by Katie Delp
At FCS, we believe very passionately in what we call “smart charity," in the dignity that is maintained and promoted when the poor are invited into an equal exchange promoting mutuality. As the Executive Director of FCS, I am committed to this framework for charity and mission, and I work to make sure these organizational values are a foundational part of all our programs.
But sometimes there are situations where this approach doesn’t quite seem to fit, right? Visitors to an FCS Open House once asked me about a situation in their church where a few folks who were hungry knocked on the church doors at lunchtime. In response, the staff made a couple of pb&j sandwiches and shared them in a paper bag. Were they creating dependency? They wanted to know. Were they doing more harm than good?
I think it’s important for all of us to ask these questions of our work and relationships. Are we fostering dignity? Are we engaging our neighbors as equals? Are we offering handouts that could have potentially negative consequences for the very people we are trying to serve? Often the most damaging charity models I’ve witnessed are run by people who are convinced these questions are of little importance. As long as you hope you’re helping, that desire is seen as validation for any and all activity, however ineffective.
But I also want to make a distinction for situations like the church sharing a couple bagged lunches. I believe there is a difference between handouts and hospitality. The church has a call to radical hospitality. Those of us who’ve been in church a long time are likely familiar with the passage from Matthew 25: 35-36: “For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.”
This passage reminds us that when a hungry person shows up on our doorstep, we should feed them. This is hospitality. This is welcoming God in our midst. These verses remind us feed, clothe, care, and visit.
The problem emerges when we use this verse to validate charity, like a clothing closet that gives away free clothes. Yes, that model might receive the response “you gave me clothing,” but it often also includes unintended consequences like “after I proved I was poor enough” or “even though we bickered about how many items I really needed” or “and then I made you upset by reselling them on the street.”
You see the difference between handouts and hospitality often shows up in the expectations. Hospitality has no expectation except welcome and relationship. Handouts, however, expect change. Charity hopes the accepting person will better themselves in response to this gift with many strings.
As the church and as Christians, yes, we should answer the door when a hungry person knocks. We should respond to a request for a visit in prison or immigration detention. We should sit with the sick at the hospital or on their front porches. But our hope for these encounters should be to build relationships, to extend welcome, and to foster love.
When it comes to addressing poverty, we do not toss out hospitality. But we couple it with smart charity and thoughtful programs that address root issues and invite the poor into the problem solving space. We should limit one-way giving on a programmatic level and seek opportunity for mutual exchange. These values for charity programs are important.
But so is hospitality. Welcoming your neighbor to your dinner table does not create dependency, it fosters community. It’s vital that we understand the differences and approach unique situations with appropriate responses.