I was invited last week to join some colleagues at Episcopal Relief and Development as they hosted a luncheon for priests at endowed parishes.  I was invited in part as a thank you for my collaboration with them in preparing their new youth curriculum, Act Out.  In the course of the lunch, a priest told of one of his parishioners who had decided to leave a large bequest to another aid organization.  He asked, what is so special about Episcopal Relief and Development?  What is the compelling evidence to give to them instead? (I’ve heard the same question asked to me many times here at ELCA World Hunger.)

My colleague was put in a rather tough position.  He has a vested interest so it was  not as if he could speak as an objective observer.  His response was to defer to the bishop of the diocese of Chicago, who replied along the lines of, “Hey, if your parishioner wants to be generous like that, who am I to poo poo his Christian charity?” (My apologies for the crude paraphrase.)

I was not happy with this response.  (I let everyone at the lunch know this–and I will say, it is not every day you get to publicly disagree with the bishop!)  For one, supporting the work of your denomination’s anti-hunger program is a powerful public witness.   Your church’s work in the world sends a clear message about its priorities, and gives it credibility when it speaks publicly about justice related issues.  The bigger issue for me, however, is that wanting to do good is simply not enough.  Unlike the bishop, I will poo poo Christian charity if it is not accompanied by rigorous critical self evaluation (the bishop told me afterward I should submit my resume to the Gates Foundation… I thought it was a nice, subtle brush back).

There are many organizations out there that have fine anti-hunger ideals but in practice exacerbate hunger and poverty.  As one stellar blogger wrote, “A good cause is not the same as a good program.”  That same blogger recounts the following examples:

Think of the well-meaning missionaries whose desire to “save” children from post-earthquake Haiti almost resulted in loving parents and their children being permanently separated.

Or the recent effort by World Vision to send 100,000 misprinted Super Bowl champion t-shirts to people in the third world, improving their own overhead ratios by claiming the value of these gifts-in-kind as program expenses, while in reality sending goods that are readily available even to poor people in the target geographies, widely accepted by the aid community as having the effect of undermining local businesses and creating a culture of dependency, and otherwise causing harm to the very communities they purport to help.

Or consider the Battered Mother’s Resource Fund that never actually implemented any programs it was fundraising for and potentially scared women away from seeking help by falsely claiming that many shelters separate mothers from their children. It was also proposing a children’s ranch that experts said would do great psychological harm to kids if it were ever built. Despite the fact that it was ordered to shut down by the Attorney General, this organization still has a profile on Change.org, with 30 well-intentioned supporters. I bet those supporters read the mission statement and said “that’s a worthy cause.”

To these examples I would add those meal packing programs that may make the donor feel good and scratch that charitable Christian itch, but are also incredibly costly, both in dollars and on the environment.   And in the end, they flood the local market with imported food that otherwise could have been grown and sold to benefit local farmers.

So the take away?  An act of charity is not an end in and of itself.  We need to use that buzz we get from acting charitably to motivate us to do things that truly effect change in the world.  Otherwise it is just a narcissistic will to power.  If we are serious about our Christian call to seek justice we have to be a bit more rigorous in our decision making, especially around giving.  This means doing research and holding organizations accountable.

Thoughts?  I’d love to hear them!

David Creech