Tough questions and inspiring stories from Atlanta
With characteristic charm, vivid story-telling and words erring on the prophetic, Robert Lupton welcomed us to Atlanta and quickly oriented us to the central concern for this gathering of urban ministry practitioners: to address the “toxic charity” which has tainted the efforts of countless churches and ministries who seek to address poverty alleviation. Is it possible that much of our giving and helping has actually deepened poverty? Lupton provocatively asked. This question frames in much of the thinking in his recent book by the same title and set the stage for our visit to Atlanta. Our group of eight – including SOS Academy interns and one Binghampton Development Corporation (BDC) intern – made the MEM to ATL journey for the bi-annual two-day open house at Focused Community Strategies (FCS) Urban Ministries in order to learn from the wisdom, experience and strategies of FCS as they partner with God’s movement among the materially poor. We sat among nearly 100 practitioners from around the country who sense the need to continue to improve our practices of implementing Biblical justice for the poor.
In its 35th year, FCS began when Lupton’s family moved into a marginalized neighborhood of south Atlanta. Motivated by John Perkins, a father of Christian Community Development, Lupton saw great injustice in his own city and chose the less traveled path to participate with God in bringing shalom in inner city Atlanta. Today, FCS is partnering with its sixth neighborhood (where they’ve been invited) in Historic South Atlanta. After such a tenure in a variety of neighborhoods, one can imagine they have made many mistakes along the way and have much to offer as we pursue wise community development practices here in our own city.
Over the course of our brief visit to two inner city neighborhoods where FCS partners, we wrestled with themes and questions such as:
- How our charity can unintentionally create adversarial relationships with those we seek to serve
- How our charity can extract a heavy toll (i.e. dignity) from those who are the objects of our charity
- The unintended long-term effects of one-way charity which fosters disempowerment, entitlement and dependency
- The need for a “Hippocratic Oath” for those who seek to help the materially poor, which includes commitments such as “Never do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves” and “Above all, to the best of my ability, I will do no harm.”
- The reality that you can’t “serve” a community out of poverty; rather a community needs jobs and economic development
- The absence of sermons and discipleship in our churches which encourage, equip and envision those who are gifted at entrepreneurship and wealth generation
- The degree to which wealth is an overlooked factor in propagating shalom in broken neighborhoods
- What does a flourishing neighborhood actually look like? Have we diligently defined that in our ministry?
- Do we speak with the neighborhood and community in our ministry, or do we presume to speak for them?
On our final day, FCS took the theory and made it tangible as we sat in a variety of workshops where local practitioners shared stories, failures and successes related to:
- The innovative work and ministry of Urban Recipe - a food co-op which acts an alternative to the traditional food pantry
- The inspiring history of the much acclaimed “Moving in the Spirit”, an enrichment program for urban youth using dance, movement and communication, as shared by Chris McCord, a former student and now staff director of Men in Motion.
- The challenges of being an intentional neighbor in a marginalized neighborhood, as shared by two moms who work with FCS
Our two days in Atlanta left our young group with more questions than answers, but encouraged and catalyzed us to persevere as we partner with God’s work among the materially poor here in Memphis!