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Bob Lupton has seen both the blessings and curses of charity, cases where giving can both empower and disempower members of a community. As churches encourage giving and service projects around the Christmas season, Lupton encourages caution. How are churches measuring their outcomes, ensuring they aren't keeping people in places of need? Christianity Today's online editor Sarah Pulliam Bailey spoke with Lupton during the Christian Community Development Association conference about ways Christians can navigate the charity waters.

How do you see charity hurting families?

I'm seeing one-way giving, doing for people what they have the capacity to do for themselves in a way that disempowers them. In the United States, the most common Christian charities are food pantries and clothes closets. For example, at Christmastime, I used to be involved with "Adopt a Family" at Christmas. I would line up suburban families with families whose kids wouldn't get anything for Christmas. Then, on Christmas Eve day, they would deliver toys and presents to that family. I saw something I had never seen before. The kids, of course, were excited. The moms were generally gracious, but a little subdued. But if there was a dad in the household, he just disappeared. These parents, in front of their kids, were being emasculated. They were being exposed for their inability to provide. The moms would endure that indignity for the sake of kids. But for the dads, it was just too much. It was just killing their pride.

The following Christmas, we did a "dignity for dads" promotion, or "pride for parents." So as folks called in for their families, I said, 'Go shopping, get presents for the kids, but bring them in unwrapped.' We set up a little toy shop and marked them somewhere between a garage sale and wholesale price. We invited parents to come into the shop. If they didn't have any money, we could hire parents with the money that came in. So on Christmas morning, the low-income parents could see their children open the gifts that they had earned through the efforts of their own work. We have to find a better way of entering into charitable relationships with more reciprocity.

This sounds more pragmatic or psychological. Are there theological implications for how we do charity?

Dignity is given to us by our creator. We hold a whole theology of community and mutual supportedness, bearing one another's burdens and concerns. One-way giving creates toxic relationships where one has the resources, the other has the need. Do recipients at clothes closets and food pantries become a part of your church? Often, they're not participants in our community. How do we create respectful, honest, caring, and mutually supportive relationships?

We asked recipients of our free food, "Would anybody be interested in joining in a food co-op?" You could pay $2 a week and get $30 of groceries. We would do a run to the community food bank where you can buy surplus food. The members of the co-op became the owners of that co-op and decided on the shopping list instead of just being the recipients of whatever we gave them. They managed their money and distributed their food. It creates community and accountability as opposed to the one-way giving system.

What about foreign aid? If we can't cultivate community there, how do we keep charity at the local level?

Last week a guy was telling me that his church went down to Haiti and was so touched by seeing mothers with their babies in their arms wrapped in newspapers and rags. They were so touched that they came back with blankets. They had gotten bunches of blankets and handed those out to those mothers. The next morning when they went out they saw the same blankets in the shops along the street and went down to the mothers and the kids were still in rags and newspapers. They were furious, not realizing that the real need was food and those babies were hungry, and those women would sell a blanket anytime to get a little bit of milk and rice for the babies. We haven't looked at the outcomes of our charities. We've measured our charity by how it affects us as givers. Do we feel the numbers that we have served? Was it a good spiritual experience? Did it change my life?

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Toxic Charity
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2011-11-05
208 pp., feeditem.price%%
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Christianity Today
How Charity Can Be Toxic, Just in Time for Christmas