I finished this book a few weeks ago that has been stuck in my brain, Toxic Charity: How Churches andCharities Hurt Those They Help by Robert Lupton. It’s a book that examines all of these well-intentioned people and programs, and how we have all worked together to make people worse off. We have created a system of dependency and have disempowered those that we have been meaning to serve.
It looks at programs that society tends to rally around: food banks, adopt-a-families, etc and asks those hard questions. If the same folks are using these programs month after month, year after year, are we really creating change?
As a social worker, part of me wants to hide under my desk and squeak out, But I was only trying to help!
And that’s just it. We just want to help but we are doing the opposite.
Poverty is complicated. And American Poverty seems full of contradictions. Folks can’t pay their utilities but they have the latest smart phone. A giant tax refund is used to buy a big tv instead of paying rent. It’s so easy to fall into the trap of looking at American Poverty and thinking, “Well, it is their fault. If they would just…insert judgmental statement here.” It’s easy to look at someone else’s life and make judgments and assumptions.
If you grow up in this poverty, how could you know any different? You are living what you grew up with. You are living to survive. Do some people make other choices and succeed? Sure. And when that happens, we like to make an example out of that person. We like to make an example of that person, not really as a means of celebrating their success in life, but to put others down. And judge the choices that others make. “If they wouldn’t spend all of their money on cigarettes, then…” Then what? All of their problems would be solved? They would have this all figured out? We sure love to simplify a really complex issue.
Where is grace? Where is compassion? This is a human issue, and sometimes we lose our ability to see that.
While it is easy to make assumptions and judgments, it’s scary to simply be with someone. To let go of our notions of how they should live their life and be a friend, be a mentor.
In a sense, that what Lupton suggests in this book. Giving someone a (well-intentioned) handout is a temporary fix. We need to develop genuine relationships. Not this “I know better than you.” Sincerity. Interest in someone’s life, someone’s struggles and partnership with community.
And really engaging with people. When we make judgments and assumptions about poverty, it is usually to lump everyone in a group together and make ourselves feel better.
What about their faces? Do we see those?
What about their stories? Do we hear those?
It is much easier to shut out those struggling when they are a faceless group. When you make connections with individuals, hear their stories, you realize the assumptions you made are incorrect, the judgments you made are harsh.
These are real people with unique stories. Stories of pain and survival. Stories that may be similar to our own. Stories so far removed from our own that we are grateful for the blessings in our own lives.
This idea of connecting with others, it isn’t easy. It also isn’t a blanket solution to this complex issue of poverty. But it’s a place to start.