Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

One of the biggest obstacles to effective giving to the global poor is simply lack of data.  In traditional investing, even those of us who know nothing about finance have access to scores of mutual funds that pick the “best” stocks for us and package them in a portfolio that minimizes our risk. And of course there is always the most basic feedback loop of all: the bottom line. Your investments either go up or they go down.

But if your goal is make investments that reduce poverty for others, things are not quite so simple. In this case our data points are typically limited to what organizations tell us about themselves through their appeal letters, websites and marketing campaigns. There are few independent evaluators of organizations that tackle poverty to help us choose where to invest (givewell.org is one excellent exception—look for an upcoming blog post on them.) This lack of data is even more pronounced when it comes to social entrepreneurs who work within newer or smaller organizations—many of whom are doing exciting, effective work, as I wrote in my last post.

What we need much more of is a kind Rottentomatoes for relief and development organizations. So what follows is one Yelp-style review of an exciting organization we supported this Christmas.

I recently spent some time in Kolkata, India getting to know various organizations that work with the poorest of the poor. I was especially impressed with Emmanuel Ministries, which is right down the street from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Founded in 1971 by social entrepreneurs Vijayan and Premila Pavamani, they work to empower street children, addicts, the unemployed, and slum dwellers, all of which you can read about on their website. Here’s why I was impressed by them:

  • As I talked to their leadership and staff, they all articulated a holistic approach to their work which integrated a deeply Christian worldview with a sophisticated grasp of recent scholarship in community organizing, vocational training, addiction recovery, etc.
  • Several acquaintances in InterVarsity and Word Made Flesh with experience in Kolkata spoke very highly of Emmanuel and their reputation in the community, as did leaders from local churches and other NGOs. They have worked successfully with organizations I respect like TEAR fund and Compassion International.
  • I was especially impressed by my visit to their Christian school, Calcutta Emmanuel School. Uniquely, its students come from among the poorest families in Kolkata, but the school has achieved India’s highest accreditation standards. The principal and other school leaders claim that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college. I talked to more than ten high school students and indeed, they all had detailed plans for their college careers.

If you have any knowledge of Emmanuel Ministries, please add your thoughts below.

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How Much Should Christians Give: a Tithe?

This is the second in a series of posts considering if it is possible to quantify how much Christians should give.

When I was a new convert, my church gave me a simple, straightforward answer to the question of how much I should give.  Unlike the IRS, God’s demands were clear:  10% to my local church.  Furthermore, if I was faithful to pay this Divine Flat Tax, abundant blessings, financial and otherwise, were sure to come my way.

My experience is not unique.  Tithing to one’s place of worship “because the Bible says so” is the cornerstone of many pastors’ teaching on financial stewardship.  While I deeply appreciate leaders who are willing to tackle the challenging issue of money, I no longer believe the discussion ends with the tithe.  To see why, let’s begin with an “executive summary” of the biblical teaching about tithing.  Most scholars agree that in the Old Testament not just one but three tithes were required:

  • The first tithe was intended to support the Levites, who led Israel in worship.  The tribe of Levi did not receive any land on which to farm, so they were dependent on these levies of fruits, veggies, and livestock for their livelihood.
  • The second tithe paid for a massive annual party at which everyone celebrated God’s goodness by eating and drinking heavily.  Amen to that.
  • The third tithe, given only every third year, funded a nationwide feeding program for immigrants, orphans, widows, and Levites.

This added up to 23.3% of each family’s annual income!  But that’s not all.  In addition to tithes, farmers were supposed to leave for the poor any grain their harvesters dropped and everything on the edges of their fields.  Loans were to be offered interest free.  And every seven years, slaves were set free and all debts cancelled.  Every fifty years, all land reverted back to poor families who had lost it.  Finally, everyone paid a small additional temple tax.  These clearly quantifiable ethical standards assured that ministers got paid, people recognized God as their provider, and the poor had a social safety net.

How should followers of Jesus today apply all this?  If we wanted to faithfully follow the Old Testament’s instructions for giving, we’d need to figure out how all these taxes, tithes, and laws should be applied in a non-theocratic society with no centralized temple, animal sacrifices, or hereditary priestly class making up approximately 1/12 of the population.  Certainly we can learn from God’s concern that everyone do their part and that the poor be cared for, but the resulting standard will certainly not be as simple as 10% in the offering plate!  In fact, since most of us attend congregations with other rich people like us, tithing to our local church actually exacerbates inequalities within the global Christian family-the wealthy’s tithes fund megachurch buildings, comfortable seating, professional sound systems and gymnasiums, while poor churches worship under a tree with unpaid pastors.

But even aside from these complications, the Old Testament is often not binding on us in a straightforward way.  Sometimes Jesus specifically overturns aspects of the Law, such as animal sacrifice, food prohibitions or purity laws.  Aren’t you glad that cotton/polyester blend t-shirts are no longer an abomination to the Lord?  Other times Jesus radicalizes teaching from the Torah, as in his commands to avoid not just murder and adultery, but hateful speech and lust too.  I think Jesus’ attitude towards giving fits into this category.  The New Testament directly speaks about tithing only once: Jesus affirms it for the Pharisees but calls them to a deeper commitment to justice and mercy.  And the rest of Jesus’s and Paul’s teaching on giving is even more radical than the tithe.  According to Randy Alcorn,

Every New Testament example of giving goes beyond the tithe. This means none falls short of it.

So in the end, I think the Old Testament offers us a model society in which giving is central and obligatory, but no nice round numbers to definitely quantify our level of “just giving.”  Perhaps we should view the tithe as a sort of “minimum standard” which God’s grace enables us to joyfully exceed, but I’ll wait to say more until my next post on the New Testament.

What do you think?  How do you use the Old Testament as a guide to your giving, and why?

Economic Discipleship: Not for adults only

This morning at breakfast as I leafed through my Bible I found a thousand colones (about $2) stuck between Philippians and Colossians.  Nobody could remember how it got there—but now our family was now just a little richer!  We all suggested various uses for our newfound wealth (mostly centering on Club Penguin memberships) and then I got ready for work.  But a few minutes later, as Isaiah left for school, he handed me a homemade envelope containing the thousand colones and the note you see above. He had decided where the money should be spent!

For me this was more than just a cute, heartwarming kid story.   Jodi and I believe that a central part of parenting means teaching our children, as Jesus put it, “to obey everything I have commanded.”  And Jesus commanded giving to the poor repeatedly and emphatically.

But trying to share these Gospel values is tricky.  If we decide that our giving commitments mean no room in the family budget for a Wii, will the kids become embittered towards this Jesus Who Robs Us of the Games All Our Friends Have?

So it’s really encouraging to see instances like Isaiah’s note in which it’s clear that he “gets it,” even just at the level of a seven-year-old.  But in some ways, that’s just what I’m striving for too.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” –Matthew 19:14



Book Review–When Helping Hurts

I see them everywhere in Costa Rica, and they always make me cringe a little:  they are conspicuous because they are mostly white, usually wearing matching t-shirts, walking around like they own the place and taking pictures of everything.  Who are they? Tourists? Space aliens? No, they are Short Term Missionaries.

Why do I cringe? Because I too have been a Short Term Missionary—on seven different occasions, in fact.  These experiences, plus a fair amount of research into the topic, tell me that the burgeoning phenomenon of short term missions is a decidedly mixed blessing.

For example, I recently joined a short-term missionary team for a day’s work in a precario (urban slum).  Unlike some teams, everyone seemed to be motivated by a genuine desire to serve and committed no egregious cultural faux pas.  We did worthwhile labor that really helped several families living in extreme poverty.  I helped to pour a smooth cement floor in the entryway to Maria Rosa’s corrugated iron dwelling, which replaced the slanted mix of mud and excrement that had been there before.

So what was the problem?  Well, nearly everyone in this precario are Nicaraguan immigrants driven to Costa Rica in search of jobs.  In fact, Maria Rosa’s husband was six hours away trying to find work in—you guessed it—construction.  As our team busily worked “for” the poor, the poor themselves sat and watched as North Americans with limited construction skills did work they themselves had left their homes to find.  We had missed a golden opportunity to share resources that could have empowered them to improve their own neighborhood and to learn from them how to build under such exacting circumstances.  Further, a professor at the seminary later told me that there are more than forty ministries operating in that precario.  They rarely cooperate with each other and basically offer short-term handouts that foster dependence.  My heart ached as I realized that we had contributed to this culture of charitable dysfunction.

This example of short term missions raises the larger question of how we can give to and serve with the poor in ways that are empowering and not debilitating.   And this is exactly the question that Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert address in their book When Helping Hurts: How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor…and yourself. Corbett and Fikkert, who are professors at the Chalmers Center for Economic Development, have targeted their book at North American Christians who have good intentions but little experience with the complex realities of poverty and development.  When Helping Hurts offers an introduction to the biblical basis for engaging poverty, basic best practices from the development field, and practical advice on how congregations can effectively be involved.

The strongest three themes of the book are ones that wealthy North American Christians desperately need to hear:

First, Corbett and Fikkert insightfully identify the root cause of “hurtful helping.”  They claim that the default mode of middle-class Americans is to assume that they know how to fix poverty by giving away material goods, which reinforces “our” messiah complexes and “their” disempowerment. In the authors’ words,

One of the biggest problems in many poverty-alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being economically rich—their god complexes—and the poverty of being economically poor—their feelings of inferiority and shame.

Often this dynamic expresses itself when wealthy Christians offer short-term relief in situations that really require long-term rehabilitation and development.

In order to address this hurtful pattern, Corbett and Fikkert emphasize the importance of leveraging the already-existing assets of struggling communities in order to empower greater participation of the poor in their own development.  This is really Development 101, but it is often not followed by well-meaning Christians.  So the authors’ accessible and relevant presentation of these concepts is a valuable contribution indeed.

Finally, When Helping Hurts offers practical strategies for helping without hurting.  In perhaps their best chapter, Corbett and Fikkert offer a number of diagnostic questions that could dramatically improve short term missions teams.  Have local people invited the team and defined the team’s contribution?  Could the cost of the short term trip (say, $20,000) be better invested by simply helping to fund existing local groups’ work?  Is there pre-and post-trip training that helps participants stay involved in Kingdom work for the long term instead of just having a one-off experience of “spiritual tourism?”

When Helping Hurts does have its weaknesses.  It is less than compelling in its presentation of patterns of structural injustice that cause and maintain poverty.  It underemphasizes the radical call for the rich to share with the poor.  It overemphasizes empowering the poor to gain financial independence to the neglect of the New Testament ideal of interdependence within the Body of Christ.  Nevertheless, the next time I lead a short term mission team, I will definitely require that everyone read this book.  I hope When Helping Hurts continues to have wide influence. Perhaps then I will cringe a little less when I see all those matching t-shirts.

Have you read this book?  Did this review make you think of your own short term missions experiences? If so, please share your thoughts below!

Book Review–Radical: Taking your Faith Back from the American Dream

Note: This is the first in a series of book reviews we’ll be posting over the next two weeks.

Imagine a Christian book that forcefully made the following points. How do you think it would sell?

  • The Gospel is diametrically opposed to some aspects of the American Dream we cherish most.
  • Consumerism is a blind spot for contemporary Christians just like slavery was for Southern white Christians in the early 19th century.
  • Genuine discipleship means not just tithing, but carefully choosing a modest lifestyle and giving away the rest, regardless of income.
  • Followers of Jesus are called to give not just “what can we spare” but “what will it take” to evangelize the world and end the most egregious forms of poverty.

Actually, there is such a book, and it is currently the bestselling Christian book in America.  It has been on the NYT Bestseller List for 31 weeks and has been through 22 printings in nine months.

I happened on David Platt’s Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream in the airport recently.  Normally I religiously avoid Christian bestsellers, but in this case I read all of chapter 6 (“How Much is Enough:  American Wealth in a World of Poverty”) while I stood in the airport bookstore. I almost missed my plane.  By the time I was done, I was actually weeping (a little) in public—an absolutely unprecedented, and rather embarrassing display of emotion for me.

Why was I so moved by this book?  I think because it gave me hope. You see, living simply and giving generously used to be standard issue Christian ethics.  But over the last 200 years, the massive tidal wave of consumerism, upward mobility and the American Dream has totally overwhelmed the church, leaving only a tiny remnant to protest.  There have been occasional attempts to push back the tide, but since the Reagan Revolution the vast majority of evangelicals have been very loud about abortion and homosexuality and very silent about wealth and poverty.

But all of a sudden Platt, a stereotypically slick, charismatic megachurch pastor is saying things like this:

What is the difference between someone who willfully indulges in sexual pleasures while ignoring the Bible on moral purity and someone who willfully indulges in the selfish pursuit of more and more material possessions while ignoring the Bible on caring for the poor? The difference is that one involves a social taboo in the church and the other involves the social norm in the church. . . .

Are you and I looking to Jesus for advice that seems fiscally responsible according to the standards of the world around us? Or are we looking to Jesus for total leadership in our lives, even if that means going against everything our affluent culture and maybe even our affluent religious neighbors might tell us to do?

These are hard things to hear, but Platt offers them without legalistic self-righteousness and with an empowering tone of grace.  If you’re looking for a 20-page introduction to genuine economic discipleship, I’d recommend turning straight to chapter six of Radical. It’s the best bestseller I’ve read in a long time.

What do you think?  Is Radical‘s success a sign that things are changing for evangelicals?

 

Join the “Just Giving Challenge”

Black Friday greetings to everyone!  Today is the day when millions of Americans go shopping, the media reports on Americans going shopping, and I begin my annual ritual of whining about how consumeristic Christmas has become.  I moan about the spiritually-stupefying reminders of “X shopping days until Christmas” for us to buy stuff for “someone who has everything.” I complain that the contemporary celebration of Christmas was invented by advertisers seeking to boost profits (Harvard historian L.E. Schmidt in his book Consumer Rites backs me up :)).   In my more excessive moments I even suggest that if you rearrange just one letter in “SANTA” you get . . . .  wait for it . . . . SATAN. (Just kidding—mostly.)

Even if you are not as extreme as I am, perhaps you are also troubled—at least a little—by the paradox of celebrating the birth of Jesus by exchanging luxury goods with other middle and upper-class people.  Not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with reciprocal gift exchanges—every culture in the world has them, and they can certainly be fun.  It’s just that it’s not distinctively Christian, which would seem important in celebrating the birth of the religion’s founder.  Many of us long for a Christmas season that has a genuine spiritual center.

So this year, instead of just complaining impotently, we decided to do something about it together.  One of our core beliefs at Simple Living for Just Giving is that the spiritual gift of giving is best developed together, in groups, in movements, in community.  So the editors of this blog would like to invite you to join us for the Just Giving Challenge. Here’s what we propose:

  • This year, let’s match our spending on Christmas presents with giving to the poor. In other words, we challenge you to join us in making a matching grant on Christmas Day to a charity of your choice that equals your total holiday spending.  Since Jesus cares so much about giving to the poor, this seemed to us like a good way to celebrate His coming.
  • As extra incentive, we will donate $100 for the first 100 people who join us.  For example, if 72 people sign up, that’s $7200 extra going to benefit those in poverty this Christmas!
  • Not sure where to give? In the next four weeks we will publish on this blog reviews of four organizations that we think are doing effective work in serving the poor–and the editors’ gift will go to the organization you vote for in our online poll!
  • Looking for spiritual sustenance this Christmas season? Every Sunday we will be publishing Advent reflections on just giving that help nudge us towards a distinctively Christian celebration of the holidays this year.

So are you in?  If you’d like to join us, all you need to do is leave a comment with your name and first initial on this post. That’s it!  Together, we can look forward to a Christmas season that’s more than “just shopping.”

Guns and other stuff: think before you buy

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In many U.S. states, there is a mandated waiting period before you can purchase a gun.  For Jodi and me, living in Costa Rica, we have a mandated waiting period before we buy just about anything.  Here’s how this reality has helped us make progress in living simply:

In Costa Rica, most consumer goods are readily available, but usually for 50% to 100% more than in the States.  Just a few random examples:  Converse shoes are $60-80 instead of $13-20 on Slickdeals; laptops are easily double, as are just about all kids’ toys.

This extreme price difference means that we still buy most of our stuff from the U.S.—we make our purchases online and send them to the next visitor who’s kind enough to schlep them to Costa Rica in their luggage (thanks mom, bapa & nana, LKVP, D/CD, G/CB, KH, MS, SK, NN, SL, J/EC)!

Thus, just like buying a gun, nearly every sizable acquisition carries with it a significant waiting period—often several months—from when we first want something to when we actually buy it.  We’ve found that this time gap is an excellent mechanism for thinking twice about whether we really need more stuff.  It gives us space to prayerfully discern whether a particular item is a necessity or a luxury, whether it is a tool or a toy, whether it is part of the life of economic discipleship to which God calls us.  As Richard Foster says,

one clear advantage to this approach is that it effectively ends all impulse buying. It gives time for reflection so that God can teach us if the desire [for more stuff] is unnecessary.

For Jodi and I, our “waiting period” spiritual discipline has become an integrated part of our lifestyle , no matter where we end up living in the long term, and we’d like to urge you to consider it as well.  I close with some provocative discernment questions, adapted from Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, that we’ve found helpful in guiding our prayers during our “waiting periods”:

  • Am I buying this for its usefulness or for the social status it will give me?
  • Could this purchase produce an unhealthy addiction for me?
  • Could this purchase blur my spiritual focus or distract me from pursuing God?
  • Do I need to buy a new product, or would a used or borrowed one work just as well?
  • If I buy this, will I still be able to meet my goals for giving to the poor and to God’s Kingdom work?