The tension existing between the impulse to respond to pressing human need with charitable compassion and the desire to change the system that so often creates the need is very real for people concerned about poverty and its impact on inner city communities.
Most people who act against the symptoms of poverty move most naturally toward charity.
I think I understand why that is true. Acts of charity and compassion usually seem obvious. If a person is hungry, compassion provides food. If someone is ill, charity calls for a doctor.
Usually, charity is not too complicated. It can be demanding, but it is seldom all that complex.
Providing charity feels good.
If I can meet a need, lift a load or ease some pain, the benefit flows in two directions, doesn't it? After all, "it is more blessed to give than to receive."
Forgive me, but my cynicism needs to be heard at this point.
Charity is also a very nifty way for people with economic power to maintain control of that power while performing good work that often leads to their being recognized as good people in a community. Charity, on its own, seldom, if ever, challenges existing power structures, even when these power structures are responsible for much of the poverty being addressed by donor largesse.
So, it is not hard to see why most of us gravitate toward charitable responses to poverty in inner city communities.
Philanthropic institutions, such as local, state and national foundations, both public and private; usually don't think "outside the box" of charity. For example, large foundations seldom cooperate with one another to develop community-wide strategies for attacking poverty. Foundations normally do not consult with community-based organizations to seek counsel on just how resources could best be allocated. Rather, the community groups usually try to figure out what foundations want to fund and then tailor requests in that direction.
The unintended consequence of a good deal of our charitable activity is the creation of an unhealthy dependence among the poor on services that do not lead people out of their pressing need.
Paternalism becomes a cruel structural reality when charity continues in a thoughtless manner.
We know that charity has its place. We also are very aware of the limits of its benefit to people who live in poverty.
So, what's a non-profit to do?
All I can tell you is where we are here in Dallas.
Several years ago the question of a good friend prompted us to define more carefully what it is that we actually do as a community building organization.
Here's a summary of what we came up with.
1. We do a lot of "Good Samaritan" stuff. You can read the story in Luke 10. If you are found stretched out on an East or South Dallas sidewalk, we will reach out to you, stay with you, and address your needs as best we can for as long as we need to. Your only responsibility is to keep breathing! Much of this work feels like charity. We intend for it to go further for your benefit and for that of your community.
2. We focus on your talents. Once you are up on your feet, we will remind you that you have something to contribute to the community. You are a person of talent, ability and great potential. This is the parable of the talents (Matthew 25). Here you will be offered training. You will be taught how to play the game of Dallas by the current rules. If you indicate that you would rather take your talents and bury them in a local crack house, we will challenge you to re-think your plans. If you don't, we will show you to the door, but we will leave it open for your return if you so choose.
3. We challenge unfair rules. We know from experience and observation that the rules aren't fair for everyone. Like Jesus, we have been known to turn over a few tables, make an angry speech or two and call rule-makers to task (John 2). We do this with the community and among the community.
Everyone likes us when we do number one! Like I say, charity is a "feel good" deal. Lots of volunteers show up and lots of people are helped temporarily.
Number two is harder, but again, people love it, especially those who are learning to identify and maximize their talents. We witness movement to better lives and hope for improved futures. Business people love us at this point.
Number three makes people nervous. Some folks tell us that we should leave this alone. It is hard, complicated, tedious, time-consuming work. The payoff is slow coming. Often the best we can do is raise questions and hopefully educate the people involved.
In this spectrum we do our work and find our purpose.
Poverty is a cruel and evil reality. Thoughtful, comprehensive strategies are demanded.
Something beyond charity must be our goal.