Our church's current small group curriculum encourages us to choose a service project to do together. They call it our "Micah 6:8" project -- an activity to fulfill "what the Lord requires of us: to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God." Our group started talking about the holidays coming up and how there are always service projects associated with that -- the Operation Christmas Child boxes at church, giving Thanksgiving dinners to needy families, etc.
But this brought to mind a story I read in a book recently (Toxic Charity, by Robert Lupton -- excellent, excellent book). The author moved into an inner-city Atlanta neighborhood where he hoped to have a positive impact. On Christmas Eve, he was a guest in a family's home when a group of jolly strangers came by laden with gifts for the children of the house -- a church group doing their holiday service project. The kids were thrilled, the mother was cautiously gracious, and the father . . . the father disappeared out the back door for the rest of the evening. The man realized while watching the scene that, although this church group had the best of intentions, they had thoroughly shamed this father.
The next year, the author ensured that his home church changed their Christmas gift-giving program. People donated toys for needy kids, but they were stocked in a "toy pantry" where the parents of those needy kids could come purchase them for nickels on the dollar. This allowed the fathers of the community the dignity of being able to purchase their own children's Christmas presents.
They also shut down their food pantry and worked with the families who were using it to help them start their own food co-op. The needy families took ownership of and responsibility for the enterprise themselves and ended up able to provide for their own food needs.
Lupton says, "contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do not: empower those being served, engender healthy cross-cultural relationships, improve local quality of life, relieve poverty, change the lives of participants, or increase support for long-term mission work. Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects do: weaken those being served, foster dishonest relationships, errode recipients' work ethic, and deepen dependency." One-way giving should be limited to emergency relief situations, he says. Beyond that, we should focus on rehabilitation and development of families and communities to make them self-supporting again.
And he emphasizes that this requires long-term involvement and relationships. Lawrence Mead's book From Prophecy to Charity says something similar. The chronically poor, Mead says, stay poor because they have become isolated from community and the standards that society expects of us all. Drawing them back into community is critical. Lupton's book shows how most churches' attempts at "service" and "missions" and charity these days have very little effect on the lives of those we try to help -- they are all about making the church member feel good about himself because he gave a couple hours this weekend to the poor. No long-term involvement. No relationships.
Thus my earlier post concerning the welfare system. Is it necessary? Yes, probably. But we need to give up this notion that increasing government programs for the needy makes us a compassionate society. It does not. It makes us a lazy, cold, distant society. People pontificate all the time about what the welfare system does to the people receiving the money, making them more dependent and all -- I'm just as concerned about what it does to the rest of us. It allows us to distance ourselves completely from them. The government is taking care of them. I don't even have to hear the pitch for donations -- my "donations" are required of me through taxes.
It allows us to go on with our comfortable lives thinking we're somehow indirectly helping people. When we are not.