Thursday, 3 September 2015

Is there a problem with the way we think of helping the poor?

I'm in the middle of reading Robert Lupton's 'Toxic Charity' and as read it I've found it full of challenges to my thinking and instinctive reactions but also lots of things which chime with our experience here at Grace Church.  The area we serve is mixed, there are some affluent parts, but there are larger parts that are deprived (though that mix is changing thanks (?!?) to some new developments).  As we've engaged in serving in this community it is striking how getting to know people challenges our preconceived notions of what such help will look like.

It is easy to come breezing in with an attitude that effectively looks to dish out help, advice, money, and support as if from someone who is sorted to someone in need.  But the longer I spend with families in the community, the longer I look into the eyes of those we serve the more wrong our often glib view of what 'help' looks like seems.

As those who have gospel values; who believe that every ones greatest need is their eternal need and that they need to come to know Jesus, who value people as made in God's image, who want to love our neighbour, who believe we have been given much to give lavishly to the world, we want to serve others.  But so often the way we do so is clumsy and can end up doing more harm than good.  Lupton's book has solidified some of the things I've been seeing in and around our community as well as providing the stimulus to sit down and try and draw some conclusions about how we help those in need.  Whilst these are preliminary and blurry around the edges, at best, I thought they'd be worth noting down here.

Too often we seem to switch into charity mode when we see those in need, be it a homeless man begging on the street, or a family in need - we have, they don't, therefore we give.  But whilst the compassion behind it is right often our way of showing it is faulty.  Charity emasculates people, it stripes them of their dignity, it undermines an often already battered self confidence or self esteem, it embarrasses them in front of their families and friends.  What our deprived communities need are friends, people who will commit to knowing, loving, and staying.  Friends who are committed to long term transformation not hit and run help or charity dispensed from a distance.  We need to structure support in such a way that it enables people to change, to learn, to develop, teaching them to do for themselves so that they become thriving families and doing so in ways that reconnect community.

It has got me thinking about a few things and I'm aware I'm about to challenge some cherished ideas.  One of our plans was to establish a food bank but I'm wondering now if that is the best, most grace filled use of resources.  Would it not be better to establish some type of food cooperative where in return for a modest contribution we use the power of group buying to multiply the food we could then buy in bulk?  Food banks are doing an amazing job, and tragically are necessary even in Britain in 2015.  But they are also a symbol of having failed as a parent, of being unable to provide for your children.  How much better if instead we can provide a system that multiplies the value of the little they do have enabling children to see parents providing and the value of community?  Even better if we involve those in need in running such a scheme alongside church volunteers engendering a sense of community and pride.

Along similar lines I've been thinking about trying to establish a community allotment site.  Where families can have an area of land to work to grow fresh fruit and vegetables.  Giving them something to do together as a family project, but also enabling them to provide for their families much more cheaply than they can buy fresh produce.  Again the community nature of such a scheme also has value and would enable us to buy seed, tools etc in bulk.  The issue here for us is a piece of land on which to start such a scheme.

What we must avoid is charity which leaves the recipient unable to look us in the eye, or feeling indebted to us, or somehow lesser than the giver.  That as far as I can see is far short of what the bible calls us to when it calls us to love our neighbour.  There's loads more applications and implications of this and maybe I'll joy others down as thoughts and ideas solidify.

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