"The deepest level of poverty is to communicate to someone that they have nothing of value to offer you." -Dr. Robert Lupton
About eight years ago I had a very disturbing "aha!" moment. I was walking into a meeting at a partner church across town and in the lobby I saw a woman, baby on her hip, waiting to speak with a lay leader about financial assistance. Normally, this wouldn't have struck me as odd but this woman was not a stranger. She had been in my church office many times, meeting with our Benevolence Case Managers, as we talked and prayed and listened...and wrote her checks. As we caught each other's gaze she quickly looked away, a look of embarrassment on her face.
As I rushed to my meeting to discuss with others pastors the idea of working together to help the poor in our city, I was struck with the terrible irony that no matter how many tears we had poured out and how many groceries we had purchased, this woman was at yet another church waiting to be helped. She was a good, loving mother who wanted what was best for her kids. But she couldn't seem to get her head above water.
I realized I hadn't helped her at all. In fact, slowly creeping up on me like a chilling fog, was the thought that perhaps I had something to do with her not being able to move out of poverty. What was my role in keeping her locked in a cycle of hand-outs and helplessness? How did I participate in a system that required her to stay poor in order for my benevolence program to continue?
My wonderful friend and colleague, Wendy McCaig has a few things to say about this concept of toxic charity. She has immersed herself in a world that most of us have only dabbled in. Wendy is a friend of the poor, not just a program created to serve them.
Close your eyes, inhale deeply and count to ten.
Then open the ears of your heart and mind to take in her wisdom and experience and let it inspire and teach you.
Wendy, you were working in the corporate world and decided to make a life-shift and move into the world of Community Development. Can you tell us briefly, the circumstances surrounding that?
It was a journey over many years. I left the corporate world when my children were born. I became a Christian around that same time and began volunteering at a small church near our home. Before long, I was on staff at that church as a small group coordinator and that was the beginning of 10 years in leadership roles in local churches.
In 2001, my husband’s employer, Enron, went bankrupt and we came very close to losing our home. Thankfully he was offered a position in Richmond that included a corporate buy out of our home. I argued with God at length about this move. We made a deal. I would go if the move included the opportunity to go to seminary.
I entered Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond in 2003 but I never really felt like I fit in. I had no desire to go into a traditional pastor role, but I knew I was called into ministry. I had started a women’s ministry in my neighborhood that had grown into 9 small groups with over 100 women and girls involved. I loved working in my community and bringing people together from every faith tradition imaginable. It was my first experiment with community ministry and I was hooked.
While I was in seminary, I started reading about Dorothy Day who claimed that she had experienced Christ in the people she served through the Catholic worker movement. She claimed that Christ dwelt among the poor and in the margins of society. So, I started hanging out at homeless shelters and I discovered she was right. Some of the most spiritually enlightened people are among the most materially impoverished in our city. I saw Christ in some of the most mind blowing places and faces.
I got into community development because I got tired of seeing my homeless friends exit the shelters only to find themselves in some of our cities most distressed neighborhoods and then back on the streets in a relatively short amount of time. I realized that they are not bad people. They are good people trying to survive in toxic environments. I realized that the only way to truly change this cycle was to change the neighborhoods themselves.
When you decided that you wanted to make a difference with your life, in particular, with the poor, can you tell us what you believed about poor communities and your role in them? What shifted in your heart as you got closer to people who were different than you?
I have always been inspired by the dreams of my materially challenged friends. I started Embrace Richmond because one of my homeless friends wanted to help other homeless families. I loved her dream, her vision and her willingness to do whatever it took to make that dream come to life. She and I started what became the largest furniture bank on the eastern sea board. So from day one, I saw so much potential in people our society often only sees as “needy.” What has changed in me over the years is that little by little I am learning to get out of the way. I am learning how to lead by stepping back and it is one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
Can you tell us a specific story about a relationship that caused an "aha!" moment for you?
For three years, I tried to “help” a woman who as an addict. She would get clean and I would hire her to work with me. She would relapse and I would bail her out of jail. She would lose her housing and I would pay for her hotel room. She attempted suicide and I was in the psych ward with her. I thought if I just supported her enough, loved her enough, encouraged her enough, prayed for her enough that she would make it. After three years, three relapses, three jail terms and no sign of the pattern ending, I told God I was done with addicts. I finally admitted that I could not do for others what they are unwilling to do for themselves.
One week after me telling God that addicts were not welcome, God sent Charles Fitzgerald into my life. Charles lost 33 years of his life to drugs and alcohol. When I met him he had been clean about a year. My mind told me stay away, but the spirit told me that he was sent to be my helper. Once I finally admitted my own limitations and I let go, God sent the perfect person to work with those struggling with addition. Charles has been my partner in ministry for 5 years and he has saved me from myself more times than I can count. Charles is one of the best mentors I have ever met. He just completed his associates degree in human services and got his certificate in substance abuse counseling. He now has three houses and mentors men who are seeking to live clean and sober lives. From this experience, I learned to look around for the gifts in others and to admit my own limitations. Had I not had such a painful experience working with addicts, I would not have recognized what a gift Charles is. We make a pretty great team.
Can you talk a little bit about the difference between a "needs based" approach and an "asset based" approach? What is your experience with both?
When I was working with the homeless population, we operated out of a needs based approach. We met with families as they exited local shelters and helped them get their homes set up. I would work with dozens of families a month but only for a brief period of time. In 2008, we spun the furniture bank program off to a local shelter and we started
doing Community Development work in one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city, Hillside Court which is a public housing complex. I knew several families in the neighborhood because many of my homeless clients had been placed in the neighborhood. So, I just started visiting them and listening. I had a very small team working with me and we knew that the only way to bring about change was if the residents were engaged. So we would do prayer walks in the neighborhood 3 times a week with one question in mind, “Where is God at work?” As we walked and prayed, God started opening up doors to neighbors who cared and we started gathering with the residents on a weekly basis. Over the next five years we helped start nearly a dozen resident led initiatives and five years later handed over control of the development effort to a team of resident leaders. We then moved into a new neighborhood and started the process all over again.
What has been the most difficult part about doing ministry WITH people instead of FOR them? What has caused you personal pain in this process?
Letting go of control, letting things fall apart, accepting that things will often go badly, not achieving what I felt we would achieve in the time frame I expected. I am from a middle class community where things happen in a timely, planned, organized fashion. In lower income communities there is an entirely different sense of time, order and progress. Things I thought would take 2 months took 2 years. Things I thought were priorities were not priorities to the neighbors and thus they never got off the ground. Things I thought were less important ended up uniting the neighbors in ways I never dreamed. If you come to a community led meeting it would look unorganized and messy but somehow God has done amazing things in the midst of what looks like mass chaos. I am a process oriented person but my friends are far more relationally focused and I have learned that their way is not pretty but it is the better method for community building.
What can the average person do to begin to make their own shifts from needs based to asset based?
Listen to the dreams, hopes and desires of people. I often say my role is that of a “dream releaser.” I have helped start more than 20 resident led initiatives that are all now self-sustaining. Every one of them grew out of the dreams of one of the neighbors. We do a lot of dreaming at Embrace Richmond. Some dreams become realities very quickly and others take years. The fun part is going on the journey with each other and looking for glimpses of where God is working in and through us and our neighbors.
Are there any resources you can recommend that can help us continue to learn and wrestle with these ideas?
Bob Lupton’s book Toxic Charity is the first book I recommend to people. We have additional resources on the Embrace Richmond Resources Page.
I also have a blog series titled Nuts and Bolts that is for individuals just starting out in ABCD work. As wonderful as these resources are, I think the best way to learn to do community development is to do it in a learning community. I highly recommend that people find local groups who are seeking to do this work in their own city. Here in Richmond we started a learning cohort that is bringing together people who are just starting out in CCD work and it has been a very rich learning experience for all of us. Communities First Association is a network of ABCD trainers and coaches across the country.
was written for others who are seeking to experience the richness of the Christian tradition that is found in communion with the Holy Spirit through the practice of hospitality with the stranger.
You can follow Wendy on Twitter to get more of her awesomeness sent straight to your smart phone.