Free stuff

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Seeing an emotionally distressed young man sitting cross-legged and shirtless on a downtown sidewalk, I asked, “Are you okay?” He said he wasn’t, but he could handle it on his own. “Can I pray for you?” He replied, “No offence or anything but the Bible is fake.” And then he said the words I can’t get out of my head: “I know you just want to give me free stuff.”

I am a giver of free stuff. With an early morning breakfast crew, I help serve a nutritious meal at a local drop-in centre that weekly provides an evening meal to a few hundred people and shelters 60–80 of them overnight.

Is giving enough?

It all seems so simple: 60–80 needy people get their empty bellies filled and I feel good about fulfilling God’s command to share my food with the hungry. But is it enough?

Do I need to ask questions about why some people don’t have housing or what societal systems make it difficult to exit poverty? Should I wonder about the personal issues like addictions and mental health that keep some people homeless? Does giving a person a place to sleep and free food keep him or her from meeting the consequences of a destructive lifestyle? Are we ignoring mental health issues that, if treated, would allow men and women to live more fulfilling lives?

Lately, I’ve been rethinking what it means to truly help people in need. To that end, I read Toxic Charity by Robert D. Lupton and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. Both books challenge the practice of indiscriminately giving free stuff.

A holistic view of poverty 

When Helping Hurts broadens the definition of poverty from a lack of material resources to a deficiency in our relationships with ourselves, each other, God, and the rest of creation. “Until we embrace our mutual brokenness,” Corbett and Fikkert write, “our work with low-income people is likely to do far more harm than good.” People who are materially poor often feel they are inferior to others, while those who are wealthier can take on a “god complex.”

Uncritically giving free stuff reinforces this unrighteous relationship. Proverbs 22:2 put this imbalance in perspective: “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all.”

In Toxic Charity Robert Lupton says, “Charity that does not enhance trusting relationships may not be charity at all.” He advocates helping within the context of community. Anonymously serving free food doesn’t cut it.

Relief, rehabilitation, and development

Corbett and Fikkert make a distinction between relief, rehabilitation, and development.

Relief is the “urgent and temporary provision of emergency aid to reduce immediate suffering from a natural or man-made crisis.” It’s appropriate when people cannot help themselves, but as soon as the “bleeding” has stopped, rehabilitation and development are called for.

Effective rehabilitation works with people in need (not for them) to restore self-sufficiency and a healthy dependence on God as well as interdependence with others.

Development is the continuation of the work of rehabilitation. “Flinging resources around undermines the development of individual and communal stewardship, responsibility, and capacity,” write Corbett and Fikkert.

A key principle emphasized throughout both books is not to do things for people that they can do for themselves. God designed us to work and to be able to provide for ourselves. This isn’t always possible due to mental and physical health issues or other circumstances. But it is within reach more often than we think.

A tale of two wells 

Lupton relates the story of a well built by North Americans in Honduras for people who needed clean water. It was a wonderful well, but when it broke down the people didn’t know how to fix it because they had not been included in the planning, building, or maintenance.

He contrasts this to a well built in Nicaragua. A Chicago-based organization involved villagers in every step of the process – from planning, to contributing funds, digging trenches, and managing the water supply. The villagers were understandably proud when the well began supplying water for their homes and produced enough to sell to a neighbouring village. Best of all, the villagers have the tools and expertise to maintain and repair their well.

Time to rethink free stuff

Let’s be honest: most of what North American Christians do at home and abroad could be classified as relief – giving free stuff with no strings attached. But there are churches and individuals who are rethinking everything from short-term mission trips to how they serve people in poverty. There are also many reputable Christian organizations that have thought about these issues and are attempting to do things differently, including Mennonite Central Committee, MB Mission, and Mennonite Economic Development Associates.

I think it’s time to stop uncritically giving free stuff. Instead, we need to ensure that our compassionate action fosters long-term health for the people we come alongside.

—Sandra Reimer cares deeply about people in poverty and is interested in real solutions. She has a degree in community development and worked frontline at a drop-in centre for two years. She attends Glencairn MB Church, Kitchener, Ont., and helps agencies tell their stories about trying to make the world a better place.


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