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.
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.
WORLD: You write about your ministry's experience in building new homes in a low-income area and finding out years later that many of them had become centers of criminal activity. What did that experience teach you, and what "decisive, corrective action" did you have to take?
LUPTON: Early on we believed that home ownership for poor families was sufficient to produce both pride and self-sufficiency. What we did not realize until some years down the road is that clustering these affordable homes together in one section of the community had the effect of concentrating poverty. Instead of property values appreciating and the neighborhood improving, homes deteriorated and negative attitudes and behaviors that often accompany chronic poverty took root.
Several of the homes we built became hang-outs for drug pushers and thieves. We eventually had to evict the residents, upgrade the homes, and sell them to stable, middle-income families whose commitment and leadership were strong enough to establish positive norms in the community. We learned through painful and expensive lessons that health flourishes in mixed-income neighborhoods, not isolated blocks of poverty.
WORLD: You write about your community feeding program: "Over time our faithful volunteers who sacrificially gave up their time to prepare and serve hot meals and clean up afterward began to ask if the people they served ever got jobs and moved out of poverty. These same people, they observed, were in the food line every week and had been for many months. . . . Was this really helping the poor to get on their feet or was it fostering dependency?" Once you asked that question, what happened?
LUPTON: Eventually our volunteers asked the recipients to assist with cleaning up after the meal. They also invited recipients to help serve the meals. The distribution of canned goods, which was always a troublesome and often a quarrelsome process, improved as community residents took on a larger role in bagging and passing out the free food. This joint participation helped to improve relationships but it did not address the dependency issue.
Our current solution to these food challenges came with the creation of food co-ops. Community members who elected to join paid a couple dollars per week into a fund managed by the church to purchase surplus food from the city food bank. Co-op members order, pick up, sort, and deliver food for each other in an equitable manner. They often fix meals for each other at the church from the food they have purchased. In this way the poor take ownership and control of their own food program. It has worked quite well. We now have four co-ops with 40+ members in each.
WORLD: You describe a plan to open a big "drug treatment facility in an inner-city community that was plagued by drug abuse"-yet, when you saw that the neighborhood was starting to become gentrified, you opposed building the big facility and suggested that the organization instead buy a large old house or two and create a small program. Why?
LUPTON: A large treatment facility may well provide a much-needed service to a drug-infested neighborhood. But if that community is beginning to stir with new life and gentrification is bringing young professionals back, it is safe to assume that the number of addicted residents will soon be diminishing. In time the treatment center will need to draw its clients from other parts of the city, a practice that the reviving community will likely find objectionable-and for good reason.
If a neighborhood is to regain its health, the number of troubling and troubled residents must decrease. Any program that brings more need (or problems) into the community will find itself at cross-purposes with revitalization efforts. Establishing a treatment center in a large residence or two (as opposed to building an institutional facility) would allow a program to shrink in size and convert back to residential use when the need in the community decreases.
WORLD: You note the tendency of ministries, agencies, and institutions to "become self-serving, even when their stated mission is to serve others. They quite quickly form systems and strategies that favor the interests of the institutions over the people they serve and the communities where they are located." How can ministries avoid that common tendency?
LUPTON: I asked a group of PhDs in organizational development that same question when I was first setting up our ministry. They told me that I was asking them to "institutionalize non-institutionalization"-an impossible task. But I could retard the process, they told me. Don't hire staff. As soon as you do they will have a vested interest in preserving the organization for their own security. Instead, facilitate visionaries to carry out their callings.
A second suggestion was to avoid accumulating property-it has a voracious appetite for consuming time, money, maintenance, and management and diverts energy away from the mission. Finally, give away as much as we can. Give away credit, ministry rights, assets and instead be a servant organization that decreases so that others may increase. You can see, can't you, why so few organizations are truly self-giving?
WORLD: You conclude your book by explaining how those with business experience in areas such as real estate, merchandising, and marketing can use their "vision-casting, deal-making, product-promoting talents" to help the poor and build Christ's kingdom. What's the first step for such individuals?
LUPTON: A vision must be worthy of a business person's commitment. Most ministries ask far too little of their highly capable friends-a monetary donation, a scholarship for a needy kid, serve on a board. A vision comparable to one's capacities is more likely to elicit an excited response. A vision that is history-shaping, like transforming a housing project or even a whole neighborhood, or starting a school, a redemptive cause that challenges their abilities, is what captures the imagination of highly successful people.
Also, kings talk to kings. Once a leading business person gets involved in an exciting mission, they will inevitably go to their peers and solicit their help. One well-positioned business person can attract an untapped strata of resourced friends into a cause. But the vision must be compelling.