Bob Lupton is one of the “wise men” of the generosity movement. His books Theirs Is The Kingdom and especially Toxic Charity have become modern classics. They taught many what it means to help the poor and encourage human flourishing and to do so in ways that are both effective and thoroughly biblical.
That’s why I was taken by a recent story Lupton told on the blog of the ministry he founded, Atlanta-based FCS Ministries.
“I can’t remember when Mary Phillips came to live with us,” he writes. “Somewhere along the journey of my father’s itinerant pastorates, Mary had attached to our family. She was like a live-in grandmother to me. I called her MeMe.” Lupton said MeMe would go off to work every day, but would return home with a hug and a “surprise,” a “trinket or a stick of gum or a piece of candy.”
Then, one day, when Lupton was only four years old, “MeMe stopped giving me those daily surprises.”
Lupton said, “I had run to the door to greet her as I always did, got my hug, and waited expectantly to see what she had brought for me. But for some reason on that particular day she had nothing in her pocket for me. I immediately threw a temper tantrum, creating quite an ugly, tearful scene. MeMe was obviously distressed by my behavior and vowed that she was not going to bring me any more surprises. I assumed, of course, that this was her way of warning me to control such outbursts in the future. But the following day, when she arrived home from work, her pockets contained no treats. The next day was the same. And the next. Her daily surprises never did resume.”
That experience, Lupton said, “sensitized me to the ways joyful giving can turn ugly when it becomes an expectation.” Further, he said, “I saw it happening in our inner-city ministry at Christmas time. We received many offers of food, clothes and toys from caring friends around the city who wanted to share their abundance.” Lupton and FCS doled the gifts out like Santa Claus. The first year, he said, recipients received the “unexpected blessings” with delight. “The second year,” he said, “instead of receiving joyful greetings from families,” his ministry “felt pressure from recipients for specific gifts and special favors.” By year three, “recipients grumbled about their lack of choices, made accusations of favoritism and claimed priority rights based on their longevity in the program. What began as a joyful sharing of unexpected gifts had turned into a litany of entitlement.”
That’s when Pride for Parents was born. Pride for Parents is based on the principle of “reciprocal exchange.” Lupton explains: “Giving turns toxic when the recipient comes to expect it. Gratitude turns into presumption. And the benefactor, with all good intentions, ends up creating unhealthy dependency – the very thing benevolence hopes to abate.”
Pride for Parents is, essentially, a pop-up store built around the Christmas season. Donated toys and clothes are sold, not given away, but at significantly reduced prices. If a parent has no money, that parent can work at the store or bring something else of value to barter. “When a customer and a merchant meet at the bargaining table,” Lupton said, “each brings something of value to exchange. Both stand to gain in the transaction. Parents find bargains; FCS generates needed revenue. Jobless neighbors are hired; the store gains a workforce. Both enter the exchange with worth; both exit with dignity.”
According to the FCS website, “Pride for Parents started with one simple belief — families would prefer to provide for themselves at Christmas rather than receive a hand out. Even if a family has limited means to do so, a mom, dad, aunt, uncle or grandparent wants to buy gifts for their families around the holidays. Pride for Parents is a program designed to provide the families in our neighborhood the opportunity to shop for their families at greatly reduced cost.”
In other words, Pride for Parents provides four gifts in one: The gift of a toy for a child at Christmas, the gift of dignity for parents who want to provide that gift, the gift to donors of knowing their help was truly helpful, and the gift of jobs for those who staff the store.
Lupton says that “reciprocal exchange” is a “fundamental principle of healthy relationships” because “it assumes that everyone has something of value to bring to the table.” One party in the exchange is not superior to the other. Both have dignity and worth. That means, Lupton concludes, “The responsibility of the stewards of resources is to develop those systems that create the opportunity for fair and authentic exchange” that truly reflect the inherent value and dignity of all.
This article is one in a series based on the ideas in the book Restoring All Things: God’s Audacious Plan To Change The World Through Everyday People by Warren Cole Smith and John Stonestreet. To see all the articles in this series, click here. If you know of an individual or ministry that might make a good “Restoring All Things” profile, please email firstname.lastname@example.org