April 30, 2024

From the Rector…

In the summer of 2006, I spent a week in Taizé, France where I met a young Swiss woman whom I would often chat with in the afternoons. During one of our conversations, she asked me how we could have let all those people die of exposure on the overpasses around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The question took me off guard. I couldn’t decide if the “we” she was talking about was Americans in general, our government, or Christians—but the question made me feel personally responsible. I don’t really remember what I told her in response to this question of responsibility for the lives of those who died after Katrina. I feel sure it was some well-meaning response that redirected responsibility from me to the systems and institutions that direct social welfare in America, but I have been plagued by it ever since. 

That conversation wasn’t the first time I questioned our system of social welfare, but it was the first time someone questioned me about it—as if I had any personal responsibility in the whole thing. Growing up in Selma, I had participated in a variety of outreach activities—from mission trips to volunteering and everything in between—and never noticed any real significant change. I became a social worker and saw first-hand the needs and struggles of people in their daily life. I worked with churches and government institutions alike to try and effect positive change, but my efforts never seemed fully realized. This only encouraged me to try harder, to live into the system of outreach and giving, never realizing that my helping might actually be harming. And then I read When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity and I discovered a whole new perspective on what it might actually mean to give.

Jesus tells us to feed the hungry, care for the widow, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned. He affirms our responsibility for those who are less fortunate than ourselves in Matthew 26:11 saying to his disciples that we will always have the poor with us. There is no doubt that as Christians we bear responsibility for those on the margins—the poor and disenfranchised—but have our efforts at institutional charity perpetuated the situation of the poor and, at the same time, released us from any true personal obligation to help those in need much less grow in intentional relationship with them?

Books like Toxic Charity look at how outreach efforts have not contributed to long term economic, social, political, or medical health in the world. They encourage us to take some time and money to investigate what gains may have been realized through our charitable efforts and to discern if our efforts are aimed more at making us feel better about ourselves or impacting the world. They invite us to reconsider how we are doing our work of mission and outreach simply by asking the question, “Will the consequences of our assistance help or harm those who receive it?” The answer will never be simple and is only further complicated by our colonial mindset and Christian guilt. But it is an important question as we are committed to the reconciling work of Jesus.

This month we begin some intentional discernment around mission and outreach at the church of the Ascension. In large part that seems the next natural step in determining our efforts and the future around Joshua House but it cannot solely focus on how we will utilize Joshua House. Mission and outreach are a complex and multivalent understanding of our identity at CoA, it requires a consistent and healthy approach across all missional avenues. From our Outreach Grants programs to our new In-gathering Initiatives to ADS to volunteer driven activities like New Beginnings, Beans and Rice, and our Food Box ministries—these offerings combined with usage of our buildings and our future efforts to do the work Christ calls us to in caring for our neighbors will only benefit from our willingness to engage in the hard conversations setting our own beliefs and ideations aside to embrace truths we may or may not wish to explore. 

To that end, I hope and encourage you to attend one of our two mini sessions on Tuesday, April 30 or May 14 to offer your reflections on the book Toxic Charity or commit to our two-part book study and discussion on May 1st and 8th. Our purpose is to begin a conversation within the parish as a way forward in working toward mission that matters. I look forward to seeing you at one of our sessions and hearing your take on the book.

Light and Life,