Why Not Charity?


By Parrish W. Jones, Ph.D.
©2006. All rights reserved.

A friend has asked me to try to help her congregation to understand why some of our charity is simply not helpful. This question is not easy to answer because it asks good hearted people to think and act differently.

Most people, who attend churches or other places of worship, are motivated by their faith to respond with their resources to need they perceive in the world. This sentiment should be encouraged, not discouraged. However, I know few persons who wish to be spitting in the wind with their charity. I think that is the sense in which the pastor asked for this essay.

Most Americans, even our poorer neighbors, have stuff that has fallen into misuse. The stuff includes clothing, bedding, toys, tools, shoes, coats, and so forth. We are willing to run out and buy canned goods to send to those who have met with disaster. Our generosity to give and to give away is not a bad thing. However, what we send is often useless or burdensome.

Here are the reasons.

1. Transportation: It is often true that the cost of transporting our throw aways exceeds the cost of the items we cast off. A small box of goods can cost a great deal to ship to other parts of the world. The money spent on shipping can be spent in the target nation to purchase items that are necessary.

2. Need: Often the items we send are not necessary and, in some cases, not desirable. Canned goods are of little help to a person who has never opened a can of food or lacks a can opener to open the can. Most of the food we send is not common to the diets of the people. Americans have such a rich mix of foods available to us that we forget that most people in the world have never cooked anything other than the local diet. 

I know this sounds strange that hungry people would not eat something strange to them. However, that is not the issue. They do not know how to prepare it. It would be like us walking into a restaurant from India for the first time without someone to tell us what the foods are on the menu.

A better example may be this. I was the pastor of a small church which had been sending Thanksgiving and Christmas boxes to families who lacked adequate resources for dinners on those days. We had commonly sent frozen turkeys. The day after Thanksgiving one year, one of the recipients called to ask us to come get the turkey as she had no way of cooking it. Sadly, nobody was at the church and by Sunday it was too late. The season was warm, the turkey had thawed and spoiled. Why did it thaw? The recipient also lacked a refrigerator large enough for it. If that can happen in the U.S. right around the corner from us, what can we imagine the situation may be in Latin America, Africa or Asia?

Clothes are another matter. Most relief agencies find the outpouring of material simply overwhelming in a crisis. Sorting through boxes of clothing and shoes, coats and gloves, simply requires a host of personnel. Then the problem of getting those items to someone who needs them poses another incredible strategic problem.

The recovery boxes most of us have packed in our churches that were designed by Church World Services and other agencies are different. These boxes are packaged and stored and distributed in large quantities as they are needed. Hygiene and sanitation are always a problem for all of us, rich or poor. Therefore these boxes are almost always helpful. But notice, these are well thought out and designed to assure easy distribution and usefulness.

3. Local economies often crash in disaster and are more often fragile when things are good. That is especially true of the rural areas of Latin America, Africa, Asia, and even the U.S., where the poorest of the poor live. For many of these persons the economy is all local with little access to the outside world. However, many Latin American, African and Asian economies have been weakened by years of civil war. Most notable in our hemisphere are the economies of Central America. 

While war has been a major contributor to fragile economies, economic globalization has contributed more and will have a longer term effect. It is possible to argue that many civil wars are the result of economic globalization. Certainly, it has affected the economies of several previously affluent and competitive economies like those of Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina.

When we send massive material to these areas, it often harms the local economies and retards recovery. The economies need their products bought. Shop owners need groceries, clothes, and material bought in their stores, so they can purchase more to keep the national factories working and assure employment. 

Imagine if you were a local hardware store owner or even worked for one of the large hardware/building material companies and a flood devastated your area. Then suppose that the aid agencies help the persons affected by the tragedy by shipping in lumber, hardware, and tools for rebuilding from other areas of the country. What would happen to local business? Wouldn’t it be better for the local economy if your store could hire one of the devastated persons to work in the crunch of the crisis to provide the resources to recoup the losses their insurance did not cover so they could also purchase more from the local economy. Evidently, if subsidy was provided to the victims to purchase resources and labor in the local area, the local economy and life would rebound much quicker than an influx of material from elsewhere.

Charity, as commonly conceived, is not always expressed as it needs to be. We know this from experience. The Red Cross is always in need of donors. However, they have to scrounge to get enough on a regular basis. Yet, after the tragedy of September 11, they were overwhelmed by persons who wanted to give blood. The problem was that there was little additional call for blood from that tragedy.

Similarly, aid agencies were inundated by contributions of cash designated to victims of 9-11. Sadly, agencies of the church and other agencies are finding it difficult to faithfully use that money for 9-11 needs. That is partly due to the largesse of congress that passed huge relief bills for the same cause. The problem is that many local needs that were once met with little difficulty have gone lacking for funds because of the 9-11 outpouring. The on going needs of food banks, medical clinics, after school and early childhood programs, clothing closets, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens have been hampered because much of what was often given to them was diverted to 9-11. That, coupled with the down turn in the economy, partly attributed to 9-11, has caused charitable organizations to cut their programs thus hampering long term aid to the poorest at home and abroad.

I do not wish to suggest that people are bad for responding as they have. However, our Lord told us to be wise as foxes in our dealings with the world. Perhaps, we simply need to educate ourselves and our nation on the best ways to respond to crises. Aid agencies shy away from doing this work for fear of seeming ungrateful or condemning. Thus we need to take it on ourselves by asking first what kind of aid is needed before responding. Second, we need to give our money to disaster response agencies without specifying, thus not tying their hands. When a major tragedy occurs, it is natural for us to respond generously. However, let our generosity be in liberality so what we give may be used for some other cause should the most immediate cause not need all the resources.

Finally, charity is not a bandage for our soul. Charity should be our response to God’s charity to us in giving us salvation and the abundance we have. If God would not give us a serpent when we need a chicken for dinner, we should take care to give what is needed not something that may make the poorest of the poor even poorer.



© Parrish Jones 2012