Handouts Do Not Equal Social Justice

When I explain to people that I work in the inner city and have a call to social justice ministries, I always get stories back about how they know someone who runs a clothing closet, or about how they served in a soup kitchen one time or give money to people on the street.  I have nothing against acts of charity.  Charity is a good thing.  But charity is not the same as justice.

Several years ago the director of an urban retreat center clarified this for me, he said “Christian social teaching has two feet.  One is the foot of charity or kindness and the other is the foot of justice.  Charity says “That man is hungry.”, and feeds him.  Justice asks,  “Why is that man hungry?”, and works to insure that he will not go hungry in the future.  We need both feet moving alongside one another if we want to get anywhere.”

Somewhere along the way, modern Christians got the two mixed up and began to think they were the same thing.  Everywhere I go, I see churches that spend a tremendous amount of energy and resources on charitable acts like feeding programs, short term missions trips, and the collection of material items for those in need.  What these churches don’t see is that without someone addressing the justice side of the equation real change rarely happens. I have yet to meet a church that invests as much energy in social justice ministries as it does in charitable ministries.

As the founder what became the largest furniture bank on the eastern seaboard, I have a lot of experience with charity.  During the time I ran the furniture bank, we gave away thousands in furniture to hundreds of families.  However, once the families moved out of the shelter, they no longer had a support system and a large percentage lost their housing, lost the furniture, and went back on the street.  The charity foot moved forward, but the justice foot never budged.   The result is the person is right back where they started and in the mean time well meaning Christians have invested countless hours in collecting furnishings, I spent tens of  thousands of dollars transporting and storing the furniture, and only about half of my clients maintained housing for more than a few years.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity to go beyond charity with a number of families and I have walked in solidarity with them and in so doing have become an agent of social justice.  Not all of the individuals I have befriended in this way were able to maintain housing, but I know many would have been homeless again had we not been there to fight for justice for them.  In these cases, the charity and justice feet moved together and great things happened for those families.

I don’t think contemporary Christians really understand what “social justice” means.  I think that is why crazy people like Glen Beck can imply that people who call themselves social justice Christians are really a communist plot to take over the church and people believe him. I actually wonder if anyone really believes him or if they just find his ignorance entertaining?  I guess we can save that question for another post.

The all knowing Wikipedia defines social justice this way “Social justice generally refers to the idea of creating an egalitarian society or institution that is based on the principles of equality and solidarity, that understands and values human rights, and that recognizes the dignity of every human being. Egalitarianism is a trend of thought that favors equality of some sort. Its general premise is that people should be treated as equals on certain dimensions such as religiously, politically, economically, socially, or culturally.”

Not a great definition but fair enough.  I think the key here is that justice seeks to recognize human dignity in its approach and seeks to level the playing field so all have equal access to resources, it treats people as equals and requires solidarity.   When charity is not balanced by justice we can create systems that devalue the human being by creating dependency.  That is not justice!

In creating a just system, those who believe in social justice are not proposing that the poor get more handouts.  That would be an unjust system where some work and some don’t.  A just system would insure that all have the ability to get a job, receive a fair wage, and pay their own way.  Those who are able to work and choose not to, should not be allowed to become dependent on the charity of others.  Charity should be reserved for those who due to their circumstances are unable to provide for themselves such as individuals who are disabled, temporarily out of work, mentally handicapped, children, or elderly.

The key to insuring a hungry man is not hungry tomorrow or a homeless woman is not homeless tomorrow lies in their ability to gain employment.  However, helping individuals with barriers to employment find employment is not easy and that is what makes the system unjust.  The poor have a harder time accessing jobs because they do not have equal access to education, cars, computers, stable housing, or phones.  Navigating these barriers requires help from others.  Thus the need for who are willing to walk in solidarity with those who are suffering. Christians who will treat their new friend with dignity and as an equal.  It requires people to fight against discrimination and unfair hiring practices.  In other words, it requires Christians who are willing to seek justice and not just give handouts.  It requires Christians who are in it for the long-haul and who are not just looking for a quick feel good experience.

This month, we are launching our Just Works mentoring program for those who are seeking employment in our communities of Hillside and Fairfield court.  We need dedicated mature people who are available during regular business hours to come and meet our friends, hear their stories, and walk in solidarity with them as they navigate through the employment maze.  Most of our urban friends are not computer savvy.  Most do not have cars, computers, and many do not have phones.  They need a link to the outside world and we are looking for volunteers to serve as that link.

Are you willing to go beyond handouts and advocate for justice by helping people find jobs?  You will not be alone.  We do all our work in a team approach and will provide training, support and guidance for all volunteers. If you are interested in learning more, please email me at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

The rest of you who work full-time jobs or who live outside of Richmond are not off the hook.

What ways do you see in your own community or with your time limitations for going beyond charity and pursuing social justice?


Filed under missional church, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

14 responses to “Handouts Do Not Equal Social Justice

  1. As I was reading this, I thought about the comments I get from people who, like you say, hear “social justice” and think “handout,” and it’s probably fair to say that the same people also think that people already have equal opportunity. They simply don’t see the disadvantage that some have and unfair (mis)distribution of resources.

    • I even had one gentleman say the following during a conversation about justice: “I just don’t want us to tax citizens to give it to the poor.”

      Note the distinction he drew between “citizens” and “the poor.”

      • Jenn

        I’m not sure he truly meant to draw a distinction between “citizen” and “poor”. I believe that the person you were speaking to did not draw a distinction between the two, but was rather emphasizing that he did not want taxes to be used for “charity”.

        It is quite evident that the private sector, especially the church, does a much better job of helping those in need than the government. Unfortunately, the government has taken over so many of the jobs that the church and private citizens once did. The education system is one evidence of this truth. While you believe that not everyone has the same educational opportunities (thus you must believe that education is not in their own hands), I believe education has nothing to do with money and opportunity, but with self-motivation and determination. Many Presidents of the U.S. were poor, even indentured servents, and educated themselves.

        I do not believe you can achieve this “social justice” on a global level, as Jesus tells us the poor will always be with us, but your goal is what I believe “charity” should be. If we are to help others, we should certainly be focused on long term help vs. short term. Though, there are times when being merciful to others is a charitable giving which does not achieve helping the person on a long term basis, but it may achieve something different (like showing a person the love of Christ). So even though not all charity is going to help achieve this long term goal, it should certainly be a priority.

  2. wmccaig

    Interesting distinction between “citizen” and “poor.” I have heard people say “tax paying citizen” and “poor” and in a way implying that those who do not pay taxes are somehow not citizens. Some people don’t say it so bluntly but there is a more subtle way of saying “us” and “them.” I think we have been raised in these kind of dualistic ways of thinking and it is a hard shift to a paradigm of “we.” I know I struggle with this. I don’t think it is intentionally meant to divide but it does have the effect.

    Jenn – on the issue of education. I agree in theory that youth raised in the inner city can break out of generational poverty through education if they have a strong determination to do so but I also think they face barriers that other youth from middle class families do not face. Just simple things like access to computers in the home can give an advantage to one child over another. My daughters are in high school specialty programs that are going to give them an advantage when applying to college. They were able to apply for those programs because my husband and I committed to driving them there, helped them with their applications, took them to the interviews and knew how to coach them for the interviews. Not all young people have family members willing to make that kind of investment in their futures. We actually have families discouraging their young people from going to college because the family needs them to work. I am not saying it can not be done but for these young people to succeed they need a support network and the family is not always able to fill that role. That is true for both low income as well as middle income families but it seems that those who themselves were not highly educated have a harder time helping their children navigate the system of high education.

  3. Jenn, I’m aware of what he thought he was saying, but you don’t say it that way without some sort of subconscious separation working.

    When the government “takes over jobs” that were once solely in the private sector, it is often because the private sector did not serve all people due to socio-economics, religion, and other factors. I would love to hear how you think private education, with its exorbitant fees, serves all people better than public education.

    You said that education “has nothing to do with money and opportunity, but with self-motivation and determination.” Really” NOTHING to do with money and opportunity? What about access to resources, support systems, etc.? I strongly encourage you to talk more with people like Wendy who work with the poor day in and day out, because even though “the sky’s the limit” sounds romantic and American, it’s just not reality.

    With respect to charity: if I’m hungry, I don’t care who feeds me, be it the government, the church, or Santa Claus. Likewise, if you care about justice, you don’t care so much about who’s doing it as long as it happens.

  4. anewcreation

    Dear Wendy,

    Please forgive me for using this comment space to send you a message, but as you do not follow me on Twitter I couldn’t send you a direct message.

    I said to you recently that I was going to purchase your book. I now have it and have just finished the first chapter. It is amazing how I recognize myself so much in the beginning of your journey and where I am heading. I am so excited to continue reading your testimony and about your ministry. I just know God has placed you in my path and that you are going to be a true inspiration in my life.

    Thank you for sharing of where you are today and how you got there. It fills me with hope and encouragement. Isn’t it amazing how God directs our steps, even as we think we know better?

    God bless you

    Mercedes in the UK

    • wmccaig

      Hi Mercedes,

      I am glad you are enjoying the book. I am sorry that I am a lousy twitter person. I do much better with facebook. I have tried to figure twitter out and have failed miserably.

      Wish you lived closer so we could do lunch. Thank you also for your words of encouragement. This kind of ministry is kind of ministry is not for everyone but for those of us called to ministry outside the church walls it sure is nice to find a kindred soul.
      Blessings, Wendy

      • anewcreation

        I have so much to say to you. I too wished we lived closer. But who knows, maybe one day we will meet. I continue to read your book and as I do the hairs on my arm stand as I feel as if I was reading an account of my own journey in so many respects.

        I will keep in touch!


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  8. Bon

    congratulations for the good work you are doing out there.Is there a way a poor fellow hungry for education can be assisted pursue his dreams?Please answer.

  9. Vickie

    I was raised in a very conservative family that was among the financially “very comfortable” (at least that is how my parents described our situation to me). This all changed 6 days after I graduated from high school when my father died suddenly.

    I am now a single mother of two, and I am disabled. Oh, and I am most definitely not conservative. 🙂 “The Right” hate people like me, and I am perfectly fine with that.

    I have been homeless, during my divorce I lived on the couches of friends and when a couch could not be located I lived in my car. As a result of the housing issue, my health took a significant turn for the worse and this has resulted in me being permanently “disabled” (but I am able to work and I have a full time job, with the ADA and an employer that is willing to provide accommodations).

    Those who say that it is a matter of determination and desire are living with their heads in the clouds, to put it bluntly. If you are worried about putting food in your mouth (notice I didn’t say “on the table” because tables for some are a luxury item) something like an education and arranging for a future that you can’t even be sure will happen is not all that important. The “founding fathers” came from a very different time when social mobility was as different as clothings fashions of the 1770s and 2010s. This was also a growing country with a growing economy and even a person that never graduated from an accredited university could become president. Can you imagine if someone with no college degree (no matter how “self educated” they are) tried to run for president in 2012? They would be laughed off the stage!

    I only managed to pull myself out of poverty as a result of a death in the family that provided me with the ability to purchase a car that will get me to and from my job reliably and make a substantial down payment on a house that costs me less than rent at the housing project that me and my children managed to escape from (and I do not use the term “escape” lightly!) I had to make the more than 60% down payment on my house in order to qualify for the loan-and this was in 2006! I was able to purchase a tiny house in a school system with excellent schools, which has helped me to provide my children with some educational opportunities that will make a difference for their lives. This is not the result of determination, and it is not the result of adequate desire providing me with these, my grandfather died and I was one of his beneficiaries.

    I still struggle a lot, I am currently seeking a new job because of some issues that I am having with accommodations for my disability. Filing with the EEOC, yeah, but what about after that? These folks are humans, after all and can anyone reasonably expect that there will not be retaliation, even unconscious retaliation? I will always be the girl that made the complaint against the company and brought outsiders in for an investigation. I can be as determined as I want to be, but without adequate support systems, I could very easily and quickly slip right back.

    Wendy, I have never really thought of charity and social justice, perhaps that is a bad thing, I don’t know. I am on the board of a non profit organization that works to break down barriers for disabled people and perhaps that would qualify as working toward social justice. I am not really in a position that I can do much charity, I am still in more of a position to be a grateful recipient of charity than a provider of charity. Perhaps my having a friend of mine and her children move into my home because she is in need would qualify for that, but it is a friend and she is in need and I have something that I can provide to help (a little space in my house-admittedly it is not much and it is going to be tight with 7 people 3 dogs and 4 cats living in a 3 bedroom one bathroom house, but it is better than a car!)

    I appreciate this post, as something that everyone needs to consider and understand, and the work that you are doing to help people in your corner of the country to address all of the needs that people have. I particularly liked the point that people need to be “are in it for the long-haul and who are not just looking for a quick feel good experience.” It is nice to teach children charity by heading to the soup kitchen to hand out food, collecting canned food or coats and putting it in a box, etc, and it is great to have that feel good, but it is only part of what is needed and if you don’t understand that, then you just don’t get it.

  10. wmccaig

    Thanks Vickie for sharing your story. I do think there are a lot of people with their head in the clouds as you noted. I am even there sometimes my self. A friend of mine posted a link showing the income levels of congress and that was very telling. It is very hard for those who have never struggled financially or for those who do not know anyone who struggles financially at the levels you noted to really understand how hard it is for people to break out of poverty. I really appreciate you sharing from your perspective. I pray others will read your story and come down out of the clouds at least a little.

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