Charity is Not Enough

November 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Ministry with the Poor (Nov/Dec/Jan 2009-10) issue of Circuit Rider

I know what poverty looks like, at least to some degree. As a youth, I remember seeing the face of poverty in the children our church delivered Christmas presents to. The excitement. The smiles. The small, crowded homes. Later, I remember seeing the face of poverty in the families who lived in the homes we repaired on our summer mission trips. As a pastor, I met poverty at my church door. I was serving a congregation in the inner city of Richmond, Va. Poverty would ring the bell and I would answer with a bag of groceries, or money for gasoline or diapers. Now I see poverty every day on my way to work in Washington D.C.—the poverty of homeless men and women who spend their nights trying to sleep on the cold concrete benches beside the monument of Christopher Columbus in front of Union Station. I pass them each morning but I try not to look. Eye contact only adds to the guilt I feel as I remember the warm bed I slept in— and the other warm beds in my home that went unused.

I know what poverty looks like. I also know what it means to look the other way.

Poverty is frustrating, and it is persistent. Poverty shows up every morning, even when the sun sleeps in. Poverty shows up, rain or shine.

The problem is our system. Our economic system guarantees that some people are going to be poor. A certain number of people need to be out of work, otherwise we have wage inflation. A large number of people need to be placed in bottom wage jobs to keep our prices low. The system requires that some people go without healthcare—or at least it seems that way.

We think the poor are dependent on us, but really we are dependent on them. The Rev. Dr. J. Gordon Chamberlin pointed this out in his book Upon Whom We Depend. He said we need the poverty sector for “Cleaning our houses, taking care of our children, assisting our teachers, tending our grandparents, aiding our nurses, assembling our appliances, processing meat, fish, and poultry, harvesting our vegetables, checking out our groceries, serving us our fast food, cleaning our churches, cleaning our offices, cleaning our hotel rooms, washing our dishes, sewing our clothes, cleaning and pressing our suits and shirts, checking our retail purchases, cleaning our toilets.”

In return, the poor get to live in substandard housing “in danger of crime, are often hungry, have more medical problems, cannot afford health insurance, have more legal problems, can never save for emergencies, cannot provide for their own pensions.”

The system is set up to guarantee that the working poor will always be poor and forced to turn to charities to rescue them. This is wrong. It is dehumanizing to the poor. It robs people of dignity. To get different results, we need to change the system.

Systemic change is hard. It costs more. It takes more effort. It is threatening to those of us who benefit from the poverty of the current system, both financially and in terms of the emotional high we receive in helping the needy. If we have fewer needy people, where would we go to get that high?

I know of one story of a woman who came on a mission trip to Washington, D.C. and worked in a homeless ministry for part of a day. In processing the experience, she exclaimed: “It was marvelous to be of service; to help these folk who live on the streets; to give them a decent meal. I just hope one day when my granddaughters are older, they can come to D.C. and do the same thing.”

At first I was pleased to see her enthusiasm and joy in serving, but then I realized: we really don't get it. We cannot even envision a day when there are no more homeless walking the streets of our nation's capitol. Is this really the way it has to be? Is there something about charity that helps perpetuate the current system, some reward people get in the act of giving that encourages us to not tamper with the status quo?

What if all people had jobs at a decent wage? What if we had affordable housing for everybody? What if we offered quality mental health services? What if everyone had access to healthcare services, and unexpected illnesses didn't result in bankruptcy? What if education was available to all children and the quality was such that they could get a decent job when they graduated? What if everybody who needed and wanted to work had a place to work where they could earn their own way?

The answer is not more mercy. The answer is justice.

The United Methodist Social Principles suggest we hold certain commitments:

  • “Every person has a right to a job at a living wage.”(¶ 163.c).

  • We believe that “employers should pay their employees a wage that does not require them to depend upon government subsidies such as food stamps or welfare for their livelihood.” (¶ 163.e)

  • As a church, “we are called to support the poor and challenge the rich.” (¶ 163.3)

  • We believe basic health care is both a “governmental responsibility” and a “human right.” (¶ 162.V)

  • “Poverty most often has system causes, and therefore we do not hold the poor people morally responsible for their economic state.” (¶ 163.e)

  • Among our basic human rights are the “rights to adequate food, clothing, shelter, education and healthcare.” (¶164.a)

On paper we say we believe all of these things, but the church continues to act as though the answer is not in advocating for systemic change but in mobilizing more and more charity to meet ever-increasing needs.

We do not need more charity. We need a new system that allows people to take care of themselves. The poor do not need more programs, they need a fair shake. We do not need more

churches standing over the poor and handing down scraps of mercy, crumbs of charity, empty prayers that the lives of the poor may one day be better by and by. Surely our sanctimony is sickening to God. Surely God sees the great wealth of our world and weeps at the way we treat the least of these among us.

Charity is not the answer! Charity is reactive, not preventative. Charity certainly is appropriate in emergencies to respond to short-term needs, but we have made charity a way of life. To eradicate poverty we have to eradicate the poverty system that produces it.

Justice demands that the system be changed. Fair wages. Healthcare. Education. Work for all. The ability to stand tall and be treated with respect and dignity. Change will only come if we stand up and demand it. It is time for the church to not just offer our charity but to stand arm in arm with the poor and demand systemic change.


Clayton Childers is Director of Annual Conference Relations for the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society and an Elder in the South Carolina Annual Conference.

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