toxic charity

For years, author and urban minister Robert Lupton joined his church in their annual Christmas giving activity. They hung their dove- and angel-shaped cutouts on the tree in the church welcome center and, one by one, members plucked the requests of the 6-year-old girl or the 13-year-old boy. They hurried off to the store for each specific item and often picked up a few extra things here and there.

It was Christmas after all, and no amount of stuff was too much for the pocketbook when it came to demonstrating God’s love for people in need.

Then one Christmas Eve, Robert happened to be having dinner in the home of a neighborhood family. The community church folk came knocking at the door with loaded trash bags of holiday goodies. But from the inside looking out, Christian acts of goodwill looked a little bit different.

The children were ecstatic. The father slipped away. The mother plastered a gracious smile on her face, but by her body language he could tell she was embarrassed.

It was in that moment that Robert knew something about the culture of loving our neighbor had to change. He altered the direction of his work, shifting from giving things away to empowering communities to develop the skills and leadership to overcome their poverty.

Far too often, church impact in the community is measured by people and programs. The more who show up on Sunday and the more fingers plugged into community activities, the more successful the church claims to be.

But as Lupton suggests, a “healthy” church that grows in this way is more likely to serve the community in ways that hurt, not help.

Unfortunately, some have read Lupton’s work and said, “See! I told you. All these programs and charity gigs are just enabling, disempowering and encouraging people to stay poor.”

And, well, Lupton makes a strong argument for each of those points. But where others see an excuse to back away, I’d argue the point is exactly the opposite—go deeper.

Churches are really good at talking about and acting on Matthew 25, feeding, clothing, showering and so forth. Lots of people have come to understand this “charity” as their personal response to the pattern of biblical calls to serve the poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I can’t imagine Jesus or any other prophet being disappointed in such acts of generosity. But when we get stuck there, handing out sandwiches, dropping off clothing or popping in and out of the lives of people in need, we’ve only addressed half the message.

We think of biblical references to charity to mean giving, “opening wide our hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor,” (Deuteronomy 15:1) But the word “charity” is rarely used in the Bible. And when it is, it often stems from translated words that alternatively mean love or compassion.

Of course, giving is one form of love and compassion. But I can’t imagine any amount of material contributions to be enough for a person to solidly feel the embrace of the Holy Spirit.

Still, so many seek to achieve their Christian duty as if it were a checklist.

Cleaned out my closet and gave my clothing to charity. Check.

Logged my hour at the food pantry. Check.

Gave money to a panhandler. Check.

But how many names did they walk away and know? What stories did they share, and which ones did they hear? How did the time spent engaging in another human’s life have the potential to shape another’s heart? And in what ways did they walk away from the encounter with a little bit of change within themselves?

The reality is that relationship is hard, particularly when talking of those whose lives have been ripped apart by the ways of the world. Dropping off Christmas presents, preparing a meal and even donating the clothes you no longer need are wonderful acts of kindness. But alone, they don’t reach into the heart of a person in need and attempt to change their story.

A pastor friend of mine once put it so simply.

“Do we want to be an inch deep in everything?” she asked. “Or do we want to go really deep, enter real relationships and bring about real community change?”

Well, do we?

Meghann Cotter is executive director of Micah Ecumenical Ministries, a faith-based nonprofit that offers holistic care to the community’s street homeless. She lives in Fredericksburg. Contact her at

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