"I was hungry and you gave me food." A measure of righteousness, said the Master. Feeding the hungry is the same as ministering directly to Him. Soup kitchens for the homeless, food pantries for needy families, free turkeys at Thanksgiving… these expressions of care, then, must surely be the offerings to which our Lord was referring when He said, "Inasmuch as you did it unto the least of these, you did it unto me." How callous is the heart of one who would denigrate a free feast for the poor at Christmas. Or the delivery of food boxes to the doors of seniors in a highrise. Critics might complain that sharing should not be limited to the holidays, but who would be so cold as to oppose it altogether?
John McKnight, that's who! Never do for others what they can do for themselves, he advises in his excellent book Building Communities From the Inside Out. To do so is to make recipients the objects of our pity and deprive them of human dignity. Many other urban veterans agree. I am one of them.
This is not to say, of course, that those caught in dire straights - burned out of their home or starving from famine - should not be given aid. It does mean, however, that to provide free handouts to passive recipients without reasonable "bootstrap" expectations is to foster unhealthy dependency and promote an entitlement mentality.
I discover within myself two persistent temptations toward "doing for" the poor rather than "doing with" them. One is that it feels so good. To surprise a mother and her three little children with a bounty of good food at the very moment they have hit the bottom of the peanut butter jar produces a rush of warm feelings in the spirit that is deeply satisfying. Such an experience leaves little doubt that surely "it is more blessed to give than to receive." The other temptation, and clearly the stronger one, is that it is much easier to do for people. It is so much quicker to drop change into a panhandler's styrofoam cup than to learn his name and offer him work. Or to box up food in the church kitchen than to sit at the kitchen table of a needy family and work out a budgeting plan.
Does this mean, then, that feel-good, easy charity is bad charity? I would not go that far. "Doing for" charity does meet a very basic human need, for the moment at least. Poorly nourished children certainly benefit from a nutritious meal delivered by a benevolent donor. And a homeless person whose stomach is filled with a hot meal from a soup kitchen may now use the coins in his cup to secure a shower and clean bed for the night (though who will ever know?). And who is to say if a needy recipient is in truth diminished in spirit by such giving? It would appear, on the surface at least, that donations are welcome. One-way charity quite often elicits grateful responses and sometimes even pronouncements of God's blessings from beggars on the street. And what mother would not be genuinely appreciative for the unexpected provisions for her children? Yet, when one is struggling to survive, pride and dignity can be suppressed to a lower level on the hierarchy of human need.
"Do-for" charity can open a door into the world of human misery, a first step in understanding the overwhelming problems that can gain the upper hand on the less-fortunate. It can open up one's heart and serve as catalyst for compassionate, redemptive involvement. It can change the life of both giver and recipient. Doing good can lead to doing what is best.
Take the Georgia Avenue Food Co-op, for example. A free Wednesday lunch at the Georgia Avenue Church for the poor of the community offered a forum where givers and recipients could sit at table together. Over time recipients joined in as servers and clean-up workers, and assisted with the sorting and distributing of foodstuff that was frequently donated. Under sensitive and creative pastoral leadership, a group of recipients organized themselves into a food cooperative, contributed modest bi-monthly dues, and leveraged their combined buying power to purchase substantial quantities of food from the Atlanta Food Bank. All of the functions of running the co-op - money collection, purchasing, transporting, distributing, bookkeeping, rule enforcement - were assumed by members. When the group reached fifty households, a new co-op was created. Today there are four. Doing good can lead to doing what is best.
A food co-op owned and operated by the poor is certainly superior to a free lunch program, both in dignity and responsibility. A co-op, through the mutual efforts of participants, expands the food dollar of those whose incomes are meager. But a food co-op does not create wealth. It does not produce living-wage jobs in the community. It does not bring down the exorbitant prices those without transportation must pay at convenience stores. Only a major food store can do this.
Like the one businessman Tom Cousins brought to East Lake. Captured by a vision to bring hope back to this despairing neighborhood, Tom converted the infamous "Little Vietnam" housing project into a safe, attractive mixed-income apartment community. Mothers no longer had to sleep with their children behind barricaded doors. Drug dealers were rooted out and playgrounds became safe. But those on limited-incomes still paid twice as much for their groceries as those who could drive to the large stores several miles away. Using his considerable real estate experience, Tom approached the Publix chain and put together a deal sufficient to induce them to open a store directly across the street from the new Villages of East Lake apartments. Now residents of East Lake enjoy what most Americans take for granted - the best food for the lowest cost of any nation on earth. Even better, Publix has created scores of new, good-paying jobs for community residents.
But good can sometimes become the enemy of best. When our one-way giving becomes comfortable and our spirits are no longer stirred to find the deeper, more costly solutions, good has become the enemy of best. When our feeding programs value order and efficiency over the messiness of personal involvement, good has become the enemy of best. When recipients remain as recipients and givers are content to remain givers, good has become the enemy of best.
Perhaps the best giving is the kind that enables the poor to know the blessedness of being givers.