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.

Posted in Church, L.A. Life, Theology | 2 Comments

Something to Smile About

Avery drew her first picture of her “Papa” all by herself with just a little encouragement from yours truly (that’s a belly button on my body in case you were wondering if she was drawing a mole of some kind). She’s pretty proud of herself as you can see and her Papa is impressed even though my arms are coming out of my chin!

I thought I’d bring a little Lenten joy amidst the ashes of our lives, reminding myself at least, that God’s beautiful and creative Spirit resides in two-year-olds trying to draw for the first time. I know I need a little help seeing God’s presence living in a big city with a lot of brokenness that surrounds me.

I’m not sure how this becomes a post about Palm Sunday or Holy Week or Lent (perhaps posting a cute picture is the main reason for this post) but it is about celebrating the good things of God this Lenten season right in the middle of our difficult situations.

I encouraged our people at Union Church in downtown L.A. during Lent to remember that amidst the ashes of our lives that we look forward to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a real historical event that matters because it means that even though we are surrounded by ashes–relationships dissipating,  living in broken cities, struggling with finances, faith dismantling–we have hope because Jesus has the last word over death, destruction and dismay.

I’m simply enjoying a little beauty that God has brought my way today and celebrating the fact that our King Jesus gave everything so we could embrace His beauty and goodness.

I hope you have a wonderful Holy Week and Easter!


Posted in L.A. Life, Personal, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

A man pushed to the limits

It appears that viral stories don’t only belong to the sports world (remember Jeremy Lin?) or world criminals (Kony 2012 can be seen Sunday night March 18).

Now the business world has its own Twitter frenzy over the very public resignation of a key executive at Goldman Sachs, a man named Greg Smith. It’s already been parodied by The Daily Mash, likening the resignation of this multi-millionaire in the 1% Club to Darth Vader resigning from the Empire. But let’s listen for a moment and assume that Mr. Smith has something to speak into any organization, whether a business, a church, a not-for-profit or even a family. How do you know when the culture of the organization has gone awry? What would it take for you to confront your bosses, take a stand and even quit your position for moral reasons? What are the toxic areas in your workplace or organization? Are there any unhealthy patterns in your family or circle of friends that if they were public, you and others would be greatly embarrassed?

To make it more personal, ask yourself: What would it take to push me to take such a public stand against a wrong that I perceive? What are the consequences of me taking this stand? What are the consequences of me being silent? Do I have a right to speak even knowing that my own life is full of contradictions and imperfections?

Jesus calls His followers in Matthew 5:14 the “light of the world”. Where is God calling you to shine a light in your workplace, organization, church and family? That’s why knowing and living the 7-11 Principle is so important because without this clear call to live a life to bless the city, it’s easy to lose focus and think your job, art or circle of friends are all of your own doing and meant to bless your own life when we have a responsibility to help cities, organizations and relationships flourish the way God intended.

I hope you’ll take time to read Greg Smith’s letter and even the Darth Vader spoof and ask yourself some of these questions. Take a stab at writing your own secret letter that only you will see about some wrongs you know need to be righted and pray that you’ll have the courage to do something about it.

Posted in Church, Culture, L.A. Life, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Meet one of the world’s most evil persons

Joseph Kony. Murder. Kidnapping. Rape. Enslavement. War atrocities. This is one of the worst human beings on the planet. But he continues to avoid capture and face prosecution for the damage he has caused to thousands of lives in Uganda and neighboring nations in Africa.

The Bridge will be showing a film by Invisible Children at Union Church on Sunday night, March 18, at 7pm. It’s free to come and we’re the only downtown church showing the film. Not only will you watch this film, but you’ll get to meet a Ugandan named Gabriel who is a survivor of the conflict and has had family members killed by the LRA. He has seen the horrific effects of Kony’s brutal rule. The goal of the of the night is to help bring attention to this terrible man who, like many other tyrants in the world, has avoided capture.

We will gather the downtown community to help the 45,000 people who live there know that churches care about justice because our God is a God of justice. In this Christian season of Lent, let’s not only fast from coffee, chocolate, carbs and all the other things that we should be giving up anyway. Let’s fast like Isaiah 58:

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?” (NIV)

We hope you will come and watch the film with us, hear from a Ugandan who is asking for our help, and learn about practical steps you can take to help bring Joseph Kony to justice for the atrocities he has committed. The event is free but you’ll have the opportunity to support Invisible Children through donations and buying merchandise that finances their good efforts to continue to get the word out.

If you’re not in L.A., then why don’t you host a screening of the film at your church, school or community event? Or get a group of friends together and watch the video online. Let’s help Invisible Children get the word out and bring a little glimpse of the ultimate justice that God will bring one day. I hope this film helps people understand the great injustices that are occurring throughout the world right now. If you have questions about Invisible Children and this campaign, please check out their FAQ page, the CNN interview and watch this video.

We’ll see you March 18 at 7pm.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Princess of San Pedro Street

I just made that name up right now and my friend might kill me for it. You see, we’re just building a friendship recently because we both have a concern for our neighborhood. The Princess is a local resident who moved into a downtown loft that is adjacent to Skid Row and I am a pastor whose church in Little Tokyo is also adjacent to Skid Row. We’ve only met once but our budding friendship is not because we necessarily share the same faith (which I’m unsure of) or have all the same values (also unsure of). But we do share one thing in common: we want to see our neighborhood flourish.

The main thing I know about The Princess is that she REALLY cares about people and the neighborhood and is willing to take action to make the streets a healthier and more beautiful place for everybody. I used to call her the Tree Lady because she is a guerrilla gardener. That means she goes around and finds ugly areas around the neighborhood and plants gardens and trees there instead, with or without permission from the owners or the city. She got the city to put in dozens of more trash cans so that the local residents–loft dwellers and homeless alike–have more receptacles so trash doesn’t end up on the streets (yes, people who are homeless use trash cans as well!). She makes friends with those in her building and on the streets as well as various organizations with differing views. She enlists everybody’s help to beautify the neighborhood. The Tree Lady just didn’t seem to fit her essence. But “The Princess” has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?

LApastor and The Princess are joining forces to help the neighborhood flourish anyway we can.

Visit her page and let her know LApastor gave her a shout-out.

Posted in Church, Culture, L.A. Life, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Did you know that 133,000 people moved to a city today?

Well, not exactly. Pastor Tim Keller, speaking at a conference in Cape Town in 2010, stated that about 8 million people are moving to cities around the world every two months. I averaged that out to about 133,000 per day. That’s like three new downtown L.A.’s springing up EVERY DAY. Keller’s point is that since people are moving to cities (for various reasons that are good, bad and in-between) that Christians should consider prioritizing cities since that is where the world’s population is going. Churches and Christians are needed everywhere but he is making the case that Christians should be present wherever people are. Thus his emphasis on cities.

I spoke at Bel Air Presbyterian Church this month and shared about a Church For the City and what I’m doing in downtown L.A. God brought our family here because of the strategic nature of the city and the need for Christians to have a presence in cities like L.A. and especially in the growing and diverse city-centers. If you know people who have a heart to help churches have a presence in city-centers like downtown L.A., share with them this message and help me connect with them.

Come visit us at the Bridge a Union Church when you’re in town.


Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Best love story of 2012

With Valentine’s Day coming up I know if you are a couple then you’re making plans about what to do or where to eat or whether to celebrate on a different date to avoid the crowds (okay, so maybe I’m the only one who thinks of that). If you are single then you are making plans because you either want to be going out or at least busy doing something on this infamous day. At least that’s what I used to do for the many years that I had no valentine to celebrate with. I could have a lengthy post about the idea of Valentine’s Day itself and its worthiness or unworthiness as a holiday…but that is for another post.

Since everyone has love on their mind to at least a some degree this week, I want to share a real love story that I think should grab people’s attention and help us believe that love is real.

No, I’m not talking about the new movie, “The Vow” that retells how “a car accident puts Paige (McAdams) in a coma, and when she wakes up with severe memory loss, her husband Leo (Tatum) works to win her heart again.” For sure my wife will want to see this, but this isn’t the love story I’m talking about.

I’m talking about a real story that highlights as aspect of true love in its simplest form. It involves a girl, her older brother and a stuffed penguin.

Hands down this story is going to compete with the best of them all year.  Enjoy.

Do you know of another great love story that you could share with others this Valentine’s Day?

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Why would you sue somebody for helping the homeless?

That’s exactly what LA CAN is doing, an organization that opposes the work of Union Rescue Mision. URM’s CEO, Andy Bales, blogs about it here. Even though URM is one of the most efficient organizations when it comes to stretching each dollar to maximize the number of homeless men, women and children it serves, there are still service costs that are underwritten largely by generous private donors like you (not government money). But URM launched a bold and controversial Gateway program last April that has shown some great results in less than one year. I’m not saying every non-profit should follow URM’s lead in charging its guest to help underwrite services (some of which goes into the individuals own savings account, by the way) but I applaud ingenuity and experimentation that seeks to give dignity to those whom they serve. What URM is doing is adding to the conversation about how to end homelessness,  empower people to change their lives and launch people into independent lives free of addictions and destructive patterns. What they are doing is helping the neighborhood by working to get people who are homeless off the streets and into permanent housing. They do this tirelessly week in and week out.

But LA CAN doesn’t think what URM is doing is good and they certainly have a right to their own opinion and to advocate for what they think is in the best interests of the homeless population. I hope somehow all the different constituencies can sit with community leaders, activists, residents, artists and business owners and discuss how to create safe, healthy and generative communities that benefit everybody. Personally, I think organizations like URM are doing good and should be applauded for their experimentation and commitment to serve thousands of people who are homeless everyday. I personally have witnessed the dignity they try to instill in those they serve. I’m assuming LA CAN is doing good as well but hope they will see things differently and decide to focus their energies on eradicating homeless in Los Angeles instead of throwing stones at others who have the same goal.

As someone who’s church is adjacent to Skid Row and has homeless friends join us each week at the Bridge at Union Church, I know the importance of having safe, clean and healthy environments for people to find restoration and hope. Not every organization agrees as to how to do this but suing URM–an organization our church is partnering with–isn’t going to help anybody.  And it doesn’t promote helpful conversation between groups who are each trying to serve the homeless in their own ways.


Posted in Church, Culture, L.A. Life, Theology, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Entrepreneur. Social Justice Advocate. World Changer. Survivor.

That describes my friend, Steve Hardgrave, who’ll be speaking at a luncheon in downtown L.A. hosted by the church I work for, Union Church.

Six times a year we bring together those who live, love or work in downtown L.A. to discuss how we can integrate our faith and work. With 500,000 people working downtown everyday, this is a strategic opportunity to begin a movement of Christians who are purposely seeking to bless the city in which they live. Steve wants to help us take action on ways we can do that in our everyday lives.

Steve has spent significant time both in Mexico and India using his skills and resources to develop new financial networks that give access to the poorest in the world. He is a committed Christian who has worked with at-risk youth in Santa Monica, helped develop a thriving college ministry in L.A., is an active leader in the social enterprise movement, and is a pragmatic dreamer who is actively changing the world. I get to be his friend. You’ll quickly become his friend once you meet him.

The great thing about Steve is that he believes that you can change your world right where you’re at. He sees the beauty and brokenness of Los Angeles and gets excited just imagining what a handful of Christians can do if they got together and work with everybody regardless of faith in order to purposefully bless the city.

Each week that I share at our new 11am worship service I say that we are a church seeking to “Love God and Bless the City.” One reason I think that God has called my family to serve in L.A.–and particularly in downtown–is that there are 500,000 people who converge on downtown everyday who have the potential to impact our city in a positive way. These luncheons are geared to helped Christians consider that God has brought them to L.A. for a purpose to bless the city, not necessarily to bless themselves.

So I hope you’ll come if you are the Southern California area that day. You’ll be glad you joined us.

Click here to sign up for this FREE event.

Posted in Church, Culture, L.A. Life, Personal, Theology, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A Bad Start to 2012?

I know you’re supposed to begin the new year with these great expectations of becoming a fitter person with a bigger bank account all while achieving spiritual growth and a gaining inner peace. After the past week I think I’ll settle for just surviving.

Perhaps it was the way 2011 ended that has led to a challenging 2012. My wife and I spent New Year’s Eve in the hospital ER as she got blood tests and other exams done. We spent ten hours at the hospital on Saturday night with an IV in her arm (do I even want to know how much ER charges?) but at least when we got home at 11pm we were cleared of any immediate health threats. But I still hadn’t finished my sermon for the 9am service the next morning so I rung in the new year working on a sermon while my wife and toddler slept.

Since the hospital visit, all three of the Yee household have been battling various levels of colds while unpacking dozens boxes of stuff trying to settle into a new temporary home (our fourth home in the last 9 months)

Speaking of the move, we finally received the last of our stuff from our nightmare moving company that poorly packed our valuables, broke Avery’s crib, smashed much of our wedding china and crystal, destroyed Kati’s design projects from school, and mislabeled most of our boxes. That means we have to go through every one of our boxes just to see what’s actually in there, determine what was lost or damaged and then repack it ourselves properly like they should have done in the first place.

Speaking of getting settled in our new home. Our new rental home doesn’t come with a stove. Who doesn’t provide a stove? This one apparently. We had the tv guy come early Saturday only to find out that he can’t install it at our home because of the rental restrictions in our lease agreement. Internet won’t get set up until next week so I’ve maxed out my Iphone data plan using it as a wifi hotspot (several warning messages from AT&T hasn’t stopped me from using it to write this post). The trash guy dinged us for not properly distributing the trash according to city rules.  Two more strikes and they take our trash bins away.

And, like most churches, and especially for a small urban church like ours, we will struggle to make budget in 2012 even though we’re growing.

But before you tire of reading this post please remember what friend of mine wisely said: “The path to praise is through lament.” The writers of the Psalms have taught me through their own lament that eventually turned to praise. This is my 2012 lament that deep inside I know will (eventually) lead to a place of praise. But I need to lament in order to get there. Me writing this is helping me get there just like it did for the Psalmist.

These words spoke to me as I did my morning devotions:

Though the darkness covers me: I will remember your light.

I need to hear this word today amidst of ER visits, sniffly noses, moving company nightmares, and the hassles of getting settled in a new home.

Though the darkness covers me: I will remember your light.

I can already feel His light as I write this. I have insurance to go to the hospital. I can buy medicine for my sickness. I have a home to live in. The moving company…well, nothing good yet comes to mind!

So I share these words with all who I know are also lamenting the early days of 2012.

To friends who have lost jobs this past week.

Though the darkness covers you: remember His light.

To those who have recently received distressing financial news.

Though the darkness covers you: remember His light.

To those who are lacking the relationships they long for.

Though the darkness covers you: remember His light.

And if you can’t remember His light yet, that’s okay. You can sit in the darkness with me for a bit until we can find the light together. We’ll keep lamenting until we find that place of praise. Thank God that He is patient with us and can handle our complaints. That’s how good of a God He really is.

And a big thank you to the many friends who stopped by this week offering to help, bringing a meal and commiserating with us as we lamented. You have each helped us see His light by bringing the presence of Christ yourselves into our darkness.

Though the darkness covers me: I will remember your light.

Yes, Lord, I will remember. But help me overcome my lack of remembering.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments