Posts Tagged ‘Dignity Serves’

For Me, It’s Personal

May 12, 2014

Medi[4]By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – God’s story in ours. God is writing a story upon our lives, which ultimately reveals His glory, through our hands, heart and feet, to give hope, love, opportunity and purpose – in other words, dignity.

So I was humbled when a young woman told me, “Thank you so much for sharing about the topic of racism. I have never heard a white male speak about this and it was so refreshing.”

I was recently privileged to speak to about 80 college students – many of them from African-American, Asian or Latino descent but a majority white. To Atlanta they came, from Ohio State, Miami University and James Madison, to serve through the Medici Project, as an alternative Spring Break destination.

In 90 minutes during my eight-year (and going strong) journey with God to do inner-city work, I shared with the students about what we do through the basics of Dignity Serves curriculum and my experiences loving people who live on the streets.

It was a natural fit with the students at Medici, a non-profit that educates young people about the economic oppression of inner-city neighborhoods. Exposure to the realities of poverty can tap a multitude of compassion and service, beyond religious and culture boundaries.

The students eagerly leaned it to listen as I told them my story, one that is continually shaped, transformed by those around me. How did God choose a white farm boy from Bumpville, Pa., and plop me in the middle of an economically oppressed neighborhood in Atlanta?

I told them about my family, about my debilitating burnout from ministry, my eye-opening exposure to injustice in our world. And then I told them about men and women, so very different from me, who mentored and shaped my life through Polis and Dignity Serves.

Then, in the midst of sharing, I felt the tug of the Spirit to tell share what I have been learning from my friends and mentors of color, their spoken words a canvass of impressions about what it’s like to be a minority in our world.

Racism and white privilege are deeply personal, because as I have witnessed firsthand the way our culture typically perceives certain people of color. And I am not just talking about the way one race perceives another race.

I shared the pain of being with a friend of color in a restaurant that was predominantly white. The penetrating and hateful glares he endured from other patrons seared my soul as well as his. And I am indebted to pastors, mentors, and leaders of color who have heightened my awareness of such everyday indignities.

It was at this point that students who were minorities began to nod and to shoot up their hands in agreement.

Afterward, when a female student approached me to share how “refreshing” she found my views, I responded that I was honored to speak out. I have learned so much from my neighbors, who are predominantly African-American. I told her that I am honestly a better person because I have learned from a different culture, to appreciate the dignity of all people that often goes overlooked.

Daily, I see people I love affected by a prevailing attitude of superiority. That condescension violates God’s basic commandment, and I grieve.

So I encourage people from the majority culture to listen, to embrace and then to speak out. Listen to people who are hurt. Embrace the pain and frustration. Speak out at the appropriate times, when the Holy Spirit prompts you.

Be emboldened to give voice to others, to treat everyone with respect.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer for Polis Institute. He and his wife Adrienne and their family live in South Atlanta. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

When We Lose Our Capacity to Receive …

March 24, 2014

angryman_Full

By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – In 2004 I went through a very bad experience with a church, and for the next few years I struggled through my insecurities about my broken ties with this church. I was an empty person who had found my sense of belonging and acceptance as a pastor. I thought I could solve my own issues through prayer and solitude with Jesus.

In 2008 I was sitting with a counselor friend named Amy. In conversation, she asked, “How are you doing?” Her question was an invitation to peer into my soul in a way that only a trained counselor could.

I immediately began to sweat and shake. I had been caught. She knew that something was not right with me, and I did not want to confess my need.

I had lost the capacity to receive because I thought I could solve my own problems, and I had assumed control.  Moreover, I did not want to relinquish control over my own ”issues.”

I observe this happening all the time with pastors and ministry leaders who are always considered “the answer people.” They are always in the position of helping, serving, giving. They give with little regard to themselves, and often find justification in such. I feel the tension in myself.

This can lead to burnout, a loss of capacity to receive.

Ministry itself can be addicting, because it often feeds something very dangerous in our souls.

Those of us in leadership in any context give and give and give, and at some point, we can lose our capacity to receive.

Receiving is hard, very hard. In American culture, we are typically defined by what we do, accomplish and achieve. Receiving is the antithesis of this. Receiving means that I need to ask for help to get something done. And most Americans don’t like to ask for help.

As Americans, we work for everything we get, right?

I would argue that we don’t want to ask for help because we honestly don’t believe that we are worth whatever someone wants to give us. Whenever someone pays us a compliment or gives us something nice, we hide our faces in shame, saying,  “If you only knew me and how bad I am.”

When you ponder our typical response, you encounter the heart of the gospel. Christ wants to give us good things in the midst of our brokenness.

This is one of the aspects of the parable of the Two Lost Sons in Luke 15 that I love. The younger son leaves home and destroys everything that the Father had given him.  He ends up sleeping with prostitutes. He decides to return home, not to be the son, but to be the servant who works to earn his goodness back.

 The father, however, not only embraces his returning son, but cloaks him with a robe, puts a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And then the father throws a party. Can you imagine what the younger son thinks as a party is thrown in his honor? He is probably thinking to himself, “Dad, I just wasted all of your money by partying and sleeping with prostitutes. I am not worthy of what you are doing.”

I can only imagine the father turning looking into his son’s eyes and saying, “Yes, you are. You are worth everything I am doing for you.”

Christ wants us to receive help.

Why? Because we are fundamentally worth whatever Christ wants to give us through other people. Christ is on our side. He honestly believes in our goodness when we come to him in repentance.

                                                                   *     *     *

My friend Amy and I met for two hours the next day, to begin to sort through some of my issues with God, church, and life.  For the first time, I began to experience Christ serve me as I began to learn what it means to receive. It was the beginning of a journey toward freedom. I am still on that journey today.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer for Polis Institute. He and his wife Adrienne and their family live in South Atlanta. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

Sitting With the ‘Other’

January 27, 2014

Cross-Cultural Relationship

By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – My life has been richly blessed by sitting and learning from the “other.”

Who is an “other”? I define it as a person from a different background or culture or race. A person who has a different way of seeing the world, sometimes with priorities that we don’t share.

In some contexts I am the “other,” and I hope and pray that I am a blessing to people with backgrounds different from my own.

I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by “other” people my entire life. A black pastor in Grand Rapids was very influential in my life. He spoke at our large white mega-church and took the time to share breakfast with me. An African-American professor and mentor graciously met with me monthly during seminary to discuss questions about race and ministry in low-income neighborhoods. Authors such as Soon-Chan-Rah, an Asian-American, challenged me profoundly. So, did Janice, a white lady who lives in the increasingly diverse Holden Heights neighborhood of Orlando.

So many good people in Atlanta have taught me so much and blessed me so richly.  In particular, there is Victor, who has become a good friend and partner in our ministry. Victor is black, and his experiences about race and racism in our culture have riveted me in many wonderful and rich conversations. He has pushed and guided me, and sometimes made me uncomfortable as a white male.

Victor’s rich life experiences are so different than mine. He grew up in low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland. I grew up on a farm in Bumpville, Pennsylvania. Although we have such different contexts and upbringings, we share a relationship of mutual trust and respect.

Why? Because we are committed to sit with each other. This typically occurs over lunch. In sitting together, we face each other and share not only our differences but also our commonalities.

This is why I think it’s important to pay attention with whom we sit.  If we spend time with only people just look like us, we reinforce our particular worldview, and there is no opportunity for reconciliation.

When we sit together, we talk and we listen to each other.

America is divided racially and culturally, and sometimes I fear the divide is growing even wider. What gives me hope is engaging in ongoing conversations where the “others” sit together.

When we make our assumptions about another culture or race in a vacuum, it’s dangerous. It is particularly dangerous to let “news” on TV define a whole culture or race.

This is why it is good to sit with each other. It allows us to begin a conversation with people. This is the starting point for reconciliation, for understanding and for friendship.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer for Polis Institute. He and his wife Adrienne and their family live in South Atlanta. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

Socks for the Sole, Listening for the Soul

December 25, 2013

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By Michael Joe Murphy

Stockings hung by the chimney with care … they’re not likely waiting for men, women and children who live on the streets. But gifts of clean, white socks provide comfort and warmth for the tired feet of the homeless who pound the pavement to get to anywhere they need to go.

Thank you, Scott Maxwell, for his Dec. 22  column in the Orlando Sentinel, “12 ways you can make a difference for area’s homeless.” The practical tips are holiday-themed but worth remembering 365 days a year.

Maxwell mentions keeping manna bags — filled with toiletry items and socks — in cars. I work in downtown Orlando. To his advice, I’ll add that there’s always room in backpacks, briefcases or purses for clean socks to give away.

Why white? They’re gender-neutral, good for men and women. Christmas is a prime time for sock drives, but the need is greatest during Central Florida’s rainy season. Even 90-second gully washers can mean wet feet. It’s easy to peel off wet socks and put on fresh ones after a downpour, especially when your best access to laundry is a sink in a public restroom. Clean socks are like gold.

My passion for socks and people who sleep under stars and in shelters was born during volunteering for a “listening ministry” for the homeless when I was out of work a few years ago.

This listening ministry is called Compassion Corner. It goes on at 425 N. Magnolia Ave., in the shadow of the Orange County Courthouse. There is a short video, “If I Hadn’t Met You,” about my fellow “listeners” and the people to whom we listened, and love. We dream that compassion corners spring up around the world.

When you listen, you learn. When you are willing to learn, you communicate respect. I’ve prayed for, and with, people in distress. More important, they’ve prayed for, and prayed over me.

One of the greatest joys is to affirm the dignity of people by listening to and talking with them about what they care about: the Orlando Magic, their children, favorite books and movies. By listening, you discover the gifts and talents that God has given them. You care about them and their stories. They care about you.

The people who live on Orlando’s streets will be there Christmas Day. If it’s not raining then, it might be the day after.

You never know who needs encouragement or a kind word or a pair of socks. Merry Christmas!

Michael Joe Murphy

Michael Joe Murphy

Michael Joe Murphy, a volunteer for the Polis Institute, can be reached at MichaelJoeMurphy@gmail.com. This commentary was originally published in the Orlando Sentinel http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/opinion/os-ed-homeless-socks-myword-122513-20131224,0,5134590.story.

 

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

 

I Stopped Going to Church

November 6, 2013

By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – Recently I had a conversation with a neighbor who lives on the streets in our community. I invited my friend to our church’s Sunday morning service.

He informed me that he had stopped going to church six years ago. He had grown weary of the politics and people looking down on him. So he stopped going.

I then told him that I had stopped going to church, too. He gave me a very curious look, as he knows that I am one of the pastors at the church in our community.

I shared with him that the version of church to which he was referring is most likely what many people call the “institutional” church. Such churches care more about their programs, their building and looking cool than they do about being a force for good in the specific community where they find themselves.

I am more interested in recruiting people into God’s kingdom than trying to fill the pews of our small urban church. I believe that if people see God’s kingdom, they will meet the master of the kingdom, Jesus. Then they will understand that Jesus has wired them to be in community around Him. And then ideally they will understand that for some reason this king has tasked the church to represent him here on Earth.

When I think of “church,” I think of a group of individuals called by Jesus to gather around the preaching of the word, taking the sacraments, share in community together, and moving out toward our neighbors. I think of people who I know and they know me, and the common bond we share in Christ. I think of people who know my junk and call me out on it. I think of people who know of the image of God that I bear and how God glories in me.

I rarely think of a building or even place. It’s not that I am against building or precise locations to worship, but we as North American Christians have grown too consumed with bricks and mortar and their upkeep. I believe that having an extremely nice place to meet unintentionally feeds a little bit of the need for control and security that so dominates American culture.

I was a part of a church for four years, which had what the pastors called “gray chairs.” These chairs were plastic and not very comfortable seats. The pastor continually reminded the congregation that the gray chairs served as reminders that the action was not “in the building,” in was out there beyond the four walls. The action was in the community, in the neighborhood, and among people experiencing distress.

Bob Lupton’s book “Toxic Charity” defines the difference between churches, which are “church-centric” versus “community-centric.” Church-centric congregations do everything to build themselves up. Community-centric congregations do everything for the benefit of their community. I personally believe effective loving on behalf of Jesus require both/and. A church must exist to benefit the neighborhood around it. If a church is doing its work properly, people will experience reconciliation through and in Christ and will be a part of the church.

So, I have stopped going to the institutional church and instead I gather with people who are committed to Christ, myself and loving our community in the best ways we know how. We are humbly learning what it means seek the good of our neighborhood through Christ. If our church were to move or stop meeting, I would want our neighborhood to grieve and plead with us not to abandon meeting and blessing this place. I would want our neighborhood to genuinely miss us because we no longer would be there.

I hope and pray that this becomes true of the church of North America. I hope and pray we all stop going to the institutional form of church and instead join God’s movement of called-out individuals to seek Christ’s kingdom here and now in order to bless the place we find ourselves in.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain and his family in Atlanta.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer for Polis Institute. He and his wife Adrienne and their family live in South Atlanta. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

A Trip to the Zoo

November 25, 2012

By Dan Crain

The evangelical church is waking up to the needs of the poor, and this is a very promising change. Since the early 1900s, during what church historians call the “Great Reversal,” mainline conservative churches have been wary of substantial involvement with the poor, or “getting their hands dirty.”

The Great Reversal was a pivotal point when conservative and liberal theology parted ways about church involvement in social action. Liberals sought to bring the Kingdom of God on Earth through social action. Conservatives recoiled at this new so-called “social gospel” and focused primarily on the world as a fallen place, and getting everyone out of this mess into heaven.

Until then, the church was active in taking care of the poor and vulnerable. In fact, as Rodney Stark writes in his book “The Early Rise of Christianity,” this was the primary path as the early church grew: Believers welcomed the poor and homeless into their midst. When plagues would sweep through cities, Christians were the ones who gave up their lives to save those afflicted.

In the past few decades, there has been resurgence within the conservative evangelical Church ranks to care for the poor.  Many have realized that the Gospel is not just spiritual or physical. It is both.

Unfortunately, the way many churches have responded causes more damage than helping. One such expert on alleviating poverty, Phil Hissom, commented that, in many ways, “The church is not a sleeping giant waking up, but rather a bull in a china cabinet.” Churches are serving the poor, but are doing so on their agenda. This breeds unintended consequences that separate the affluent from the poor.

A verse Polis references often is Proverbs 19:2, “Passion without knowledge is not good, how much more will hasty feet miss the way.”

We should applaud and affirm churches serving the needy. God is at work in people’s hearts in taking care and getting to know people in times of distress. But we need to do so in the best possible way.

Polis has a unique voice in this conversation, particularly though Dignity Serves. We are learning as we go along, allowing the poor to teach and mold us. We have discovered that the poor hold strong perceptions about outside churches and their ministries coming in to help. We have asked our friends in distress what they think.

Too often, churches ministering to the needy are amazed at what they see: the homeless who are starving for a meal, how many people show up to eat, or their children running around in diapers. Some Christians actually will invite others to see the poor people and how they live – in order to get a proper perspective on how much God has given them. This is a visit to the zoo gone horribly wrong. No one likes to be objectified, so why do we think people in poverty like to be?

Let me repeat:  We should affirm and applaud churches that step up to help the poor. But let’s remind our brethren not to miss a relationship built on giving and receiving. As Bob Lupton writes in his book “Toxic Charity”: “To be a recipient of charity is to sacrifice some of your human dignity.”

Let’s serve people in need but do so in the best possible way. Let’s be involved in their lives but make it clear that we are not there to “solve their issues” but to offer ourselves as friends. We cannot be for someone until we are with them.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer in South Atlanta for Polis Institute. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

A Day In The Life: 2 Worlds in Atlanta

September 23, 2012

By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – I really love what God has called us into. As many of you know, I am a pastor/trainer/neighbor, leading “the church” (people) into living a life of giving and receiving with everyone we interact with. Through joining, listening and living interdependently with residents of an at-risk community, I see the ways in which God is at work.

Here’s an example of a good day, in two worlds

I was working in the office space I rent from in our neighborhood. I grew hungry and decided to return home to grab a bite before  my next appointment.

As I pulled into our driveway, I noticed a neighbor I am getting to know as he sat next to the large oak tree. He lives in and watches the vacant homes in our neighborhood. He’s a watchdog so thieves don’t strip the homes of copper rain gutters and pipes. (There’s quite a market for copper, which people sell to survive).

The neighbor and I exchanged greetings as I walked into the house. But I wasn’t far beyond the threshold when I felt the Spirit tell me: “Go and share your lunch with him.” In the kitchen, I heated up lunch and walked outside with two full plates – not before my wife asked me, “What are you doing?”

We shared lunch together for 10 minutes, and we talked. He shared about his life and his periods of homelessness. But we also talked about family and his three daughters. Bob Lupton says, “A relationship built on need will always be pathological.” I tried not to focus his need, but to learn what he enjoys and is good at. A good friend said, “The closer we get to treating everyone as family, the closer we get to how Jesus wants us to serve people in need.”

I spoke to this neighbor about church, and I shared more than its location – I offered an invitation. As a Pastor in an under-served neighborhood, I can point people on the streets in the direction of the church. “Come, be a part of our community,” I say. Then I asked my neighbor how I could pray for him, and I told him how he could pray for me.

When we had finished, I hopped into my car and drove out of the neighborhood to one of the more affluent neighborhoods in Atlanta. I had an appointment with someone who is interested in becoming a trainer in our Dignity Serves curriculum.

We talked about the same subjects as I did with my homeless friend; struggles with life, family, living inter-dependently, and the huge potential God have placed in our lives. Both people in such different neighborhood circumstances have huge value and dignity. I am learning to appreciate both and have the same kinds of conversations with people regardless of their apparent need.

It was a good day in two worlds.

Dan and Adrienne Crain and their family. Since this photo, they've been blessed by the arrival of twins, Eden Violet Alliene and Isaac Levi Keith.

Dan and Adrienne Crain and their family. Since this photo, they’ve been blessed by the arrival of twins, Eden Violet Alliene and Isaac Levi Keith.

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer in South Atlanta for Polis Institute. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

Yeah, But This Is My Space

June 27, 2012

By Dan Crain

ATLANTA – There is a coffee shop in Atlanta that is extremely close to heaven on earth. It is situated beautifully on the Chattahoochee River.

Recently I decided to go there and to do some work. I got up early, and I was the first customer at 8 am. I strategically sat at on the corner of the deck, overlooking the river, trees and pool. Heaven had just come crashing to earth.

Except there was one problem. Another person decided to make the deck her personal workspace. She began making phone calls, and her voice was loud – so loud that it interrupted my concentration and work.

How could she barge in on what was my place?

I mean, I woke up early to get to this special place. It was my mine.

This happens all the time, right?

We show up and think that whatever we see is ours.

This has been happening throughout world history. The Romans showed up and thought everything was theirs. The Anglos showed up in what was called “The New World” and claimed this country as their own.

Northerners move to the South and think the “new” space is theirs.

People migrate from the suburbs to the city, thinking this urban area is “their” space, claiming it as “their” neighborhood. Eventually these new city dwellers push out the poor through a process called gentrification.

What happens when this occurs?

One person or people group is displaced. They lose their “home,” be it their dwellings or a neighborhood and its character.

This happens in the geographical and relational sense. We show up and tend to push people into what we want them to be, with little regard for their history or to what God has been doing in their lives.

We want to transform neighborhoods and old homes and longtime mom-and-pop businesses, to make them  respectable, neat and tidy. The root of this you ask? Control.

When I grew up with my four brothers and cousin in Bumpville, Pa., we used to frequent the Gorsline’s swimming pool, over the hill two miles away. We went there all the time. Sometimes we were the only ones there. You know what happened when we came over the crest of the hill and saw others in the pool? We were angry. Why? This was our pool. And why did we think it was our pool? Because we had spent the most time there, and now wanted to control it.

What we didn’t know or consider was that the pool – this spot – was never ours to begin with.

As we live in the City of Atlanta, we believe we are called to respect the people who were here long before we showed up.  We are called to listen extremely well these people as we also seek to follow what the spirit is asking us to do. We believe we are called to share this space with as many people as God brings along our path.

We are called to steward everything. We are called to love longtime residents, and to love the most vulnerable and marginalized among them.

This space was never ours. We are called to hold all that God has given us very loosely. After all,  it all belongs to Him.

Dan Crain and family

Dan Crain and family

Dan Crain is a liaison/trainer in South Atlanta for Polis Institute. He can be reached at dan@polisinstitute.org.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

Yield Your Right of Way, Leave the Rest to God

June 12, 2012

By Bill Behr

Regi Campbell is an Elder at Andy Stanley’s church in Alpharetta, Ga. (North Point Community Church).  Mr. Campbell’s blog, written specifically for men wanting to grow in their faith with Christ, is a favorite of mine, and his most recent blog, “The Thing vs. the Idea of the Thing,” had one statement that really hit me:

“(failed) expectations are premeditated resentments.”

Whoa! That is profound!  When I think about that, it has been often true in my life.  I have expectations for just about everything I do.

The resentment occurs when someone falls short of my expectations.

When I reflected back on my resentments and what I had been expecting, I realized that often my expectations came from my own selfish desires that I put ahead of others.  I was not patient enough to yield my desires to those of my neighbor’s.

Yes, there are reasonable and justifiable expectations.  But I am talking about the everyday decisions focus on my personal agenda.  How many resentments spring up each day because someone interrupted or interfered with my agenda?

Through God’s Word and through the teaching of Dignity Serves, I have learned that God created me, loves me and wants to me to share His love and grace with those who need it, especially the poor and forgotten who live among us.

God is the one who is changing my heart and challenging us all to yield our expectations to others every day.

As the Apostle Paul says in Philippians 2:3-5, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.”

Join me in the challenge to yield our interests to others. Watch God work in your life and in the lives of those you serve, by being the first to yield.

Bill Behr

Bill Behr

Bill Behr is the Associate Campus Minister of Summit @ 33rd St. and can be reached at bbehr@summitconnect.org. 

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-week course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.

Smart Aid: Asking Good Questions When Supporting A Cause

June 10, 2012

By Rebecca Lujan Loveless

If you know me at all, you will not be surprised that I am consistently tweeting, facebooking, blogging or just talking loudly in public about practices that might seem good on the surface but, when the curtain is pulled back, reveal something other.  This blog post is about that.

If you’re anything like me, even if it’s hidden deep within the recesses of your heart, you have a desire to make a difference in the world when it comes to those suffering under the weight of poverty.  I have chosen to make this quest a part of my daily life by choosing a career in which I research and apply best practices of healthy and effective ways to see that change occur. But I realize that this path is not for everyone, and I get that for most, helping the poor is a matter of discipline and sacrifice.

I have a friend who said to me, “I’m not like you.  The poor make me anxious and sad.”

In her honesty, even she tries, in her own way, to do her part to alleviate the burden of poverty.  So whether you sponsor a kid in Africa or volunteer a few times a year at a food pantry, most of us are at least thinking that we’d like to help.

So we pay attention to commercials, tweets, magazine articles, blogs or recommendations of friends who tout their organization of choice that is helping the poor.  From education to ending hunger, AIDS to malaria, homelessness to home repair, we are drawn to causes that stir our emotion.  More than that though, I’m convinced that unconsciously, we are drawn to causes that seem easy to fix.

The suffering of others makes us feel uncomfortable, so we race to fix it in ways that make sense to us: Buy a pair of shoes, and someone else’s kid will get a free pair.

 “Ahhh,” we sigh with relief, “I feel better knowing I did my part.”  But did we? Watch this video to see what I mean.

Recently, a friend of mine was tweeting about a popular web-based non-profit that is feverishly working to give away products, services and cash to those who need it.  I wanted to have an informed conversation with her about why she chose to support this particular organization, so I went to the website to read up.  I combed through every page, every emotionally stirring story, all the FAQ’s about how to give and how it works.

My hunch was that this organization hadn’t spent much time researching dignified ways of building relationships with giver and receiver.  I guessed that there was not a thorough process to truly understand the nature of the needs, and therefore truly understand the most effective sustainable solutions.

My hunch was right.  Nowhere on the website did it address reciprocity, giving and receiving, or HOW the organization approaches vetting the needs.  So I inquired.  I sent an email to “hello@such&such.org.”  Here is a sample of a few of the questions (I have changed some of the exact wording to keep the organization anonymous):

  • Can I have access to the system that you use to vet potential needs?
  • What standard/s do you use to understand the nature of the needs you meet?
  • Is there a way to follow up with the recipient after their need has been met?
  • Is there evidence to support that the $ raised is contributing to lasting transformation?  If so, what measurements are used to produce the evidence?
  • Is there a platform for relationships to be formed between giver and receiver?
  • What is expected of the receiver in the process?

After a month of not hearing back from anyone, I emailed it again, thinking perhaps it got lost out there in the interwebs.  Within an hour, I a got a response from the founder of the organization.

I will spare you the details of his snarky response, but let’s just say that he did not “have time or capacity to answer my questions” and was not at all thrilled that I was asking these questions in the first place.  After a few back and forth emails, he asked if we could speak over the phone.  We set up a time to talk.  He never called.

Unfortunately, this scenario is not unusual.  When I question the methods and philosophy of any giving organization, I am typically met with defensiveness, dismissive language and a general incredulity that I would question the integrity of the leader/founder/staff, etc.

I coach and consult non-profits toward dignified service that promotes healthy relationships between giver and receiver, and asking probing questions is a part of my nature. I wish more people would do a healthy examination of the organizations they support with their money, time or tweeting power.  It takes more time and effort up front, but perhaps if we all started doing it, organizations would be more intentional about educating themselves and others on the best ways to help the people that they feel called to help.

Blindly trusting that your money, time, skills, or tweeting power is automatically going to make a positive difference contributes to factors such as dependency, self-sufficiency, paternalism between the haves and have-nots and may, in fact, be making the plight of those you wish to help worse.

If you are squirming in your seat, feeling flushed and ready to fire off an email or message me – or better yet, post on my wall for all to see – just take a second to think about this.

I know you want to be a good steward of your resources.  I know that you care about others.  I also know that for the most part, you may not have spent a ton of time researching best practices of dignified service to the poor.  I have.

Believe me, I can speak with a deep conviction on this because I used to blindly support “good” causes, too.  I was addicted to the idea of giving and helping the poor and had no actual idea if my efforts were doing what I set out to do.

I will never forget the first time a beautiful Malawian woman point-blank told me that my giving demeaned and disempowered her and her people. It was shocking to me that my good intentions were not enough.  I am still learning, and my philosophies are fluid and still have plenty of growing space.

But what I do know is that asking good questions will lead to smarter aid.

I believe we can make a difference if we do it with wisdom and maturity.

Next time a cause catches your fancy, by all means, look in to it!  You are drawn to that cause for a reason.  But ask questions!

You can start by taking a look at the questions I posed above and revise them to fit the purposes of the cause you want to support.  Or create your own questions that will help you understand the “hows” and “whys” of what that organization does.

Tell your friends on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter all about the cause you are supporting.  Better yet, tell them how you vetted the organization so you can stand with confidence that you are partnering with a thoughtful, intelligent and dignified cause that empowers lasting change.

Here are a few more questions that might get you started:

  • Who is involved in the decision making process in your organization?
  • Does the recipient get a say in the how, when and where goods and services are distributed?
  • Are the solutions being applied from inside the problem or outside the problem?
  • Whose idea was this solution?
  • What will happen when my funds/time/skills have been applied?  What is the follow-up process?

There are many, many more questions.  If you work in the development arena, I’d love to hear your suggestions of other good questions to ask when seeking to support a cause. I’d love to hear the responses you get when you start asking.

Either way, may you feel empowered to know, truly know, that you are a part of something healthy and beautiful.

Happy Asking!

Rebecca Lujann Loveless is the executive director of Polis Institute. She can be reached at rebeccalujanloveless@gmail.com.

Consider signing up for Dignity Serves, a six-lesson course that helps you rethink the way we serve others in our community. It teaches you to see problems differently and respond in a way that empowers those you serve rather than just meeting their immediate needs.