Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

14 Dec 2012

Toxic Charity at Christmas

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Christmas is a time of giving. Many people and organizations embrace this spirit of giving by organizing programs that provide gifts to low-income families. They often encourage families with more resources to adopt a family for Christmas. As Christians, we may eagerly volunteer for these programs as a tangible means of expressing love. But are these programs actually beneficial, or do they simply assuage the consciences of those with resources while demoralizing those without? In Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It), Robert Lupton shares the experience of his first Christmas in inner-city Atlanta to demonstrate the problem with much of the charity work that occurs at this time of year (and throughout the year). He also offers a better way to truly help those who are hurting.

Christmas Eve of ’81 I celebrated the season as a newcomer to this urban neighborhood, sipping coffee with one of my new neighbors.

Bare floors were swept clean, and clutter was picked up. The smell of Pine-Sol hung in the air. Front windows reflected the light from two plastic candles. A small artificial tree on a corner table blinked with a single strand of colored lights. The children, antsy with anticipation, paced from window to window, waiting for Santa’s helpers to arrive.

When the knock finally came on their front door, their mom greeted the visitors—a well-dressed family with young children—and invited them to step inside. A nervous smile concealed her embarrassment as she graciously accepted armfuls of neatly wrapped gifts. In the commotion, no one noticed that the children’s father had quietly slipped out of the room—no one but their mom.

Not until the guests were gone and the children had torn through the wrappings to the treasures inside did one of the little ones ask where their father was. No one questioned the mother’s response that he had to go to the store. But after organizing these kinds of Christmas charity events for years, I was witnessing a side I had never noticed before: how a father is emasculated in his own home in front of his wife and children for not being able to provide presents for his family, how a wife is forced to shield her children from their father’s embarrassment, how children get the message that the “good stuff” comes from rich people out there and it is free.

Only after becoming a neighbor was I able to see what we had done. Christmas Eve in that living room, I became painfully aware that not all charity is good charity.

Even the most kindhearted, rightly motivated giving—as innocent as giving Christmas toys to needy children—can exact an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity. Inadvertently I had done just that. Not just this time but many times….

Doing for rather than doing with those in need is the norm. Add to it the combination of patronizing pity and unintended superiority, and charity becomes toxic….

The following Christmas we terminated our adopt-a-family gift-giving program. When well-resourced families called to contribute to a family, we asked if they would be willing to give an extra gift that year—the gift of dignity to the dads. Instead of delivering toys directly to the homes of the poor, donors were directed to bring unwrapped gifts to the Family Store where a large section was decorated as The Old Toy Shop. A bargain price was placed on each toy, and parents from the neighborhood were invited to come shopping for the special gifts sure to delight their children. Those who had no money were able to work at the store, earning what they needed for their purchases. In this way parents in the city experienced the same joy on Christmas morning as moth other parents across the nation—seeing their children opening gifts they had purchased through the effort of their own hands.

That second Christmas our predictions proved spot-on: our low-income neighbors would much rather work to purchase gifts for their children than stand in free-toy lines with their ‘proof of poverty’ identification. (pp. 32-33, 35, 36-37)