Toxic Food Boxes

First Posted 16-Jan-2015

2-Feb-2016, Richmond, Va.—It’s a bit curious to be editing this a year after I first posted it. At the time I wrote it I was a month into another job search. As was true last year I was one of those without an income and struggling to find ways to afford myself. It hadn’t yet been a year since I’d moved to my house. The memory of being homeless still loomed. What an awful fear, to have gotten this house and so soon lose it. All those who gave money, time & furniture to helping me make it a home. All that gone. I’ve been in my house for 15 months now. I found a job last May that paid double what I usually make. I finished out the year making significantly more than I averaged annually over the last seven years. I still fear the street. I am encouraged that maybe I can rest in my success and build on it.

Pestele, simbol crestinI read Robert Lupton’s “Toxic Charity” last summer. I’ve taken Lupton’s message to heart. I get it that folk want to help, want to relieve a bit of the misery of some through direct giving of boxes of food. I’ve wanted to do that also. Also, it’s not always a bad thing to give a box of food. It can be helpful.

However . . . I’m after the sick symbiotic relationship that can pervert good intentions and take an act of mercy and turn it into something hurtful. The sort of thing that has 10,000 people show up at the Richmond Convention Center for a Thanksgiving meal every year. The sort of short term missions which stops at giving a box of food, giving a fish. No doubt, some of them wouldn’t eat if there was no meal being served by local charities at the Convention Center today. Still, because of Lupton’s words, I wonder how many of them forgo doing for themselves because there is a free meal to be had. Along with the food boxes we need folk living among those they intend to serve and learning what the gifts are, what ways we can partner with our new neighbors to improve the economy of the neighborhood and create jobs.

As Lupton says, this isn’t a one weekend project. It’s a 10 year plan. You have to invest in the long game. I agree with Lupton and Dr. Moyo (Dead Aid, 2009) that this is the better answer to serving a community. The act that prompted this is a completely benign donation of a box of food to my neighbor. He needs it. He needed a fish. He knows how to fish but lately has had trouble fishing. The sort of longer term project of finding a more stable career for him will happen. But today, a box of food is about right. It’s not an “or”. It’s not give a fish or teach to fish. It’s go fishing and sometimes, give a fish because the fish in the river chose not to be caught. For Lupton, it’s work with the neighbors on buying the pond. My neighbor and I will keep going on the 10 year plan to make a difference here. And probably, he’ll get more donated food. That makes this an “and” instead of a false dichotomy of whether to give a fish or not.

That’s what I said last year. I came home from my driving job last December. I started my job search drill. I had a little money saved. I applied for Unemployment as per usual. Things looked difficult but I’d been through worse. Then my former employer said to the Employment Development Department that I’d been let go for malfeasance. Now, my usual source of income while I looked for work was gone. I had all the bills that come with living in a home and no income. Ruh roh.

It’s been scarier. It has been a scary couple months. My church stepped up and paid my bills for the last couple months. I found a friend whose car broke down and I’ve been giving him rides to work for gas money. I made it. In December I made noise about continuing the Dave Ramsey thing. Today, I have a few dollars cash to spend, I’ve started paying my pledge to the church for 2016, and set aside some cash in an envelope for an emergency fund. This is a break in pattern for me. My usual practice is to indulge in some sort of FUB spending and cry louder about how scary my finances are.

While on the road and making all that money I got to watch my life with double the money. Yes, I tried to do the right thing. At one point I had almost two grand in my money market checking account. Then I relapsed. I bought a printer. That was the first thing. Then the October trip home where I flew my son to Richmond and bought more stuff I’d wanted. All those fine words about living poor when I’m doing well became bumpkiss. I have more cash in the house than in the bank.

Some twelve step cliché’s: it works when you work it. Nothing changes if nothing changes. One day at a time. I have a spending problem, not a revenue problem. Like many addicts, I am really good at words. I promise a lot. The measure of my words is how I deliver on what I say. It’s 10:43am. I haven’t been out of the house to spend money. I still have the cash I’ve set aside. It’s been a couple weeks since I’ve spent money FUB-ishly. One day at a time.

The key takeaways I got from Lupton a year on are that we should focus on funding gifts instead of needs, that we should think in terms of the long game, part of any investment is visible progress on the part of our clients on clearing up their hurts, habits and hangups, and it has to be driven by the client, not by us. Another twelve step thing: we can’t help those who haven’t admitted being powerless. Ouch. Mea culpa. 10:47am. So far, so good.

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