Can Charity Be Toxic?

I finished reading a book by long-time community developer, Bob Lupton, callled “Toxic Charity.” I think every Christian organization should read this and I have a few people at my church reading it and engaging in discussion about its implications of how we do ministry at Union Church.

Among the many great things he said from his decades of first-hand experience, he talked about the “betterment” that most well-intentioned Christians engage in when they really should focus on “development”.

Betterment does for others. Development maintains the long view and looks to enable others to do for themselves. Betterment improves conditions. Development strengthens capacity. Betterment gives a man a fish. Development teaches a man how to fish“ (167).

Lupton argues for a lot more thoughtful considerations in his book but this idea of betterment versus development ended up in the back of my mind as I had dinner tonight with some very special people.

I spent a couple hours with a few new friends that I met through the Skid Row Housing Trust. It was a great night to have some good food and build community with the diverse population that lives, loves and works in downtown L.A. My friend, Katherine, was there as one of the hostesses of the night and I had the pleasure to sit with Hal and Amy who are both professionals with ties in L.A. But the real pleasure was the chance to sit and chat with Lavonna and Tracy, who are both formerly homeless but now residents in one of the Trust’s many developments. Hearing Tracy share her story of how she ended up on Skid Row and her struggles to get out of chronic homelessness was both heartbreaking and inspiring.

One surprising but significant conversation we had was more than sheer coincidence. We discovered we had a mutual acquaintance who ended up on Skid Row after getting out of jail and that we both unknowingly were trying to help around the same time last year. She told me that’s he’s back in jail which explains why I hadn’t heard from him in months. We both talked about if we could help him better the next time by doing some things differently.

We wondered out loud when helping becomes enabling and when saying “no” can actually be a compassionate answer, especially when someone is asking for help for something he can do for himself if he put more effort into it. We didn’t come to any dogmatic conclusions about how to help our friend better, though Tracy definitely encouraged me and my church to keep helping. Unbeknownst to me, our mutual friend was really appreciative of our church even though we ended up saying “no” quite a bit in the last weeks before he left our church. She did remind me that there’s a lot of enabling that goes on when well-intentioned people are trying to help without putting more thought into what their actions might be doing to undermine peoples’ self-sufficiency and responsibility.

She’s a living example of the need for all people, and Christians in particular, to keep Lupton’s principles in mind regarding betterment versus development while also valuing being a listener: ”LISTENING COMMUNICATES WORTH” (147).

Talking with Tracy tonight and rethinking Lupton’s wisdom reminded me that relationship building is so essential. Your help becomes toxic in particular when no relationship is built and when actual listening isn’t happening. Lupton emphasizes this in the book as well. I was relearning how to listen by spending time with some new friends from Skid Row and our coincidental mutual acquaintance also forced me to revisit how our church can truly help those we come in contact with.

I highly recommend not only reading Lupton’s book but to also place yourself in new situations where you can build relationships with people with from diverse backgrounds. Listening is important and so is reevaluating if some of the help we try to do is more toxic betterment instead of dignifying development. Let me know what you think of Lupton’s book and how you are pursuing relationship building through listening to those you seek to come alongside to help.

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2 Responses to Can Charity Be Toxic?

  1. Katherine says:

    Thank you Tim for attending this Supper and helping to bring down the walls between neighborhoods downtown. As I look towards to future and how I might best be of service to Skid Row, it will be important to consider the best and most respectful way to interact with it’s residents. Gotta get that book!

  2. Hal McMath says:

    Tim, your active contributions to the community and thoughtful insights on self-help are much appreciated. Katherine and I look forward to a long and productive working relationship with you and your congregants as we seek to improve the living conditions for all Skid Row residents.

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