Drawing upon more than 40 years’ experience with urban ministries, including his work with Focused Community Strategies, which he founded, Lupton cites numerous examples of how well-meaning people with big hearts and good intentions hurt those they try to help. He writes with humility and compassion about our motivation to help others, yet does not shy away from the dreadful effects of what he calls “toxic charity.” Lupton writes, “Contrary to popular belief, most mission trips and service projects weaken those being served, foster dishonest relationships, erode recipients’ work ethic, and deepen their dependency.” This, of course, comes as disturbing news to those very well-meaning congregations for whom the annual mission trip for youth and adults is a cornerstone of their ministry. Is there an alternative?
Lupton cleverly proposes an “Oath for Compassionate Service” modeled after the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. This oath points individuals, organizations and congregations toward practices and partnerships that empower those they wish to assist. The oath includes: never doing for others what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves, limiting one-way giving to emergency situations, subordinating self-interest to the needs of those being served, and most importantly, doing no harm.
The question raised here is about the goal of all charitable work, including mission trips, beyond simply doing it because we know no other way to engage in compassionate service. Lupton recommends ways that we can transform our motivation to help and ideas for service into work that can bring about lasting change. Throughout the book he offers basic operating principles that help us to distinguish wise and prudent charitable efforts from the destructive ones. His examples are strong and help prove his case.
He does not advocate going “cold-turkey” and immediately closing every food pantry, soup kitchen or clothing closet. However, he does argue that we immediately begin evaluating the benefits and limitations of our current helping ministries. We should begin by asking some important questions such as: “Is there a way we can bring more human dignity to the process of exchange rather than simply using one-way giving?” “Is this need a result of a crisis or is it a chronic need?”
This book will not be a welcome read to church leaders who are looking for a quick “feel-good fix” for their parishioners planning their next mission trip, or their local ministries to (rather than with) the poor. Moving away from one-sided charitable giving to a healthy involvement that is focused on sustainable development will require patience and time.
MIKE LITTLE is director of Faith and Money Network, a ministry that grew out of the Church of the Saviour in Washington.