“I hate it when volunteers come down here,” a neighbor told Robert Lupton, author of the book, Toxic Charity. Virgil, who lived in an economically challenged neighborhood of Atlanta, had just observed a fourteen-passenger van filled with young volunteers on a mission trip. This church group been coming every weekend for two months and had spent $20,000 to help Virgil build his home. Another group helped him landscape the entire yard. Virgil was thankful, yet he had reservations.
“’Do you know what it’s like to have people look down on you like you’re poor, like you need help?” he said. ‘I know they’re just trying to be nice but, damn, they insult you and don’t even know it! Like one lady mentioned to me and Tamara how clean our house was. I guess she thought it was a compliment. what she was really saying was ‘I’m surprised to see your house isn’t infested with roaches and filled with trash like most black families.’ A couple people told me how smart and well-behaved my kids were, surprised that they weren’t dumb and rowdy like most inner-city kids. I see through their words. I hear what they really think. But,’ he continued, “you have to keep smiling and act like you don’t know what’s going on. I really hate it!” (p. 148)
Before you join a community service project, here are three ways you can raise awareness:
- Beware of subliminal attitudes and messages you convey when offering volunteer help.
- Before scheduling volunteers, ask community residents to get organized, assess their own needs, identify resources in the community, and then determine whether outside help is actually needed. Then ask community members to issue the invitation.
- Raise your volunteers’ awareness of local attitudes through “guided discussions over lunch, on worksites, or in the homes of community residents.” (pp. 150-151)
For more about ways to change how we do community service, see Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (New York: HarperOne, 2011)
Photo: Visions Service Adventure, British Virgin Islands, Dec. 16, 2010. Flickr Creative Commons.