Note: Bob Lupton, a long-time friend of my wife’s family, founded Focused COMMUNITY Strategies over thirty years ago by moving his young family into inner-city Atlanta. He is the author of TOXIC CHARITY: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It). I thought the following, from his monthly URBAN PERSPECTIVES update, would edify you in this giving season. Reprinted by permission.
I can’t remember when Mary Phillips came to live with us. Somewhere along the journey of my father’s itinerant pastorates, Mary had attached to our family. She was like a live-in grandmother to me. I called her MeMe (a name that stuck with her the rest of her life). I remember watching out our front window for her to get off the evening bus. When I saw her coming I would run to the door to meet her, get my big hug, and wait expectantly for my “surprise.” MeMe always brought some little treat home to me. She would reach into her coat pocket and, glancing around to be sure no one else would see, slip me some little trinket or stick of gum or piece of candy, pretending that no one else in the world knew. It was our special secret.
I remember like it was yesterday (though I was only four) the day MeMe stopped giving me those daily surprises. I had run to the door to greet her as I always did, got my hug, and waited expectantly to see what she had brought for me. But for some reason on that particular day she had nothing in her pocket for me. I immediately threw a temper tantrum, creating quite an ugly, tearful scene. MeMe was obviously distressed by my behavior and vowed that she was not going to bring me any more surprises. I assumed, of course, that this was her way warning me to control such outbursts in the future. But the following day when she arrived home from work, her pockets contained no treats. The next day was the same. And the next. Her daily surprises never did resume. It wasn’t until many years later that I understood why she had so abruptly stopped her daily treats.
Seven decades later, the painful lesson I learned from MeMe’s decision remains vivid in my mind. It has sensitized me to the ways joyful giving can turn ugly when it becomes an expectation. I saw it happening in our inner-city ministry at Christmas time. We received many offers of food, clothes and toys from caring friends around the city who wanted to share their abundance. I asked Zack, an emerging young community leader, if he would assume responsibility for identifying needy neighbors and distributing the donations to them. He accepted the role with eagerness. The first year was an absolute delight as Zack delivered unexpected blessings to struggling families. He felt like Santa Claus, spreading joy and good cheer. The second year, instead of receiving joyful greetings from families, Zack felt pressure from recipients for specific gifts and special favors. His enthusiasm diminished. By year three, Zack was ready to quit. Recipients grumbled about their lack of choices, made accusations of favoritism and claimed priority rights based on their longevity in the program. What began as a joyful sharing of unexpected gifts had turned into a litany of entitlement.
MeMe and Zack figured out what it takes charities and churches much longer to learn. Giving turns toxic when the recipient comes to expect it. Gratitude turns into presumption. And the benefactor, with all good intentions, ends up creating unhealthy dependency—the very thing benevolence hopes to abate. But there is a corrective to this dilemma. Reciprocal exchange.
We discovered it when we opened the Christmas Store. When a customer and a merchant meet at the bargaining table, each brings something of value to exchange. Both stand to gain in the transaction. Parents find bargains; FCS generates needed revenue. Jobless neighbors are hired; the store gains a workforce. Both enter the exchange with worth; both exit with dignity. That’s why we named our Christmas Store promotion “Pride for Parents.”
Reciprocal exchange. It is a fundamental principle of healthy relationships. It assumes that everyone has something of value to bring to the table. The responsibility, then, of stewards of resources is to develop those systems that create the opportunity for fair and authentic exchange.