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"Be a servant organization that decreases so that others may increase"—Lupton

City smarts

Interview | Atlanta inner-city expert Robert Lupton rethinks ministry to the poor in a new book

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

For more than 35 years Robert Lupton has worked to improve the lives of the poor in inner-city Atlanta. Through FCS Urban Ministries, which he directs, he has started and developed three mixed-income subdivisions with housing for hundreds of families, two multiracial churches, and many businesses and community services.

Lupton speaks from experience when he writes in his new book, Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life (Regal, 2007), "When individuals, like communities . . . abandon self-pity, self-indulgence and blame to face the hard work of building (or rebuilding) their lives, they have taken a giant step toward health. . . . It is a long journey from softhearted, one way charity to reciprocal, interdependent relationships." We asked him to show us some of the routes.

WORLD: Some argue that, despite the lying and substance abuse common among panhandlers, it's still "the Christian thing" to give money to all who ask. You write, "Could it be that our reluctance to give to the stranger on the street is much more than a reaction conditioned by cons we have fallen prey to? Could our hesitance be a righteous response from our spirit cautioning us that irresponsible giving is detrimental both to the recipient and the giver?" That's interesting; please explain.

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LUPTON: Giving can be for better or for worse just as love can be responsible or irresponsible. What may seem like a compassionate and loving act may in fact be supporting a destructive pattern of manipulation and dependency. How can we know if our giving is actually helping or hurting? The only sure way is to be in relationship, to know the person well enough to assure that his request for assistance is legitimate and accompanied by accountability.

Obviously, this is not very practical when you walk past a panhandling stranger on the street. If the Spirit prompts you to drop change into his cup, then by all means respond.

Offering to take him to lunch is better-at least you get to know his name and how your money is being spent. But an even better alternative is to offer him a ride to a homeless ministry that is equipped to deal responsibly with men in his situation. It is far more charitable to give a contribution to support a homeless ministry than to drop change into a homeless person's cup. And the very best response-become a ministry volunteer and a personal friend to those in need.

WORLD: You write of your experience with a church's clothing giveaway: "As soon as the first customers came through the door, the spirit of charity that smiling volunteers exuded faded rapidly. A hoarding instinct (the same kind of I-gotta-get-mine impulse that seizes looting crowds) took over our customers as they grabbed and growled and stuffed as many clothes into as many trash bags as they could carry. It was pure bedlam. Rules had to be hastily enacted." Did the rules save the day?

LUPTON: The introduction of rules was like saying "Let the games begin!"

Recipients began immediately trying to figure out ways to beat the system-additional garments for their children who were in school, extra clothes for a sick mother who could not get to the church. In no time we were behaving like temple police, guarding the resources of the Kingdom against the very people we were there to serve. This one-way giving produced an adversarial relationship between giver and recipient that was anything but charitable. The solution was obviously not in developing tighter controls.

WORLD: You then describe the advice you received from a supporting Atlanta church: "Sell the clothes; don't give them away. People will then buy only what they can afford. And if they have no clothing money, they can work in the store and earn what they need. This would produce cash flow, the men said, that would enable us to hire unemployed residents, train them in retail merchandising, and propel them into the economic mainstream." What happened next?

LUPTON: The conversion of the clothes closet into a thrift store was the very best decision we could have made. The men's group took this on as a missions project, helped us secure a suitable building, put together a sound business plan, and produced a self-sustaining retail operation that has served the community for more than 20 years now.

The change in the relationship between giver and recipient was dramatic. Recipients became valued customers. Instead of guarding against their greed, we studied ways to attract them into the store-bargain days, latest fashion arrivals, friendly customer service, lay-away options. We discovered that everyone loves a bargain but no one wants to be a charity case. And the reciprocal relationship was dignity-enhancing.

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