Presuming we are concerned with the gospel, and thus want to engage people in need, and are also concerned with people in need, why do we who have enough continue to take part in direct service charity that is toxic? What is it that keeps us from getting to know the people we serve, from appreciating people in need as having gifts, from seeing though the stereotypes, what is it that keeps us from making room for people in need to help with our programs? Some churches insist that direct service makes lazy people dependent, and yet aren’t engaging in community development that would provide work, while other churches insist that the systems are unbeatable, and handouts are needed, but reinforce the dependency stereotype by not engaging people so that they can contribute. Food pantries, especially, become ministries with inflexible rules about who can come in, and how often, while meals programs draw strict lines between patrons, or more lovingly, guests, and volunteers. What keeps these boundaries intact? What keeps us from crossing over boundaries and building relationships in our food ministries?
Lupton notes that it is common in church based food ministries for the gatekeeper to be someone who is pleasant and kind. Different ministries have different rules: you need an ID or you can only pick up food once a month, you need to be sober, or properly dressed, or not have weapons, or not have too many piles of things. Week after week in the ministry, people who serve food or stand at the door get to know those who are coming in, and can check in with them about how they are doing. When individual issues arise, one of the people who help serve the food may choose to help that person out. And then the leaders of the program discover that this leads to accusations of favoritism, or to additional requests. It feels like you’ve set a precedent for the ministry (Lupton 52). Generally the response is to become more and more careful about enforcing the program rules evenly, fairly, without exceptions. No one who chooses to give away food wants to be seen as unfair.
For Lupton that emphasis on fairness meaning treat everyone the same doesn’t match the reality that in fact each person’s need is different. His goal with food ministry is the creation of food co-ops owned and regulated by the people who need food. The people who need the food are deciding how the food should be distributed (Lupton 53). When presenting this idea to other churches he gets arguments against the idea, for example about how hard it would be to create these co-ops in rural ministries, or how hard it is for co-ops to serve large groups of people. Lupton notes that our present system where people with plenty are the givers “is efficient, generates compelling stories and statistics, gives regular feedback to donating church members, has controls for hoarding and fraud, and maintains good books” (Lupton 55). Indeed, efficiency is the often the goal of our ministries, for the more efficient we are the more people we can serve, with fewer volunteers, and in less time. More relational ministries require more time on the part of volunteers, and more volunteers, but more than that, it requires letting go of systems that are organized around getting the most food out in the shortest time possible. Relationships are not efficient; relationships are messy.
If a congregation has decided to engage in ministry to others, but does not want to build relationships with those others, what then is the purpose of the ministry? Lupton suggests it is to feel good about ourselves (Lupton 57). Further, if it is more important to feel good rather than to provide what is best for the people in need, is our goal actually charity? Add to our need to feel good about ourselves a dose of the stereotypes of the people in need as broken, irresponsible people, we begin to see mostly how different we are. And many of us are afraid to cross the boundaries of difference.
Jay Pathak and Dave Runyon aren’t addressing poverty in their book about neighboring, but they are noticing how hard it is to cross boundaries even in our immediate neighborhoods. Crossing economic boundaries is even more difficult. They suggest that our churchy expansion of “love your neighbors” to mean loving everyone has failed us in our immediate relationship with the people next door (Pathak 35). The book is advice for how to get to know people in your neighborhood, but the challenges it describes are appropriate to explaining some reasons why it is so hard for us to get to know people in need, even if we are part of a direct service charity.
What keeps us from knowing our neighbors? One cause is the isolation common in US life. Pathak is addressing the way middle class homes keep us relegated to fenced back yards and garages, which keep us from contact with our neighbors. I’ll add that we mostly live in a segregated society. Most of us are isolated from most people who are a different race, or a different income level from us. Our neighbors are unknown, we find ourselves afraid because “it’s easy to imagine the worst” (Pathak 30). We misunderstand each other because we fear each other—his example is of a broken down home that seems to imply lack of care, lack of motivation, perhaps even that drugs or alcohol are tearing the family apart, only to learn that actually the occupant is off caring for a sick family member (Pathak 30). What we don’t know about each other keeps us separated from each other, keeps us in fear.
Pathak notes that the fear changes not only our image of other people, but also our idea of how they see us (Pathak 64). We develop a circle of distrust, where each person is guessing what the other is thinking, and that guessing distorts what we know about the other. Our fear, Pathak argues, makes us see ourselves as less than—we see the other as breaking down our importance and taking away our power (Pathak 66). Interestingly in direct service charity the assumption is that the people who are leading are trying to hold on to power, but I think that Pathak is right—we hold onto the rules because we are afraid that the people in need want to take our power, want to limit our importance. At the same time, because we are in charge, our enforcement of strict boundaries does successfully take away the power and importance of those that need the resources. Our fear that we are not equal with each other has the unexpected, and usually unintended, affect of making us not equal to each other, which circles around to build up our fear.
Pathak suggests that the answer to fear is discernment. We must recognize the real risks and separate those from the imagined risks (Pathak 67). Pathak is challenging whether it is really fear we feel when we fail to connect to our neighbors. In our segregated society he is asking most of us to make friends with people who are not much different than we are. However the fear of crossing racial and class boundaries. As Stivers has noted above, and we will consider with Ray, below, much of the differences we suppose exist are the results of systemic stereotypes. The things we are afraid of are not actual risks. Much of our fear is actually simply being timid, and we must push past timidity (Pathak 67) to make connections that the gospel insists upon. Pathak wants us to recognize that “awkwardness isn’t fear—it’s just nervousness about possible rejection. The truth is, awkwardness won’t kill you” (Pathak 67). It won’t kill you, but if we let it our feelings of awkwardness can keep us from engaging in direct service charity except in ways that are toxic to the people we are aiming to serve.
Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charity Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). New York: HarperOne, 2011. Kindle.
Pathak, Jay, and Dave Runyon. The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside Your Door. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks, 2012. Ebook.