Toxic charity vs. redemptive charity

This is the season for giving. There are parish food drives, adopt-a-family programs and toys for needy children. Many of us jump on board as enthusiastic givers.

But one of my guests this week on Interfaith Voices, Bob Lupton, says many charitable efforts hurt people more than they help people. He discusses this idea in a new book with the provocative title Toxic Charity. And I have to say, he made me think and recall some of the better efforts I've seen.

His basic thesis is this: Givers almost always feel good. But receivers have, at best, mixed feelings. Too many are like the parents he has seen in homes when a "gift-giving family" delivers toys to children at Christmastime. The children are excited, the mother is gracious even if she feels a bit distant, but the father is often absent because he feels that this action exposes his inability to provide for the family.

Lupton speaks from long personal experience. He has lived in the inner city of Atlanta for more than 30 years.

What he advocates is a system for charity that takes account of these feelings and establishes programs that respect human dignity. For example, he favors establishing thrift stores where recipients can find bargains for clothes or toys, purchase them and give them to their children themselves. In soup kitchens, he favors inviting recipients to come to the other side of the table and help serve the food. And he says that volunteers might sit down and have their meal with those who are served.

I mentioned to him the process long used by the Quest for Peace in Nicaragua. Clothing, household goods, etc. are not given away, but sold at low prices. The money is then used to establish a local fund, and recipients meet and decide what common projects can use the funds. In that way, clothing has helped build schools and clinics and repaired roads. It also develops community, organizing and budgeting skills. Lupton calls this "redemptive charity."

Needless to say, his basic approach does not apply in crisis situations like natural disasters or devastating fires. People at those times simply need to survive, and are usually grateful for any help. But it does apply in cases of chronic and long-term need.

To hear my interview with Bob Lupton, here's the link. The audio will be posted by about 3 p.m. Eastern time today.

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