Toxic Charity: Community Transformation

This post is part of the series Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).

For reference, here’s the version of the book I’m using.

If Robert Lupton had begun Toxic Charity with this section and kept it in mind while writing, I think we would have a very different book in front of us.

In this section, Lupton identifies a core problem of “dysfunctional communities perpetuat[ing] pathology” (pp. 132-133) and the need for people with the resources of healthy communities to engage in “geographically focused vision with measurable goals over extended time.” (p. 133, emphasis original). He goes on to write that in attempting to engage in this vision, it is important to identify the leaders and resources of that community and to “listen [sic] and respect indigenous leadership and learn the dreams of the people.” (p. 136, emphasis original).

I could not agree with this more. However, there are some details I want to add.

First, I think Lupton identifies communities with neighborhoods a little too strictly. Some communities are geographically restricted neighborhoods and some cross those geographic boundaries. This is a minor point, but I think that it is still important to note that – while geographic focus is valuable – it can be useful to think in social networks and communities that are not confined to a single geographic area.

Second, with people from different communities meet in humility and service we can easily see – and Lupton points out – that all communities have resources. While Lupton points to three major resources that may be found in some communities and not others – safety, good schools and economic viability – we should not be too quick to assume that other resources may be found in ‘poor’ communities that are often not found in middle-class communities. Those of us who are among the haves can learn from those who are among the have-nots how to improve not only their communities, but ours.

Third, among the things that those of us among the haves from those who are among the have-nots are different ways of organizing human life. For example, while we might imagine economic viability in poor communities being dependent on microloans and entrepreneurship, a poor community may imagine economic viability to be dependent on greater community interdependence and the creation of new market structures. Similarly, while we may imagine better education being dependent on after-school programs, another community may imagine a better education being based on forms of community schooling and access to better textbooks. The point is that if we are listening to and respecting community leaders and learning the dreams of the people of that community we should also seek to understand the way they organize human life in their community and respect that… and, I would suggest, learn from that.

Fourth, the logistics of entering into these relationships does not have to be as strict as Lupton suggests. While he makes a distinction between community development (a geographically focused vision with measurable goals over an extended time) and community service (presumably other forms of community ministry), I think that there is room for both.

For example, the organization that I work for is engaged in community development in some areas of our community and community service in other areas. The areas where we are doing community development and those where we do community service are interrelated, but require different kinds of responses in order to have an impact. We also accept mission trip volunteers from across the United States, some of whom come year after year – or even several times a year – and some of who come less frequently. Some of these mission trip groups – almost all of whom are from churches – see our community as one to which they are dedicated. Others have communities closer to home to which they are dedicated, while a trip to our community is an opportunity to learn from the work we are doing. The point is that community-to-community relations can be complex and that there is room for different churches to have different kinds of relationships with different communities as well as for there to be multiple layers of relationship.

With those pieces added, I could not agree more with the ideas that Lupton presents in this section. But this doesn’t seem like the attitude that Lupton has been presenting in the book so far. Instead, it very much seems like the rest of the book has been concerned with presenting a certain ideology as the way to relate to and help those who are poor. And that is unfortunate, because I think that the attitude displayed in this section would lead to a way of thinking about helping the poor that would be nothing short of revolutionary.

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