By: Jason Tatum
I am in the middle of celebrating my one year anniversary of working here at Gateway Center, Atlanta’s homeless service center located at the heart of downtown, just a few blocks from 5 Points, just a stone’s through from the Greyhound station, and a click away from the city jail. One year in, and it has been a tidal wave of learning, crashing across the shores of my little brain day in and day out for 365 straight days.
When I first arrived it was suggested that I read a book called Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. I picked up a copy and scarfed down the contents quickly, the way you do when you’re making toast on the way out the door for breakfast. I needed to digest this information quickly because I wanted to understand what kind of world I was going to inhabit in my career at Gateway. As we know, it can be difficult to fully appreciate and absorb a book when it’s inhaled so quickly. So, I was thankful and excited to hear a few months ago that our leadership team would be reading through the book again and discussing it.
Robert Lupton founded an organization right here in Atlanta many years ago called Focused Community Strategies and has since given his life to understanding how communities work and how to help and work alongside neighborhoods to fully unlock the potential, worth, and dignity of the people living there.
This kind of insight is incredibly important to our work at Gateway, because we have to be ever mindful about how “helping” might not actually be the best thing for the community in the end. The book challenges us to be thoughtful givers, to be listeners, and to be partners. Lupton urges us to be conscious of what we’re doing, good intentions and all, and consider how little acts of seeming kindness can rob someone of their dignity and self-worth.
Further, Lupton begs the reader to think carefully about how the actions of charity might actually enable someone to not become self-sufficient, but rather to take part in a system that enables a sense of expectation and entitlement. At the end of the day, it is the urging of Lupton to be focused on generating employment, because this is ultimately the cause that will lift individuals and entire neighborhoods from poverty. Without jobs, we are just spinning our gears.
I’m proud of the many ways that Gateway Center works to exemplify these ideals. Of course, Robert Lupton is not perfect, and I know that certainly we are not either. Yet the beauty of the book is that it is full of thoughtful advice backed with a lifetime of experience, and I do believe that the overall thesis of the book speaks to something very true: sometimes churches and charities really do hurt the very people they intend help, and they (we) have no idea. For this, I am extremely grateful for Robert Lupton’s courage in writing so truthfully. His is a paradigm we would all do well to consider and digest slowly.
The Oath of Compassionate Service (p 8-9)
|Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves|
|Limit one-way giving to emergency situations|
|Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements|
|Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served|
|Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said— unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service|
|Above all, do no harm|