When helping can hurt

When helping can hurt

Many years ago, early in my nonprofit career, I was visiting with a church partner in Tacoma. I was there to consult with them on the afterschool program they wanted to start. We happened to start talking about their food bank and feeding programs. As the pastor and a few key leaders talked about these programs, I could sense their energy and compassion for the people they served. I could also tell that the church truly saw reaching out to the community as part of their mission. They shared enthusiastically about their weekly feeding programs, food distributions, and holiday programs.

There were so many things to be impressed by, but I found myself oddly concerned and almost worried by their exuberance. As they talked, I couldn’t help but notice how proud they seemed of the long lines that flowed out of their large building onto the sidewalks and around the corners. “At Christmas,” one leader stated, “I can’t see the end of it [referencing the line] and they come early, regardless of the weather.” The numbers were, in fact, impressive. They fed several hundred people per month, mostly single-parent households with children. During the holidays, they provided clothing and gifts for the children, with congregation members donating new, quality, age-appropriate gifts that they’d picked out themselves for the children they knew would be coming.

I’m sure that my evident lack of enthusiasm baffled them. At some point, it was obviously showing on my face. One of the leaders asked me, “Is something bothering you?” I was hesitant to share, but I took a leap of faith. I shared that I wasn’t bothered, but I certainly had a few questions. I asked them why people waited outside when the church could clearly seat a few hundred people. I asked them why they gave the gifts to the children instead of letting the parents give the gifts. And I wondered aloud why the church members didn’t eat and prepare the food with the people they served during holiday meals since the population didn’t seem that transient; these were people they saw week in and week out. Another question I didn’t ask at the time was why there wasn’t more relationship in their programs.

The quiet looks of “we don’t know” confirmed something for me that I was only beginning to suspect in my earliest years of nonprofit work. Helping can help, but it can also hurt. We can deny the basic dignity of people in the way we try to help them. At the same time we are giving, we can be taking. In this case, it was clear to me that by not allowing those seeking food to be guests in the church building as they waited, an unconscious message was being sent. It was one that said, “you are not like us,” “you are not equal to us,” or “you are not worthy of what we enjoy; you deserve to be without comfort in the rain, heat, and elements.” The whole message was adding up to “we can serve you, but we can’t be in relationship with you.”

Now, it is never that simple. I’m sure there were complexities like the cost of cleaning up after a few hundred people who have made camp in your sanctuary, or the increased number of volunteers who’d be needed to coordinate having the participants serve, and many other things. However, we completely miss the mark when we believe that poverty is about lacking things.

Poverty is a surmountable condition of deprivation that is characterized by relationships and systems that don’t work on behalf of those who are vulnerable. It is compounded if there are also negative personal choices. There is no doubt that lacking things can cause suffering. But there is something that can be just as debilitating and stifling, and that is losing a sense of identity and purpose — a condition I often refer to as the poverty of self. This is a basic loss of the value that is found in our human dignity. I am glad to say that the heart and focus of this particular church was actually quite sincere. Being initially baffled by my questions did not stop them from engaging. They ultimately made significant changes in their programs, choosing to serve fewer people in order to relate to more of them.

We live in a world dominated by numbers. How many Facebook likes did I get? How much money do I make? The road to poverty alleviation is characterized by more than numbers served. It is also characterized by the quality of relationships — something that restores a thing called shalom, which is a place of peace in which we find our true identity and true vocation or purpose. Identity and purpose are shaped and formed in community. They are needs as basic as food, water, and shelter to achieve human flourishing. We give something significant when we give our life to others and allow them to give back to us.