Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011.

This book is by a veteran of the non profit mission scene in Atlanta. The main good points about the book are his emphasis on groups making a commitment to a place, his insistence on not making people become dependent on aid, and weariness on projects that are more for the benefit of the volunteers than the recipients.

Also we found a lot of problematic elements in the book. First, nowhere in the book does he discuss structures of oppression that helps to keep a lot of people in poverty. We received a general sense from the book that poor people are poor because they are lazy and uneducated. These structures help to keep privilege people in position of power without awareness of these injustice systems that create them. Second, there was a patronizing tone through the book towards under-privilege people. Lupton projects a view that he knows what is the best for this particular group of people.

Third, at one point during a discussion of good work, he talked about illegally hiring workers at Home Depot as an example that people in poverty do want to work. We found this to be a disturbing example to use. First, the unjust structures in place makes people stand in parking lots looking for work. Second, he hypotheses the reasons why they are there. To support family was the third reason he listed. This revealed that if this incident did happen, he never tried to communicate with them. In our experience with undocumented workers, supporting family is usually a primary reason for undocumented immigration. Remittances from the United States are top imports to Latin America. Third, did he pay honest wages to the two men? Did he exploit their cheap labor for his own gain?

In what ways, can our group partners with another group for service?

What are issues in our community that we connect to in other areas?

How can we honor the dignity of others in our work?

How can we look at our work as partnerships? What would change in that kind of relationship?


Parks Daloz, Laurent A., et. al. Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World. Boston, MA: Beacon Press Books, 1996.

Common Fire examines what motivates and facilitates a lasting commitment to serve others. This work draws upon a number of interviews with people who have made a strong and lasting commitment to helping others. Throughout this work there is an emphasise on the ways that relationships are built across divides of race, class and gender and the ways that family, faith and healthy motivations can sustain service.

There were several sections of this book that we found particularly useful. Chapters two and three address building community and practicing radical hospitality and friendship across cultural divides. These two chapters we found particularly useful in considering the ways that individuals and communities can have robust and healthy relationships that serve both groups involved. Chapter six addresses some of the motivations for and models of service that can lead to unhealthy commitments and relationships. We found this discussion to be particularly useful for self-critically examining motivation and also useful for considering what might be motivating a community commitment to service and how to avoid destructive models and motivations.

Overall we thought this was an excellent resource for individuals and groups that are involved in service. However, many of the individuals who were interviewed for this work are from the ‘baby-boomer’ generations and their experiences were shaped by the great depression and American culture in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. We would like to see this work updated with the experiences of younger people who have a commitment to service and their experiences and motivations.

What can we do to be self reflective about what motivates our service?

How can our group or community practice hospitality so that we can build authentic partnerships with others?

What would it take for us to sustain a long term partnership relationship?

How can we personally sustain and nourish ourselves in this work to avoid burnout?


Illich, Ivan. “To Hell with Good Intentions.” Lecture. Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects (CIASP). Cuernavaca, Mexico. 20 Apr. 1968.

   Monsinger Illich gave this speech in 1968 to a group of American volunteers. We think that this speech is still very relevant almost 45 years later with the increase of mission trips and alternative breaks trips both domestically and abroad, especially with the hard questions he pose about whether American volunteers should even be there in the first place.

Who is deciding what is useful service?

What role does the community play in the service project? Whose voices are heard?

Why do we decide to serve other communities than our own?

What does solarity look like, in the face of ethical complexes?


When Helping Hurts

Corbett, Steve and Fikkert, Brian. When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself. Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012.

This book provides an excellent source for religious communities that are interesting in doing long or short term mission projects. The authors emphasize the role of faith in being called to work not only to alleviate poverty but also to work against systemic oppression. The book would be particularly helpful for church groups who are just being introduced to the topic of the ethics of doing service work because it offers a very clear picture of some of the issues of privilege that are at stake for churches doing service or charity work. They also offer a very useful break-down of the types of service that are needed  (and how to decide what situation calls for what kind of help) in chapter 4. The authors also describe the ways in which communities (and service projects) and be seen for what they really are–their value–through asset mapping and some of the ways in which churches can engage without being paternalistic. The book also provides study questions for each chapter and is therefore ideally suited for groups to read and study. Although this book provides the most explicitly Christian approach and is therefore best suited for church groups, it does engage many issues around ethics in a way that is sensitive and robust.

As previously noted the authors provide excellent study questions in this book. A few of the study questions that we thought would be best for general reflection are excerpted below:

What is poverty? Make a list of words that come to your mind when you think of poverty. (page 48)

What factors–historic or contemporary–caused your church to be located where it is? What factors caused you to live in your neighborhood? (page 168)

How do you define “success” in ministering to the materially poor? (page 70)

Think of an individual(s) who has had a significant, positive impact on your life. How did they do this? What did you appreciate about their approach? (page 204)


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