The Stoned Guy and the Police Officer

When I woke up today, thinking about getting ready to serve breakfast tomorrow morning, I had a knot in my stomach.  Last Monday was not pretty.  When I got there at 7:15am, there was a guy behind the tables where the volunteers are, a very tight space, as there is a concrete bench right behind the tables.  Two members of our Monday breakfast crew were looking over their shoulders nervously.  I got out of the car and several people came running over for a hug, and to help me unload.  In a couple of minutes, I was able to get over there and I asked the guy to come out from behind the table.  He immediately became belligerent.  It was very difficult to understand what he was saying – he was stoned out of his mind and making very little sense.  As we were serving, the guy got worse.  Only once or twice have I ever felt threatened downtown, but this time, I did.  I finally told him I would call the police, to which he responded with more yelling, mostly about not caring if I called the police.  So I asked my friend Judy to please call, so I could keep an eye on this guy.

As soon as it became clear that the police were on the way, this young man made himself scarce, which was helpful.  It’s difficult to have something like that going on when 10 other people are trying to talk to you all at once.  About that time, a middle-aged woman who lives outside and looked as if she had had zero sleep, came over to tell me, “Man, it’s bad out here right now.  Look!”  And she rolled up her sleeves and pants legs to show me her bruises.  She said, “Everybody’s getting beat up.  It’s bad, really bad.”  Then several other people came to echo what she had said.

When the police officer arrived, he introduced himself as a Corporal.  I am not going to use his name, because I did not ask if I could quote him.  He was very polite, and asked what was going on.  I told him about the guy who was, at that point, nowhere to be seen.  As I was talking to him, two women came to wait their turn to talk to him.  One was the woman who had shown me her bruises.   The other was a woman who has been in full-blown psychosis for several months.  She speaks in sentence fragments without taking a breath in-between. The officer handled it extremely well, listening to her for probably 10-15 minutes before I managed to get over there and rescue him – a necessity with her, or he could have been there all day.

I then had a conversation with the officer, telling him that things seem to be particularly violent right now downtown, and sharing that several people had told me that today.  He said, “Oh, boy!  We know!  You’re right.”  We chatted a couple of minutes, and I told him I appreciate the service that he provides for our community.  When I said that, the officer shook his head and looked at the ground.  I asked if he saw the editorial piece “Let’s not paint police with a broad brush” I wrote in the News and Record last week that talked about the police department.  He looked me in the eye, saying, “Ms. Murphy, I don’t read the “News and Record” anymore.  They don’t say anything but bad stuff about our department.  It seems like they have it in for us.  I just can’t understand it.  The officers who have done bad things are only a tiny fraction of us, but in the paper, it looks like it’s everybody.  I just can’t read it anymore.”

My heart sank.  I said, “Corporal ____, I hope you’ll look up that article.  Not everyone feels that way.  There are plenty of people who appreciate the valuable work that you do.  Plenty.”

About that time, our stoned-out-of-his-mind friend came walking up, apologizing to me for his belligerence.  He had a bandage on his hand and asked the police officer to call an ambulance for him.  The officer also handled this guy extremely well, and when I told him a few minutes later that this was the guy I called about, he responded, “Well, at least he apologized.”

A lot was going on, the ambulance coming, lots of people talking, etc, but as I he was leaving, the officer looked back over his shoulder at me, and said, “Thank you, Ms. Murphy.  I’m going to find that article.”  And he smiled.

So… two things:

One, things cannot go on like they are with folks living outside.  We keep doing the same thing, and expecting different results.  One of our volunteers quit this week, and another one told me after breakfast that she felt threatened.  Folks with substance abuse issues (read: opioid epidemic) and mental illness need major help from our community.  We have got to move this buggy forward.  People are getting hurt.  And dying.

Two, please make sure you personally acknowledge the good work our law enforcement folks are doing.  Write a letter to the editor of the “News and Record.”  Stop and thank police officers when you see them.  Don’t wait for someone else to do it.  Remember, this community belongs to every one of us and we are responsible for what’s going on.  You and me.


Update to The Little Green Book and The Little Blue Book

The next official update and semi-annual printing of each book will be in October. But… since one of the Friday night meals and three of the Sunday night meals are no longer served, and lots of folks are asking to print the files, I thought an in-between update would be helpful.  It is sooo not okay for folks to walk to a meal or pantry location and go away empty-handed.  Here are the updated files:

The Little Green Book 07-12-2017

The Little Blue Book 07-12-2017



Murderer in the Breakfast Line

The alarm went off today at 5am, just like every Monday.  I rolled out of bed, happy to have the two new coolers I bought yesterday – they’ll help keep 100 pieces of chicken hot – but sad knowing what I would have to announce today.  I put the first two pans of chicken in the oven, followed by the second two pans around 6:15, then hopped in the shower.  When I got out of the shower, there was a voicemail from my friend, Rock.

I hit “call back” and waited for him to answer.

Rock: “Hello?”

Me: “Hey, my friend, this is Amy.”

Rock: “Who?”

Me: “The Chicken Lady.”

Rock: “Oh!  Hey, Miss Amy.”

Me: “Rock, I am so sorry.  I don’t know what to say to you.”

A minute of silence, then Rock, in a clear voice: “Ms. Betty said you wanted to know about the funeral  arrangements for my son.”

Me: “Yes, I’d like to make an announcement at breakfast this morning.”

Rock: “The funeral will be today at 1:00, then there will be a memorial service from 5-7pm on Wednesday at the IRC.  The funeral will be at Lowe’s Funeral Home in Burlington.  We had the wake last night.”

Me: “I am so sorry, Rock.  Are you makin’ it okay?”

Rock: “Yeah, I’m just sittin’ here, lookin’ through all the sympathy cards.  I can’t believe how many people love me.  And how many people loved him.  It’s amazin’!”

Me: “Yes, they do love you. We all do.”

Rock: “And I’m goin’ to work.  My bossman keeps tellin’ me to go home, but I need to stay busy.  I have to.  Keeps my mind off of things.”

Me:  “Sounds like a good idea right now.  Sounds like you’re taking care of yourself.  Good.  Remember all those people who love you.  And I’m sure a bunch of us will see you today and Wednesday.”

Rock: “Okay, Ms. Amy.”

Me: “I better get this chicken downtown.  I’ll see you Wednesday.”

Rock: “Okay, sounds good.”

Me: “I love you.”

Rock: “Love you too.”

And we hang up.

Rock’s son was killed last Wednesday, shot on Gate City Boulevard, close to the Greensboro Urban Ministry, where everyone gathers to eat lunch.  According to the News and Record, his son did not have a permanent address.  Rock is housed and has a job, and has been a guest at Monday breakfast for years – and for the last two years or so, has helped serve.  He calls out numbers, and grinning, says to me almost every week, “I’ll call out the numbers today. It’s my yob.”  The “y” is not a typo.  Rock is funny, but not today.  The shooter is still on the lam.

I load up the coolers full of hot chicken, get in the car, and take off downtown around 7am.  When I drive up, there is Thomas, my friend, the self-professed HIV/AIDS activist, waving his arms in my usual parking space, grinning from ear-to-ear with his flame red hair and beard.  He’s a great guy, and is a speaker everywhere about his life as “a former crack addict who has had HIV, Hepatitis C and genital herpes for 20+ years.” Awesome Thomas, I love this man.

Once we are ready to serve, I make the announcement about Rock’s son.  Sorrow in so many faces.   So many.   And tears, some of them mine.  A man volunteers to pray, and he does, beautifully and from his heart.

Since Rock is not there, I call out the numbers today.  As I’m hugging folks when I call their numbers, a couple of people tell me they need to talk with me once I’m finished serving.  Another guy is stoned out of his mind and is behaving very erratically.  A friend who has HIV (he shall remain nameless) is still talking about getting surgery that he needs and I encourage him to go and see his caseworker.  He says he will, but that’s what he always says.

The line finishes and I grab some coffee.  The first guy who said he wanted to talk to me comes over.  He is dressed in a uniform and I ask if he just got off work.  He says, “No, I’m going to work.”  I ask where and he responds, “K&W.  I’m working there, but not sure if I’ll be able to keep my hours.  There’s somebody on sick leave and they may be able to come back.  I need some help – I may be outside again for the winter.  I need a tent and blankets.  Can you help me?”  I tell him I don’t have tents and blankets, but give him the name of someone I know who does.  He thanks me, and now my friend, Gaither, is waiting to talk to me.

Gaither: “Hey, you got a minute?”

Me: “Sure.”

Gaither:  “Did you hear about the man who was stabbed in front of the courthouse last week?  That was me.”

My mouth hangs open.

Gaither: “Yeah, it was me.”  He shakes his head.

Me: “You were stabbed?”

Gaither: “Yeah, five times, once in the side – he nicked my heart, once in the neck, once in the finger because I was trying to get the knife away from him, once in the back, and once here, “ pointing to his side.

I can still hardly speak.

Me: “What happened? Who did this? Did they get the guy?”

Gaither: “Yeah, they got him.  It was a guy who’s been coming through your breakfast line for a few weeks now.  He just got out of prison.  He had been camping over near where my friend and I do, and he didn’t like us.  He had said he was going to kill me, but I didn’t take him seriously.  I know now I should have.  I was just sitting there in front of the courthouse, cleaning out by backpack, so I had all my stuff strewn out.  I noticed he was looking at me, but I wasn’t really paying attention.  Next thing I knew, he started stabbing me. “ He points again to the wound on his side. “They sewed this one up and put staples in my neck.”  Gaither is wearing a hood – it was chilly this morning – and I notice his jaw and neck are swollen.  “Yeah, he left me for dead, just laying there in a pool of blood.  I stopped remembering at some point, ’cause when I woke up, somebody was telling me not to get up.  So somebody came and called the police.  When I woke up, the fire department was there, already rinsing the blood off the concrete slab.  I guess I almost bled out.”

Me, speechless for a while, finally: “And they got the guy?”

Gaither: “Yeah, they got him.  It wasn’t very hard.  He was covered in blood.  I’m glad they got him.”

Me:  “Yeah, me too.  He belongs in prison. “

Gaither: “Yeah, he’ll be charged with attempted murder.”

And we talked for a while more.

Gaither: “Pray for me, okay?   Can you pray for me?”

Me: “Yes, I will pray for you.  And I’ll see you next week.  Love you, friend.”

Gaither: “Love you too.  Stay safe.”

And he walks away.

I get in the car and call my friend, Shirley, “The Coffee Lady,” as our friends call her.  I tell her about the conversation.  And then I take a long walk, thinking and thinking.

So that brings us to right now.  And here’s what I have to say:

What in the world are we thinking?  Who do you know that does not deserve to be safe? What about the man who serves food and washes dishes in restaurants like K&W, where hundreds of people dine every week?  Just because you messed up at some point in your life, or you have a substance abuse issue, or you are not socially or mentally capable of getting your own housing, do you deserve to not be able to lock your door and sleep in a safe place?

When I was on the trail, I was thinking about Woogamonster, my twelve pound dog.  A pair of large owls have moved into the neighborhood and I won’t let him go outside alone at night now.  I couldn’t help but see the contrast.  Safety.

There has been a person capable of murder, the heinous act of stabbing Gaither multiple times, coming through our breakfast line on Monday mornings for the last few weeks.  And the other folks in line sleep outside, unsafe and exposed, every night.  I can’t wrap my head around that.  I just can’t.

Y’all, if we think it’s less costly to put people in the hospital, the revolving doors of the jails and prisons, and all the other services that are needed for folks dealing with homelessness, we are simply not thinking.

This is the United States of America.  We can afford to house every man, woman and child in this country.  So far, we haven’t had the will to do it as a nation.  But we could do it as a city.  Would I be willing to pay more taxes?  Yes, I would.  Would you?  Will you contact your City Councilman and ask them to figure out a way now to house people who are dealing with homelessness?

Locations of the Little Green and Blue Books April 2017


Books may be picked up from any of the following locations:

Alamance Presbyterian Church 4000 Presbyterian Rd
Alcohol and Drug Services of Guilford County 301 East Washington St
Beloved Community Center 417 Arlington St
Bessemer United Methodist Church 3015 East Bessemer Ave
Blessed Table 3210 B Summit Ave
Bread of Life Food Pantry 1606 Phillips Ave
Cedar Grove Tabernacle of Praise 612 Norwalk St
Celia Phelps Memorial United Methodist 3709 Groometown Rd
Center for New North Carolinians 915 West Lee St
City of Greensboro 300 West Washington St
Community Health and Wellness 201 Wendover Ave East
Cone Center for Children 301 East Wendover Ave, Suite 100
Cone Internal Medicine Center 1200 N. Elm
Cone Urgent Care 1123 North Church St
Department of Social Services 1203 Maple St
Ebenezer Baptist Church 2700 West Vandalia Rd
Faith Action International 705 North Greene St
Faithworks Ministries 3304 Spring Garden St
First Lutheran Church 3600 West Friendly Ave
First Presbyterian 617 North Elm St
Friendly Avenue Church of Christ 5101 W Friendly Ave
Goodwill Industries, JOTO 1235 S. Eugene St
Grace Community Church 643 West Lee St
Grace United Methodist Church 438 West Friendly Ave
Greensboro Central Library Church Street
Greensboro Chamber of Commerce 342 North Elm St
Greensboro Christian Church 3232 Yanceyville St
Greensboro Housing Authority 1306 East Lee St.
Greensboro Housing Coalition 122 North Elm St, Suite 4
Greensboro Police Department 320 Federal Place
Greensboro Public Library 219 North Church St
Greensboro Urban Ministry 305 West Lee St
Groometown United Methodist Church 5005 Groometown Rd
Guilford Baptist Church 5904 West Market St
Guilford Child Development 1200 Arlington St
Guilford County Food Pantry 202 Franklin Blvd
Guilford County Health Department 1100 Wendover Ave East
Guilford County Schools 2500 Lees Chapel  Road
Interactive Resource Center 407 East Washington St
Jewish Family Services 5509 C West Friendly Ave
Lawndale Baptist Church 3505 Lawndale Dr
Lutheran Church of Our Father 3304 Groometown Rd
Mary’s House 520 Guilford Ave
Monarch 201 North Eugene St
Montagnard Dega Association 611 Summit Ave #10
Mount Zion Baptist Church 1301 Alamance Church Rd
Moye’s Barber Shop 629 MLK Drive
Muirs Chapel United Methodist Church 314 Muirs Chapel Rd
NC African Services Coalition 122 North Elm St
New Covenant Christian Center 1305 Ball St
New Zion Missionary Baptist Church 1310 MLK Dr
Northside Baptist Church 1100 East Cornwallis
Nu-Life Church 209 West Florida St
One Step Further 623 Eugene Ct
Partners Ending Homelessness 1500 Yanceyville St
Pathways 3517 North Church St
PDY&F Food Pantry 1523 Barto Place
Planned Parenthood 1704 Battleground Ave
Reading Connections 122 North Elm St
Red Cross 1501 Yanceyville St
Salvation Army 1311 S. Eugene St
Sanctuary Deliverance Church 3631 Summit Ave
Senior Resources of Guilford County 301 East Washington St
Servant Center 1312 Lexington Ave
St. James Baptist Church 536 West Florida St
St. Matthews United Methodist Church 600 East Florida St
St. Paul Baptist Church 1309 Larkin St
St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church 2715 Horsepen Creek Rd
Triad Adult and Pediatric Medicine 1002 South Eugene St
Triad Clinical Trials 515 College Rd #15
Triad Health Project 801 Summit Ave
Trinity AME Zion Church 631 East Florida St
United Way 1500 Yanceyville St
United Youth Care Foundation 1207 4th St
US Probation Officers 101 South Edgeworth St
Vandalia Presbyterian Church 101 West Vandalia Rd
Women’s Resource Center 628 Summit Ave
Youth Focus 301 East Washington St
YWCA Family Shelter 1807 Wendover Ave East

The next round will be in October, 2017.  Hopefully all locations will have enough to last until then!

April Edition of Little Green and Blue Books

The fifth edition of “The Little Green Book” and the fourth edition of “The Little Blue Book” are ready to roll!  Links are below (click on the link, which takes you to the page, then click on the link again to open the book), and of course, anyone can print them.  I am expecting the big truck with 20,000 copies of each on April 7th.  I’ll get them to the Greensboro Urban Ministry, Department of Social Services, the Guilford County Health Department and the IRC immediately – I know some locations are currently out.  They should be delivered to all 82 locations by mid-April and I’ll post that list as soon as deliveries are complete.

Bottomless thanks to Greensboro Urban Ministry, Cone Health and United Healthcare for continuing to foot the printing bill!  It could not be done without their help.

The Little Green Book April 2017 Edition

The Little Blue Book April 2017 Edition

3 TVs and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America

Yesterday around noon, I met a woman who was going to sing at a funeral later in the afternoon.  I asked who had passed.  She said, kind of matter-of-factly, “It was my friend’s son.  He was shot.  We have a lot of killin’s round here.”  She lives roughly 15 miles from my house.

Today I stopped by my friend Neng’s place. (You might remember him, the Montagnard refugee who lived in the woods for seven years, and sometimes had to eat squirrels and birds.) I was bringing Neng some hot peppers, donated by my friend Lawrence. I knocked, and when he opened the door, he said, “No food ma’am! Need go bank. Food stamps no work. Two weeks.” We drove over to Compare Foods, at the corner of Summit and Bessemer.  Neng likes to go into the store and shop alone, so I sat in the car.

As I looked around, it didn’t look anything like the parking lot of The Fresh Market on New Garden, where I got my strawberries on sale this weekend.  The parking lot of Compare Foods was a literal sea of poverty.  It was about 5:30 pm, so lots of folks coming and going. Broken down, old cars, ragged clothes, even the way people walked… so different, more stooped, somehow.  Defeated.

To begin to understand, take a look at this New York Times article on poverty – published 4 days ago. Heartbreak.  These are the people I saw today at Compare Foods.  And they are the woman in whose neighborhood “There are a lot of killin’s.”

3 TVs and No Food: Growing Up Poor in America

Remember the words to the old Elvis Presley song, “In the Ghetto?”  Ringing in my ears.

My Confession

A few words from “The Limits of Charity,” by David Hilfiker, included below:

“Charity is necessary, but especially when extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are receivers, charity “acts out” inequality.”

I read this piece (included below) late last night, just before going to sleep.  Today I awoke in tears. Tears of shame, tears that it took me so long to understand.  Tears of fear that even now, when I speak, I don’t articulate what I’ve learned well enough to inch anything forward.  David Hilfiker’s words speak my confession: that I too, have offered charity, and have done precious little to work for justice.

I am asking you to please take ten minutes to read his words, the words of a doctor who has worked with folks living in poverty since 1983.  In a way, these are also the words of his confession.  As well as his call to action.

The Limits of Charity** by David Hilfiker

The words of the prophet Micah are familiar:

What does the Lord require of you?
To act justly,
to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God, (6:8)
But what if our love of mercy chokes out our ability to act justly?

Since 1983, I have worked as a doctor with poor people in the inner city of Washington, D.C. I began at Community of Hope Health Services, a small church-sponsored clinic, and at Christ House, a thirty-fourbed medical recovery shelter for homeless men. In 1990, I founded Joseph’s House, a ten-bed community for homeless men with AIDS where I work now. I intend to continue working there. But I’ve been having misgivings.

I have begun to see some “side effects” to the kind of work I do, and they concern the important difference between justice and charity. Justice has to do with fairness, with what people deserve. It results from social structures that guarantee moral rights. Charity has to do with benevolence or generosity. It results from people’s good will and can be withdrawn whenever they choose.

To put the question most bluntly: Do our works of charity impede the realization of justice in our society?

This is not a question of our personal commitment to justice. Throughout all of my years in Washington, I have yearned for justice and felt ready to sacrifice for it. I have hoped that my work brings attention to the plight of the poor and thus contributes to justice.

What I actually do, however, is offer help to poor people. Though I believe God calls me to do this, I could leave at any time. The poor people I have served over the past seventeen years have had no “right” to what I was giving them. While I believe in justice for the poor and in challenging the structures of our society that deprive them of that justice, in fact I have offered charity.

My overall concern is this: Charitable endeavors such as Joseph’s House serve to relieve the pressure for more fundamental societal changes. In her book Sweet Charity, sociologist Janet Poppendieck writes that charity acts as “a sort of a ‘moral safety valve”; it reduces the discomfort evoked by visible destitution in our midst by creating the illusion of effective action and offering us myriad ways of participating in it. It creates a culture of charity that normalizes destitution and legitimates personal generosity as a response to [injustice].”

I was reminded of this recently when I attended a Walk for the Homeless in Washington, one of those many good and important efforts to raise money for Joseph’s House and similar organizations. Before we began to walk, a nationally known sports star gave a little pep talk, exhorting the walkers to “go out and do your part to end homelessness.” I have nothing against the walk, and I suspect the sports star did not really intend the implication, but walking five kilometers on a beautiful Saturday morning is not “doing your part to end homelessness.”

Something similar happens at Joseph’s House itself. How many of our contributors and volunteers end up feeling that their participation with us fulfills their responsibilities to the poor? It will not be a conscious thought, of course. But you come down and volunteer for a while, or you write a check, and it feels good. Perhaps you develop a close relationship with a formerly homeless man with AIDS, and you realize your common humanity. You feel a real satisfaction in that. You bring your children. But in the process you risk forgetting what a scandal it is that Joseph’s House or your local soup kitchen is needed in the first place, forgetting that it is no coincidence that your new friend is black, poor, illiterate, and unskilled. It is easy to lose an appropriate sense of outrage.

Several factors to consider: [The following section in italics has been edited significantly. It contains the initial thoughts and many of the words of David Hilfiker. But many sentences have been summarized, reworded or deleted. For the full, unedited article, see: Michael Smith 8/19/2014]

  • Places like Joseph’s House may give voters and policy makers the impression that the problem is being taken care of. A little publicity may create the illusion that the issue of AIDS and homelessness has been addressed.
  • It is the same with soup kitchens and shelters. They started as emergency responses to terrible problems–to help ensure that people do not starve or die from the elements. No one ever considered these services as permanent solutions. But soup kitchens and food pantries are now our standard response to hunger; cities see shelters as adequate housing for the homeless. Our shelters can divert attention from the fact that everyone has a right to decent housing. Our soup kitchens can mask the reality that everyone has a right to eat.
  • While we do charity, we also need to engage in advocacy to change the systems. But who has time for that demanding work? It takes lots of “people power” to run non-profits like Joseph’s House: board members, staff, and volunteers. Even those who understand that charity does not create a just society have little time or energy left for advocacy work.
  • And, the work of advocacy is less rewarding than day-to-day contact with needy people. It is less direct. As an advocate, the change I see may come slowly. Because direct service is more appealing, the desperately needed work of advocacy is often left undone.
  • A more subtle problem is that many social ministries may unwittingly contribute to the perception that governmental programs for the poor are inefficient and wasteful, and are better “privatized.” The last twenty years have seen a harsh turn against government. People in our society who oppose justice for the poor have used the inevitable organizational problems within some government programs to harshly judge any kind of governmental action. They point to the “efficiency” of nonprofit organizations.
  • It is not surprising that most nonprofits can do things with relatively little money. Volunteered hours, donated goods, low or non-existent salaries, and space donated by churches are the norm for many. Government programs do not get enormous infusions of free time and materials, so of course they are more expensive than ours. But “expensive” is different from “inefficient.”
  • Only the government–that is, “we the people,” acting in concert locally, state-wide, or nationally– can guarantee rights, can create or oversee programs that assure everyone adequate access to what they need. Only government can establish the policies by which business, nonprofit and faith communities can work together to resolve social problems. Government is often the best convener for those collaborative conversations.
  • Rebecca Blank was a government economist during the Bush administration and author of It Takes A Nation, an excellent, balanced look at U.S. poverty. She points out that if we asked churches to pay the costs of only three government programs–welfare for families, disability payments for the poor, and food stamps–every single church, synagogue, mosque, and other religious congregation would have to come up with $300,000 a year. Add in Medicaid, and the need for additional funding more than doubles!
  • Charity is necessary, but especially when extended long-term, it undermines human dignity. It wounds the self-worth of its recipients. Because some are givers and others are receivers, charity “acts out” inequality. Poppendieck writes that charity excuses the recipient from the usual socially required obligation to repay, which means sacrificing some piece of that person’s dignity.

Our charitable works simply cannot provide care for all who need these services. Yet our projects can give the illusion that charity is the solution.

I am not, of course, suggesting that we abandon charity. As an adjunct to justice, charity is both necessary in our current situation and a requirement of our faith. But we must acknowledge the broader implications of our charity and recognize that it alone is not enough. That done, we need to start thinking about ways for our charitable organizations to support those who work for justice.

Our promotional materials, for example, must at least refer to systemic factors, recognizing that charity is not the solution.

We must be careful about comparing our work to, or even alluding to, the “inefficiency” of government programs.

We must offer our volunteers reading materials, seminars, and discussion opportunities about the systemic issues. By putting themselves into face-to-face contact with the poor, they have taken an important first step. We need to encourage them to continue the journey.

We must include education as part of our mission. This can mean talking about larger issues in our newsletters and donor appeals. Perhaps it will result in a few people dropping their financial support, but that is the type of risk our organizations need to take.

We must engage in political advocacy. By law, tax-exempt organizations are able to use portions of their budget for advocacy. What if every social ministry dedicated 5 percent of its budget to advocacy, freeing up time for staff to preach sermons, to speak on justice issues in small groups at our churches, to testify before government commissions, to write letters to their newspaper, to call or write our elected representatives?

We must get behind the effort to drastically change campaign financing. Though barred from supporting individual candidates, nonprofits can use this election year to emphasize that the United States will not be an effective democracy until the enormous influence of money on government decisions is reduced. “We the people” currently have little power to persuade our representatives to vote for justice.

Working for justice is messier and far less rewarding than charity. There are no quick fixes, and the most common reason for quitting is discouragement. But we have little choice. Within an unjust society, there are limitations to our charity; we need to join others in the struggle for justice as well. It is a fundamental requirement of our faith.


**This piece is adapted from an abbreviated version of an article that first appeared under the title ”When Charity Chokes Justice” in The Other Side in the September-October, 2000 issue on pp 10 and following. © David Hilfiker 2000.


Post Note: In a June 2013 Bread for the World meeting in Washington, DC, Bread board member, Sharon Thornberry summarized well how these issues impact hunger in the United States: Rather than working to change the complex web of factors that perpetuate hunger and poverty, we have developed a parallel and second-class food distribution system that rivals the size and complexity of the retail food industry. This system also has the effect of subsidizing the profitability of many employers who pay their workers such low wages that they cannot afford to feed their families. Those employees thus are dependent on assistance from government and volunteer programs. We have chosen charity over justice. And yet we have the power to create a more just society.