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When Do-Gooders Make Things Worse


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Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 03/09/15

How charity can be "toxic"

The English novelist Alice Thomas Ellis told how, after Mass on a winter Saturday evening at Westminster Cathedral, a prissy curate told the churchgoers not to give money to the homeless beggars at the doors of the cathedral.

“Do not give them money!” he remonstrated. “They will only spend it on drink!”

Ellis quipped, “I thought to myself, ‘If I were homeless in February the first thing I’d need is a good stiff drink.’ So I promptly went out and shoved a fiver into the hand of the nearest tramp.”

It illustrates the difficulties any follower of Jesus Christ faces. We’re supposed to help the poor, but how do we do that? A priest of my acquaintance who does admirable work with the poor tells his wealthy parishioners, “Just give them money. They need it and you need to give.” Well, maybe and maybe not.

I work as the priest of a small parish in the roughest area of a prosperous sun belt city. Greenville, South Carolina is famous as the home of Bob Jones University. Upstate South Carolina is redder than a lobster with sunburn, where no one apologizes for clinging to their guns and their religion.

But we’re not all rednecks. Greenville is also home to the North American HQ of Michelin and BMW. Down the road is the famous Clemson University. High end Furman University is on the edge of town and Greenville’s downtown is in the textbooks as a model for successful urban renewal. There is a brisk cosmopolitan atmosphere with plenty of smooth restaurants, galleries, concert venues and sports facilities.

My parish, however, sits on a junction of the major North-South artery I-85. Surrounded by hotels, restaurants and gas stations that were prosperous thirty years ago, the area around our parish is one of Greenville’s shadows. The gas stations, hotels and restaurants that are not boarded up have become the haunts of hookers, pushers and gang members. The once lower middle class housing has become the refuge for low income immigrants, the indigent, the addicts and disabled. The people with get up and go have got up and gone.

But we’re still there as a Catholic witness. Our little parochial school is open for business, we’re building a new church and trying to reach out to those in need. For decades we have run a successful food pantry. On Saturday mornings our parishioners turn up to distribute groceries to the folks who huddle in the cold for a handout. We’re not alone. It happens all across this prosperous, largely Christian town.

I asked the hefty and rather blunt director of one of the major Baptist charities what it was like to be homeless and hungry in Greenville.

“Hungry in Greenville?” he chuckled. “If you’re hungry in Greenville and know where to go you can get three cooked meals a day free of charge every day of the year.”

“Even Christmas?”

“Especially Christmas.”

“Does it do any good?”

“Well, they’re not hungry,” he admitted. “That’s about it.”

Those who run the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries and welfare programs are constantly faced with the dilemma of the prissy curate and the blunt Baptist. “Are we really helping people by simply giving them groceries, soup and a sandwich?” Don’t they have greater needs? By giving handouts aren’t we like the family members of an alcoholic who make excuses, turn a blind eye, bail him out and prop him up? Aren’t we encouraging dependency and enabling indigence? Aren’t the handouts humiliating?

Atlanta author Robert D. Lupton asks the tough questions in his provocative book Toxic Charity.  Based on his forty years’ experience working in front line urban renewal projects, Lupton challenges American Christian assumptions about charitable work. He contends that handouts not only do not relieve poverty, but they encourage poverty. He uses Africa as a large scale example. Since 1964 the African continent has received well over $1 trillion in aid, yet country by country Africans are worse off than ever. The overall per capita income is less than it was in the 1970s with over half of Africans living on less than $1.00 a day. Quoting African economist and author of
Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, Lupton says toxic charity is the “disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

Do gooder governments and NGOs are not the only ones to come under Lupton’s fire. He asks why we spend millions on so called “mission trips” which too often turn overworked and underfunded aid workers into tour guides for suburban teens, undermine the local labor market and encourage further dependency. He tells of local church communities in the developed world who do nothing but provide endless hospitality and logistics management for “poverty tourists” who come for a week or two, gawp at the poor, paint some playground equipment and then go home.

With shocking naiveté and crass cultural condescension we waltz into other countries and cultures waving our wallets and providing solutions that are often inappropriate, insulting and ineffective in the long term. Lupton tells first hand stories of his work among the urban poor in Atlanta, recounting how well meaning and well off Christians undermine local urban communities with the misplaced charity he calls “toxic”.

What’s the antidote? Lupton lays out six principles:

1. Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves.

2. Limit one-way giving to emergencies

3. Empower the poor through employment, lending and well planned investment grants

4. Serve the poor, not your self image.

5. Listen to those in need

6. Do no harm.

What to do with a traditional soup kitchen or food pantry? Lupton suggests turning it over to those who are being helped. Some food pantries have become food co-ops which are run by the poor for the poor. With ownership and local management the food pantry becomes a place of community enterprise, self-reliance and pride rather than a weekly exercise in humiliation for the poor. The antidote to toxic charity is to engage and grow with those in need rather than simply giving handouts to the poor.

But this requires hard work, patience and the willingness to live and work with our neighbors. We have to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and make many greater sacrifices than just writing a check or handing out groceries.

A great example of the right approach exists in my own parish. The Turning Point was founded by Fred McCain—an alcoholic from Brooklyn who lost his business and ended up sleeping in his car. After his own recovery Fred helped his first fellow addict to a new life. Eventually he bought one of the dilapidated hotels to house men in recovery. Turning Point helps the addicts find jobs and provides transportation to work. They live together in the hotel, pay rent and go through their recovery programs. Because they’re working and contributing the charity is self supporting—not relying on gala dinners, advancement directors and huge fundraising campaigns. It is low key, down to earth and on my visits the men in recovery have a sense of pride, a sense of humor and a sense of direction and meaning to their lives.

The antidote to toxic charity is to remember that that “charity” is the old fashioned word for “love.” True love desires the best for the other person. True love is never self serving, but always listens carefully to the other person— working with them patiently to grow toward all that is beautiful, good and true. If we really want to love our neighbors we need to challenge our motives and methods—striving to avoid toxic charity and to develop a charity that is both tough and tender and truly serves those who are in need.

Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book is The Romance of Religion—Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Her serves as parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, South Carolina. Visit his blog and browse his books at

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