Toxic Charity

On a cold November Saturday before Thanksgiving, nearly one hundred city residents line-up for our free food pantry.  Word had spread that we were handing-out free turkeys, so our line was twice as large as usual, and participants had brought little wire carts in anticipation of the heft of the haul.  Exiting the church building to meet those who had gathered in the darkness a full hour before opening I enter a heated contest; twenty people near the back of the line press forward into earlier arrivals, knocking over elderly patrons, frightening children in strollers.  Accusations and threats and expletives shatter my idealistic bubble and I yell “There is plenty for ev-er-y–one!”  A woman shouts back “That’s what they said last year and they ran out.”

Last year?  How often does she get her Thanksgiving turkey from us?  That day a fellow volunteer and I followed two patrons to the parking lot where they opened the trunk of their pearl, white, Jaguar–an older model–and tossed their new-found groceries into a trunk already full of groceries.  Our turkey was tossed beside two others.  Did they get them all here?  The patrons spoke Russian and could not respond.  My companion tells me “Oh, they understand English–‘Don’t You!’–he accuses them, indignantly.”   We take our frozen turkey back and I hold up my index finger, “One turkey per family.”

Is this what the turkey farmer had in mind when she donated these birds?  Was this exchange worth hundreds of dollars our ecumenical coalition had spent on renting a UHaul truck to bring these birds and five thousand pounds of groceries from the Boston Food Bank to the Northshore?   The most haunting question, “Are we helping anyone, really?”

I recently read Robert A Watson and Ben Brown’s The Most Effective Organization in the U.S.: Leadership Secrets of the Salvation Army (2001) written by the former National Commander of the Salvation Army.  I also read Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (2011) by Robert Lupton, who served in a different army (in Vietnam) and went on to found a ministry with inner-city youth in Atlanta.  After reading these books and having some meaningful heart-to-heart conversations with local low-income neighbors, I’ve come to the conclusion that churches are neither thoughtfully nor adequately responding to the poor when they are handing-out free frozen turkeys or even when they are serving cooked turkey as I often did  in Lynn, MA.  I suspect most Christian volunteers already know as much, but they assume it is better than nothing.  Actually, as Robert Lupton suggests, that may not be the case.

The children, antsy with anticipation, paced from window to window, waiting for Santa’s helpers [a charitable organization] to arrive.  When the knock finally came on the front door, their mom greeted the visitors–a well dressed family with young children–and invited them to step inside.  A nervous smile concealed her embarrassment as she graciously accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts.  In the commotion, no one noticed that the father had quietly slipped out of the room.

After organizing these kinds of Christmas charity events for years, I was witnessing a side I had never noticed before; how a father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family, how a wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment, how children get the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people out there and it is free.

This kind of charity has to stop (Toxic Charity, p.33).

Mr. Lupton believes this kind of holiday giving sprouts from a divine seed of mercy which is, of course, necessary and good.  The prophet Micah declared that God requires a society of those who love mercy, people who, not coincidentally, walk humbly with God.  Yet God tethers humility and mercy to a third critical orientation–justice.   It sometimes feels humbling to give away free turkeys.  It sometimes feels merciful to give away free toys.  But does it look like mercy or humility to the Russian man whose nationality and maturity is insulted when we question the number of turkeys he has taken?    Does it look like mercy or humility when a well-healed family steps from a newer car, walking past an old car sitting idle because it keeps failing inspection, to deliver gifts hoping their own lucky kids will hear the words “thank you”?  This is charity, but it is toxic, according to Lupton, because it creates new problems (shame) without addressing older ones (low wages, for example).


I raised Mr. Lupton’s argument in a conversation with the pastor of a new church for the poor of Northampton called The Cathedral of the Night.  We were both observing an outdoor worship service for the poor offered in Springfield, MA.  These outdoor services are common in Massachusetts and can be found in my hometown of Worcester as well as in Cambridge where “The Outdoor Church” has been meeting people on the streets since the church was founded by a Unitarian minister in 1826.  The pattern I observed looks about the same among these types of church gatherings:  A middle-aged white man wearing a suit and a stole leads an open-air liturgy of prayer, song, scripture

Street service in Springfield, MA.

and exhortation followed by communion.  There are as many “street people” hanging around the edges as those joined closely in the impromptu congregation.  At the final “amen” a box of donuts magically appears and people from the fringes descend like eagles on fish.  Moments later Wonderbread sandwiches appear along with a bag of Fritos.  Some will stay in the area and eat and others simply take it to go.  On this particular day I see the staff of ministers–a preacher, the guitar player and a few ministry students–all eating Wonderbread sandwiches too…behind the communion table where they were distributed.  The staff did not eat with any of the street people who remained.

I told the other visiting pastor that it felt to me that something was missing.  It doesn’t feel like enough.  He tells me it never feels like enough.  I agree, and then I share that I am reading this book “Toxic Charity” which suggests these kinds of Wonderbread sandwich drops might be more harmful than good.  Before I can make Lupton’s case, the pastor tells me “Sounds like more liberal justification for doing nothing.  I always tell liberal critics ‘So what are YOU doing about poverty?’ and you know what, they aren’t doing anything.”

This is exactly the pernicious “It’s better than nothing” argument Lupton addresses in a story about a gathering of food pantry providers in Atlanta. the assembly takes issue with assertions like these:

“Each year religious mission trips consume billions of dollars, junkets that put some tourist dollars in local economies but seldom yield appreciable improvement in the lives of those being served [locals who could have been paid a quarter of junket costs and done the repairs themselves]

Our free food and clothing distribution encourages ever-growing handout lines, diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency.

Our compassionate instinct has a serious shortcoming.  Our memory is short when recovery is long.  We respond with immediacy to desperate circumstances but often are unable to shift from crisis relief to the more complex work of long-term development.  Consequently, aid agencies tend to prolong the ’emergency’ status of a crisis when a rebuilding strategy should be well under way”(pp.4-5).

Lupton engages in some heated argument with one particular Food Bank organizer who ultimately admits that the arrangement fosters dependency but that this kind of charity is easier for member organizations like churches than the rebuilding and development he describes.

“Churches want their members to feel good about helping the poor, but no-one wants to become involved in messy relationships” (p.57).

Before attending that outdoor service, my son and I sat nearby and finished-off a box of doughnuts we’d purchased from the “Donut Dip.”  We wanted to sample six different kinds so our box was full.  A  man in worn-out clothes wandered closer and closer to us and I decided the man might appreciate a donut (and we certainly shouldn’t eat six), so I said “Would you like to join us for some donuts?”  He declined, but fifteen minutes later the same man was grabbing three free donuts from the church box after worship.  Was that donut easier for him?  Less responsibility to care and connect as he might have with us?  I know it was easier on us.  We had no further responsibility for him.


That same day I put money in a Salvation Army pot near my home and talk with the partially toothless man ringing the bell.  “How did you get this gig?”  He tells me he just went down to the office and signed-up.  He’s done it for fifteen years.  After some conversation about his personal situation I ask him what he knows about Salvation Army.  “They are good people.  They help the poor.”  I point to the sign and ask “What about that Salvation part?  What does that mean?”  He responds “I don’t bother with that part–they’re good people, that’s all that matters to me.”

It is easy for most people to overlook that “salvation” part as they contribute thousands of dollars to what Peter Drucker once called “The most effective organization in the world.”  Still, 84,000 people forwarded a video by activist-blogger Zinnia Jones calling for a boycott of Salvation Army because of their anti-gay policies.  She received plenty of feedback and posted a response shortly after.

Ms. Jones is challenging a Salvation Army core value; no, not simply condemnation of what it perceives as sinful lifestyle choice , but rather the foundational document itself, the Bible.  In Robert Watson’s book about the Leadership Secrets of the Salvation Army, the open secret of how it rakes-in double the amount donated to the YMCA or Red Cross is simply this:

“Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19)

“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my bretheren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

The Salvation Army’s mandate is to preach and to serve.  Period.  Watson claims that this lazer-like clarity of mission is compelling to donors.  It certainly is.  Joan Croc donated $80 Million toward a YMCA-type center in San Diego which is meant to be a prototype of similar centers across America.  Robert Lupton suggests that this new Big Box approach to ministry actually runs counter to what has been best about Salvation Army, which is a dedicated network of skilled counselor-ministers who live and work in very close proximity with those they seek to serve (and convert, or course).

My problem with Salvation Army is similar to Ms. Jone’s problem, though I can hardly expect Salvation Army to risk losing evangelical funding by thinking too critically about how gays and lesbians might actually be the “the least of these, my bretheren” or even about how they do not need to be “saved” from their orientation, as if that were possible.  My problem with the Salvation Army’s toxic charity has to do with the lack of humility which is demonstrated every time a officer binds service with preaching.

As  a student in a United Methodist College in Louisiana (Centenary) I was expected to research a local religious organization and I chose the Salvation Army.  I spoke with volunteers, paid staffers and with recipients of services (and preaching, of course).   The following encounter was typical.  We drove the Salvation Army van into an area of town where homes were quite small and all seemed to need paint and shingle work.  Barefoot kids played together in tiny, weedy, yards.  “Hey, Robert!” the driver of our white van calls-out to a boy who walks over, timidly.  The driver leans-out of the window, “You finish your homework?”  The boy turns away, somewhat embarrassed, but I feel grateful these adults are holding the child accountable for school work.  “Because you know we can’t give you this new bike until you know all ‘them books of the Bible.”  My heart sinks.    Preaching and service.   Or preaching THEN service.  Books of the Bible THEN a bicycle.

Mr. Watson wrote about a survey from 2000 asking people the most desirable traits of charities and the top attribute was “uses donations effectively”.   The Salvation Army keeps overhead costs very low (he admitted that his own salary for directing a world-wide, multimillion dollar organization was on $75,000 plus housing and car allowance) and yet manage to keep a high profile, especially during the holidays.  But Watson said they were trouble by a part of the survey revealing that although people knew the Salvation Army “helped poor people”, few people knew [or cared?] exactly how.  Remember the bell-ringer I met at the grocery store?  “They’re good people, that’s all that matters to me.”

Watson explains the perception that Salvation Army “uses donations effectively” to “help the poor” as “An aura built by millions of impressions, some earned from direct experiences in Army programs but most gained from secondhand stories of our compassion and dependability in neighborhoods we serve” (p.93).  Or one could argue that people only want to know that someone is taking care of their charitable chores, it matters not who nor how.   I followed an older woman out of the grocery store after she squeezed two dollar bills into the the bell-ringer’s pot without looking at the sparse-toothed man.  Though clearly this was an awkward time and place to engage a stranger, she managed to answer my question “Why did you give your money to them?”  The fashionably-dressed woman responded rather callously, “Why wouldn’t I?”.  I respond, “Well, does it matter how they use that money?” and she responds “I’m sure they know what to do with it.”  I wonder if she could give the money to the gap-toothed man trusting he would know what to do with it.  More importantly, I wonder if it will ever occur to her to talk with that man and millions like him about how they live and what they truly need.


That pastor’s question is still ringing in my ears, “So what are YOU doing about poverty?”  I coordinated the Food Pantry in Lynn, Massachusetts for two years, driving a UHaul truck in and out of  Roxbury and unloading over three thousand pounds of food.  I often did this alone because few volunteers had the inclination to do this kind of work.  They preferred the face-to-face work of handing-out food.  Yet the longest face-to-face conversations I ever witnessed between patron and volunteer were at check-in where authoritarian hosts would accept or deny access based on eligibility requirements.  I insisted we close that pantry down when another food bank opened only a block away in another church.  I heard rumors that church was offering not only better food (though it came from the same source as ours) but also socks and sporting goods.  I also learned that patrons were expected to hear a short religious message before the doors would open, which was a small price to pay for a baseball, socks and Spam.  After two years of pantry work I wanted out because I saw how it created dependency and reinforced stereotypes without fostering relationships. I wanted nothing to do with that kind of toxic charity.

These days I try to spend time talking with all kinds of people, listening for what makes like meaningful and difficult.  I found doing this as a pastor very messy.  It was easier to drift through our Free Medical Clinic nodding and smiling than it was to invest three hours in our weekly dinner program called “Agape Cafe” where I sat, ate and listened with women from the local domestic violence shelter.  They hated living there and I wished I could helicopter them into a new reality.  Instead, I found ways to encourage them each week in their job searching and parenting.  At the same time I redoubled my efforts at teaching children in my sphere of influence to respect themselves and each other working hard to counter the message boys learn from the media about girls.  I assumed this sort of justice-education would prevent as much need for toxic charity down the line where well-dressed church members knock on doors to give away free turkeys or toys.

What are YOU doing for the poor?  Robert Lupton recommends an Oath for Compassionate Service:

1.  Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.

2.  Limit one-way giving to emergency situations.

3.  Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements.

4.  Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served.

5.  Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said–unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service.

6.  Above all, do no harm.

One Response “Toxic Charity” →

  1. miclaroche

    December 4, 2011

    Giving a sermon to people waiting to get free stuff reminds me of those offers for time-share. You have to sit through a presentation about how a time-share condo will change your life in order to enjoy the free weekend at a resort. In both instances, you have people probably thinking, “Yeah, yeah, yeah….hurry up so I can get my free round of golf/food basket.” Not the best way to present what you’re offering.


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