This post was written by Wendy McCaig, the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond (a CFA partnering organization). You can find the original post here.
Robert Lupton’s book, “Toxic Charity”, issues us all with a strong challenge – to move away from “an entrenched giveaway mentality” that destroys human dignity and damages communities in the long run. For this mentality to shift we have to “restructure our established one-way charity systems” and create opportunities for people to work.
There are three basic approaches to poverty; relief, individual betterment and community development.
Relief programs are focused on “giving a fish.” Lupton warns us of the down side saying,
“Loading an area down with poverty programs and human services can virtually ruin its chances of economic rebirth.”
Individual betterment programs (tutoring, mentoring, training) are focused on “teaching people to fish.” Lupton writes,
“Betterment programs do make a difference. Yet, as important as these services may be (essential, some would say), serving people is distinctly different from developing people.”
Community development is focused on improving the “condition of the pond.” Many of our urban communities have become so toxic that no amount of relief or betterment programming is effective because everyone is swimming in polluted waters, often made worse by undisciplined giving.
A healthy pond requires “ownership by the community of their community.” For a community to assume ownership of its own future, residents have to care enough to get involved. The goal of the community developer is discovering the unrealized hopes and dreams of the neighbors. For the past three years, that is what we have been listening for in the Hillside Community where Embrace Richmond has been engaged. We have found these words from Lupton to be true,
“The dreamers are seldom connected to the resources that provide nutrients to give those dreams life—that is, until by chance or by providence, someone in the village meets a connected person with a heart, a person who has time to listen, a person with both imagination and resources.
Hope, smothered dim under years of survival pressures, begins to flicker once again. In time, after the trustworthiness of the connecting person can be tested, after the opportunity is subjected to ample reality testing, hope can have free rein. It is a dangerous, fragile, exhilarating moment when the poor cast off their restraints and begin to believe. And this transformative moment, more than any other moment, is what the community developer lives for and what the community thirsts for.”
I have been blessed to have witnessed this beautiful reclaiming of hope and faith many times, but in each case it took years of listening, dreaming, encouraging, and investing. We now have a handful of individuals that we call our “street saints.” These individuals have come from difficult circumstances and they want to help others in their neighborhood thrive.
- Charles’s dream is to expand access to affordable housing and employment for those with barriers
- Patrice’s dream is to strengthen families by strengthening the sense of community
- Rudy’s dream is to reach older youth and help them avoid the dangers of the streets
- Denise has a gift for hospitality and cooking and dreams of breaking down the walls of isolation
- John’s passion is making sure no one goes hungry in his neighborhood especially the elderly
- Joseph’s hope is to help residents increase their economic opportunities
- Johnny would like to see people living healthier lifestyles through gardening and exercise
All of these individuals have dreams that they cared enough about to invest in. They are committed to doing what they can with what they have and are inviting others from their neighborhood to join them in making these dreams for their community a reality.
However, simply engaging people in shaping the future of their community is not enough. Lupton asks this question,
“Will the proposed activity be wealth-generating or at least self-sustaining for the community?”
This is the question that I have been asking myself a lot lately. In six months, Embrace Richmond will let go of our AmeriCorps funding which currently provides 75% of the funds that support our community development efforts. The majority of these funds have been used to provide stipends for the dreamers named above. I have watched each one of these individuals find new hope, meaning and purpose through the work they have done in the Hillside Community. Our goal now is to figure out how to help them turn these hopes and dreams into “wealth-generating” or at-least “self-sustaining” initiatives. As difficult as it was to build this amazing team, I suspect this next step is going to be even more challenging.
However, I strongly agree with Robert Lupton that creating sustainable employment opportunities is one of the most important elements in caring for the spirit and soul of people. Lupton writes,
“One of the surest ways to destroy self-worth is subsidizing the idleness of able-bodied people. Made in the image of God, we are created with intrinsic worth. And anything that erodes a rightful sense of pride and self-respect diminishes that image. Life offers no fulfillment without work. Work is a gift, a calling, a human responsibility. And the creation of productive, meaningful employment fulfills one of the Creator’s highest designs. Because of that, it should be a central goal to our service. LITTLE AFFIRMS HUMAN DIGNITY more than honest work.”
Lupton tells a story in an earlier book titled, “Compassion, Justice, and the Christian Life”, about a church that started a clothing closet where everything was free and over time that clothing closet became a thrift store that ultimately created jobs. He also tells the story of a church that took its benevolence fund to start a jobs bank and how a food pantry became a food coop. It is this kind of “social enterprise” thinking that we all need to engage in more. Making money is not an evil thing. Creating jobs for our friends is far more compassionate than expecting them to stand in lines with their hands out for the rest of their lives.
To go beyond charity and really get to the core issue underlying poverty, we have to create economic opportunities in low-income neighborhoods. There is no other way to create a sustainable healthy neighborhood. How many jobs could be created by churches if they used the funds that are supporting “relief” ministries to create social enterprise opportunities?
I know first-hand that it is far harder to develop neighborhood leaders, create sustainable employment and change a community than it is to simply give handouts. I pray more Christians will awaken to the fact that one-way giving approaches are harmful but also recognize that they can be restructured in a way that could be life giving to the community if they were turned into community owned social enterprise opportunities.
What relief programs is your church involved in?
How open is your church to restructuring its one-way giving activities?
How could your current relief program become a social enterprise in a struggling neighborhood?