameless, needy poor. . . .
"Authentic relationships with those in need have a way of correcting the we-will-rescue-you mind-set and replacing it with mutual admiration and respect. . ."
There is, of course, a difference between responding to a crisis, such as a hurricane or tornado, and responding to a long-term situation, such as poverty and ignorance. Crisis intervention and help will be short-term. But if we don't help move the needy to a place where they are better able to fulfill their own dreams, our charity becomes toxic -- even though it's often easier on the giver to do things the old way.
In the end, however, doing things the old way probably won't help in the long run.
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A DOCUMENTED CHURCH WORKER
Pope Francis, a citizen of Argentina, automatically became a citizen of Vatican City when he was elected pontiff last year. But now he's renewed his passport from Argentina, thus making him, in effect, a man with dual citizenship. Which means he's in harmony with Christian teaching, which suggests that followers of Jesus are citizens of both this world and the next. I think, however, that taxes are cheaper in heaven, but we'll see.
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P.S.: After a false start or two, the old Truman Road campus of St. Paul School of Theology has been sold to the Guadalupe Center -- a good choice. Lots planned for the site. The news release to which I've linked you will give you details.
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ANOTHER P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter column now is online. To read it, click here.