Toxic Charity: Good Neighbors

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.

The third and final vignette in this chapter concerns neighbors:

Even as work is essential for life with meaning, so neighboring is essential for meaningful community life. Becoming a neighbor to less-advantaged people is the most authentic expression of affirmation I know – becoming a real-life, next-door neighbor. (p. 154)

On the one hand, this strikes me as a bit colonial. It seems odd that we should think that the poor want or need our affirmation or that moving in next door to a poor family is such an affirmation. I can’t imagine that Lupton means it this way, but it does seem as though he is suggesting that having a nice middle- or upper-class family move in next door to a poor family is somehow an affirmation of the humanity of that poor family: ‘This demonstrates your humanity, that I would deign to live next to you.’

This is made even stranger by the stories Lupton tells here and the imagery he chooses to use. The stories all center around ‘re-neighboring’:

Scores of dedicated young (and not so young) visionaries have moved into our target neighborhoods to become neighbors alongside long-term residents who have endured years of neglect. (p. 156)

Or take the example of Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis, which adopted the Binghampton neighborhood of Memphis as their parish. Soon after they began with volunteer service in the area, people from the congregation began moving into the neighborhood and engaging “in all manner of community issues – safety, education, drugs, slumlords”. They purchased and rehabbed neighborhood homes and had more ‘strategic neighbors’ move into them. (p. 157)

Or take Lupton’s advice to his friends Leneita and John, who wanted to move into an inner-city neighborhood of Miami: “Be a learner,” he writes, “be an interested, supportive neighbor for at least six months before attempting to initiate any new activity.” (p. 160; emphasis original) After Leneita and John learn from their new community, they will be able to use their priorities and skills to create needed change in that community. In the end, “your community will ultimately appreciate the presence of a healthy family and an effective neighbor.” (p. 163)

What is striking here is how it abandons what Lupton had to say about volunteers coming into neighborhoods at the beginning of this chapter. There, he was concerned about outsiders coming into a community without an invitation from that community. Lupton’s friend Virgil recognized that the volunteers who came into his neighborhood did a lot of good, but also recognized that there were problems in the relationships between members of the community and the volunteers who came to do work in that community: “Maybe neighbors would react differently if they were the ones doing the inviting,” said Virgil (p. 150); perhaps neighbors,

[could meet] together to discuss community needs, [decide] which were the highest priority, [identify] available resources within the community, and then [decide] what (if any) outside support they [need]. (p. 150)

And elsewhere, of course, Lupton is desperately concerned with even well-meaning people coming to the poor and simply helping them.

Here, however, all of these concerns are gone: by all means, move in to poor neighborhoods, buy and rehab homes for other ‘strategic neighbors’, learn what you can over the course of a few months and “make strategic decisions about your involvements in community life.” (p. 162) And the imagery he uses only serves to reinforce these colonial kernels: the ROTC (p. 155) and marines (p. 156). These ‘strategic neighbors’ are, as it were, troops being sent into dangerous areas. The question is, ‘why’? Is it to liberate these poor neighborhoods from poverty? To conquer them for middle- and upper-class neighbors? To assimilate them into the social systems of global capitalism?

These are questions we should be asking and images by which we should be troubled.

On the other hand, there is an impulse here that is good. One of the greatest challenges to neighborliness in the United States – and globally – is class segregation. The simple fact is that far too many of us are privileged enough not to have to encounter our poor brothers and sisters except on terms that we find comfortable. More mixed-income neighborhoods would help begin to alleviate this. Of course, there is no need for this to be confined to middle- and upper-income families moving into low-income neighborhoods, it could just as well be middle- and upper-income neighborhoods creating truly affordable housing within their own borders.

Of course, there is no need to confine neighborliness to next-door neighborliness. That, however, is a topic for another time.

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