There is a lot of focus on models, practices, and programs when it comes to detoxifying charity - and rightly so. We need better ways of doing things! However, we can't forget the primary role that "posture" plays in ensuring that toxicity is removed. Shawn Duncan, the Co-Founder of EIRO, shares some words of wisdom from a two Somali women who know what it is like to be on the receiving end of toxic charity. Names in the post below have been changed to protect privacy.
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The Arabic writing on the walls, the pile of shoes removed at the door, the warm samosas, and piping hot spiced tea were all signs that we were out of place. And yet, we could not have felt more at peace, more welcomed, or more embraced.
The Neighboring Initiative met in a home owned by a local masjid, which is often used for hosting events and neighbors. We came to this hospitable place to learn about being a good neighbor in one of America's most ethnically and religiously diverse communities. We wanted to understand what it would mean for Christians to be neighbors in a place like Clarkston, GA. How do we practice neighboring well? How have they seen it done poorly?
A Christian car salesman, two Imams, a refugee business owner, and a Muslim community organizer and activist agreed to be our teachers for the day. And, boy, did our team drink from deep wells of wisdom for two and a half hours!
There is no way to report in this short post how convicting their words were. In short, they told us to leave our boxes of charity at home and enter in to mutually transformative relationships. They ask that we not to see people grouped under labels - Muslims, Refugees, Immigrants, Somalis, etc. - but as individuals with names, stories, and dignity. They are certainly aware of the challenges facing their community, and they are deeply engaged in addressing those things. The "charity" they need, however, is not from well-meaning church groups from out of town. They are looking for friends and neighbors. They are seeking the dignity of authentic relationships, not the disempowering feeling of handouts.
One of the women in our meeting, Jamilah, owns her own café. As business owner, mother, and leader in her faith community, she is intelligent, resilient, and not to short on a sense of humor! As soon as our meeting concluded, Jamilah went to her café along with Amal, another host for our meeting. They were talking about how much they enjoyed the conversation about relationships, respect, and dignity. Amal witnessed a man walking around the café with a friend taking pictures of customers and employees. She approached him and asked if he were there "looking for stories" (something she sees a number of Christians doing when they tour their refugee neighborhood). He responded,
I am the Coordinator of Job Placement for Compassionate Christians Inc. We resettle these refugees and get them jobs. Look at where they are now because of us.
Amal sent me an email after this experience and said,
I saw the ego that we were talking about in the meeting today - in his words and in his body language. Both Jamilah and I reflected on the experience with the Neighboring group this morning and are thankful for people like you all.
Her message struck me with grief. These women do not deserve the indignity - whether intentional or not - of an encounter like this. Her message also struck me with this realization:
Detoxifying charity begins (and ends) with posture.
No matter how toxic or how responsible our model of ministry might be, if we carry ourselves in such a manner, we are doing more harm than good. Sure, a jobs placement initiative is better than handouts. But a posture that honors our success rather than the dignity and capacity of our neighbors has failed to detoxify the work.
If we want to begin the process of detoxifying charity in our church, organization, or personal lives, it will begin (and end) with postures of respect that promote mutual transformation.
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Shawn Duncan is the Co-Founder of EIRO, an organization helping churches partner with their communities in healthy ways. He is also one of the leaders of The Neighboring Initiative, a research groups creating resources for Christians who seek to be neighbors in economically and ethnically diverse contexts. Shawn administers the Charity Detox forum.