A note: In the five months since I wrote this post, I have had a chance to better process some of the concerns and questions I raise below. Anyone who regularly ministers to people in the margins will eventually have to decide how they are going to respond to need. As an individual, I have finite resources; and as much as I wish I could alleviate all of the suffering around me, I can’t. I believe in sacrificial giving (of money and time), but I also fully believe that investing in another person is much more complicated and difficult than simply handing over money. I work with children, children who live in significantly more deprived circumstances than my own children but who are also used to looking to strangers to give them a huge assortment of free services and items. Many of them have both a mother and a father, who I fully believe want to provide for their needs and would rather their children look to them for support than to the rich white interlopers who descend on their neighborhood. And, yes, I realize that I arrived as just such an interloper. I recognize and struggle with this conundrum. Truly, though, I am now no longer a stranger…I’m their bible teacher, their tutor, and their friend….a children’s minister in the neighborhood church plant, serving under the leadership of a Hispanic pastor. I realize I have SO MUCH left to learn, but I am praying and I’m trying….trying to be respectful and responsible, quick to listen and observe, slow to make judgment. And by God’s grace, I know that I am where I am supposed to be.
Since entwining my life with the children of El Crucero, I am frequently asked for financial help. It has become a real dilemma for me. By nature, I like to give away money and things, so saying “yes” to all reasonable requests could easily be my default setting. You need some modeling clay to finish a school project? No problem. You’ve outgrown your tennis shoes? Sure, I’ll buy you a pair. Your parents really can’t make the electric bill this month? OK, I’ll pay it. You get the idea. But where does it stop? I have not found it easy to define and establish healthy parameters.
In his book, Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton practically screams at us that misplaced generosity can hurt the recipients more than it helps by “diminishing the dignity of the poor while increasing their dependency.” According to Lupton, the first 2 rules of “The Oath for Compassionate Service” are to “never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves” and to “limit one-way giving to emergency situations.” Outside of real relationship (and often inside relationship), it can be difficult to determine when and how to responsibly provide assistance.
For me, the issue becomes: How do I look a child in the face, a child who I love, and tell them I won’t help when it is well within my power to supply their need? How can I know when is it appropriate to say “yes”?
I’d like to use 2 real-life examples to illustrate the complexity of this frequently encountered dilemma:
Story # 1:
The parents of 3 young siblings who faithfully attended El Crucero split up, and the mom and children moved into a tiny apartment. The apartment did not come with any appliances, and the children came to church one night asking for a refrigerator. I decided to take this as an opportunity to meet their mother. I confirmed that she had a job, but no resources for obtaining such a large item. Then, I promised to see what I could do.
About a week later, another El Crucero leader and I joined together to meet this need, hoping it would be the beginning of a relationship with the mom. However, the request quickly grew to include a stove, a table, a bed for one of the kids, and an air-conditioning window unit. The mom didn’t speak any English and we couldn’t speak much Spanish, so the relationship wasn’t progressing as we had hoped.
On the flip side, we knew the children very well and wanted to demonstrate to them that we cared about them….that it mattered to us that they have a place to store and cook food, a place to sleep and a refuge from the stifling Florida heat.
Since there was no dad in the picture at this point, I rationalized that helping their mom was something like helping a widow. Ultimately, though, providing all of these things seemed to only widen the chasm between us and the mother instead of bringing us into relationship, as I had hoped. I was left wondering how we could have handled the situation better.
Story # 2:
My husband and I were excited last summer to learn that one of our core 5th grade girls was planning to attend middle school at the free performing arts charter school. We knew she liked to dance and had been on her elementary school’s dance team.
However, as the new school year approached, this girl began to appear depressed; and we learned that her parents had told her they couldn’t afford to send her to the charter school after all due to the cost of the school uniform and the fee to be on the dance team. Her only alternative was to attend her districted middle school which is probably the worst in our county, with an “F” rating and a high incidence of violence.
We talked with her parents and offered to sponsor her. We would pay for her uniform and dance fees. In return, we expected to be invited to her dance performances and planned to keep tabs on her grades. We were deeply humbled to realize that the small sum of $130 could potentially mean such a difference in the trajectory of this child’s future.
For the first half of the year, we saw this girl often. Shortly after Christmas, though, her entire family began attending a Spanish-speaking church elsewhere in town. We were delighted that her parents were now going to church, but we largely lost touch with them at this point. At the very end of the school year we received a last-minute text inviting us to a dance performance, but we already had another commitment and couldn’t go.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago when this family reached out to us saying that the mom has lost her job due to childcare issues (the youngest of their 5 children is only a year old), and they don’t have money for school shoes and supplies for any of their children. Before my husband and I could decide how to proceed, we received another phone call to tell us that this family hasn’t been able to make rent and is being evicted. Obviously, this is a much bigger problem, with a medley of issues to investigate and address: childcare, job procurement, money management, possibly the need for alternate housing…… How are we to navigate such a situation? We don’t want this family on the streets, yet we don’t want to swoop in and advance an unhealthy relationship built on need and dependence, either.
Pushing against the Wind
Further complicating the dilemma of giving is the fact that the children on my block are being raised in a culture of receiving. Due to the generosity of churches and civics clubs, as well as the implementation of government programs, these children are perpetually being given hand-outs: two separate churches pass out free pancakes (and clothing) on alternating Saturdays, the school board sends a meal truck into the block all summer to distribute free lunches on weekdays and a bag of non-perishables to take home on the weekends, a 3rd church comes to do a weekly book giveaway, the Elks club hosts parties to give away backpacks full of supplies in August and Christmas toys in December….The list goes on and on……
I worry that my El Crucero children are growing up feeling like charity cases. I also worry that they are developing an unhealthy idea about how the world works. I don’t know how all this giving affects their parents’ sense of dignity or personal initiative, but I can’t believe it is having a positive impact. I glimpse fathers who prefer to stay hidden and mothers who avoid making eye contact, while their children are sent as the conveyors of requests big and small.
How do I inspire dreams for the future in such an environment? How do I teach personal responsibility and the value of hard work? My heart broke a few weeks ago when I saw a girl who I thought had everything going for her show up at the food truck with a boyfriend and a baby. Instead of finishing high school, she’s depending on handouts for daily survival.
I desperately want to use my own giving in ways that empower my El Crucero children rather reducing them to objects of charity. But how?