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  • The new poverty fighters believe tackling poverty requires relationships: more walking-with, less doing-for. Tweet This
  • "You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship." Tweet This

When Robert Lupton and his wife—a white, middle-class couple from the suburbs—moved into inner-city Atlanta, they came with a mission to carry “the light of the gospel into the darkness of the ghetto.” But they discovered that the people they came to serve had more faith than they did. They would come to call one of their new friends “Mother Teresa of Grant Park.” Virtually poor herself, she went about the neighborhood feeding and clothing her poor neighbors.

Every evening, the Luptons walked around the neighborhood. They talked to people, got to know them. Lupton writes, “Scary strangers soon became familiar faces. Staggering drunks became friends for whom we learned compassion. Young people, sometimes high on drugs, became individuals with names and families and special needs.”

In time, Lupton would come to see that his relationship to his new neighbors could not be “healer to patient,” but something more like mutuality. One time he was sitting on the front porch with a neighbor, Virgil, when a church van packed with volunteers drove by and waved. “I hate it when volunteers come down here,” Virgil said, startling Lupton. A similar team of church volunteers had invested $20,000 and eight weeks of labor to build Virgil’s home, and he was forever telling Lupton how grateful his family was for the church’s generosity. Why didn’t he like these volunteers, Lupton inquired?

Virgil responded, “Do you know what it’s like to have people look down on you like you’re poor, like you need help?” He told Lupton that he didn’t want volunteers to stop coming into the neighborhood and helping—the needs were too great and the volunteers were doing good work—but that it would be better if the locals met together to discuss community needs and then invite outsiders to help as needed. And when the volunteers would come, they would work with the locals, rather than just for the locals.

That distinction between “doing with” and “doing for” became important to Lupton, who would go on to develop two mixed-income neighborhoods, organize a multiracial congregation, and start several businesses that aimed to empower people in poverty. He learned that one should “never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves.” It’s a matter of dignity. Many of these lessons he recorded in his books, including Theirs Is the Kingdom and Toxic Charity.

‘Do you know what it’s like to have people look down on you like you’re poor, like you need help?’

As Lupton and his wife settled into their new neighborhood, across the country a young Jesuit priest, Fr. Gregory Boyle, asked his superior if he could serve in the poorest neighborhood in Los Angeles. He was sent to Dolores Mission, the gang capital of a city itself known as the gang capital of the world. He started by doing what a police officer advised him not to do: walking around the neighborhood, striking up conversations with “homies” and grandmothers and children. Soon gang members began hanging out at Boyle’s church, smoking cigarettes and lifting weights in the church’s garage.

Homeboy Industries was formed to offer jobs to gang members. They built a child-care center, assembled neighborhood clean-up crews, removed graffiti—anything to give a gang member a job and a sense of dignity. Homeboy Bakery was formed and became a place where rival gang members worked together. A gang member, just out of prison, showed up at Boyle’s office looking for a job. Trouble is, he had “F*** THE WORLD” tattooed on his forehead. Boyle hired him at the bakery and told him they could remove his tattoo. That was how Boyle got the idea to buy laser machines and hire doctors who would eventually perform more than four thousand tattoo-removal treatments a year.

Not that all was suddenly well. As of 2010, when Boyle wrote Tattoos on the Heart, he had buried 168 people killed through gang violence. He does sometimes have to fire employees, but the emphasis is on giving people second chances—and then some more. He writes, “There is no question that everybody working at Homeboy would have been fired anyplace else.” He quotes a fellow Jesuit priest to make the point: “We see in the homies what they don’t see in themselves, until they do.”

For Boyle, setbacks are just part of the journey toward what he regards as the truest reality: our connections with one another. In his chapter on “Success,” he writes, “You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship.” The motivation to help others is noble and good, he says. But serving others is “just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom.” In that place we discover “kinship—not serving the other, but being one with the other.”

Boyle is describing the same radical solidarity that the Luptons discovered. They seem to be saying that a great victory happens when people rediscover each other as neighbors: when rival gang members remember the things that bind them together, when affluent suburbanites discover connections with people in impoverished inner cities and tucked-away small towns.

The Luptons and Boyle are not idiosyncratic. One of the most popular books right now among evangelical Protestant ministers involved in community development work is When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor… and Yourself. It echoes many of the ideas that Lupton and Boyle discuss. A central theme of the book is that tackling poverty requires relationships—more walking-with, less talking-at and doing-for. Describing it as the “The Poverty Fighters’ Bible,” a Christianity Today article noted that several prominent evangelical megachurches use the book as a resource to guide their ministries.

These poverty fighters are not content to stand for a cause; they want to stand with people.

I discovered Lupton and When Helping Hurts through an evangelical Protestant pastor in the working-class town where my wife and I interviewed young people for the Love and Marrige in Middle America Project. His church, the offshoot of an area megachurch, has started a food co-op, after-school tutoring program, parenting classes, and an addiction recovery program. In an old elementary school building in the heart of the working-class part of town, they invite factory workers and McDonald’s cashiers to worship with engineers and business leaders.

At a time when Donald Trump is making political hay out of dividing the electorate, here are people who offer a glimpse into another slice of America. This America recalls a strain of our story that much recent political rhetoric forgets: the solidarity work of activists from earlier eras marked by deep social divisions. There is Jane Addams, welcoming stigmatized immigrants into Hull House. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, standing with striking workers in the picket lines. Martin Luther King, Jr., marching with fellow African Americans and spending nights in jail.

What unites the Luptons and Boyle—and the under-the-radar movement they represent—to these earlier activists is that they seek a relationship with those whose causes they embrace. They’re not content to stand for a cause; they want to stand with people and come to know them as neighbors and peers and friends.

If they are poverty fighters, their way of fighting poverty is peculiarly pacifist. As Boyle says, if you want to tackle a social problem, you don’t “strategize” your way out, you “solidarize” with the affected and thus diminish the ability of the problem to sustain itself.  These poverty fighters emphasize cooperation and compassion. And in their parables they make the curious assertion that the moment you start focusing on fixing or changing people, you forget how the people you set out to serve are changing you, fixing you—missing the reciprocity that is essential for a genuine relationship.

If the marriage divide is a social problem that requires a comprehensive, community-minded, on-the-ground approach, these new poverty fighters offer intriguing lessons. Often, we do not know exactly what to do about the marriage divide, or the larger class divisions that it represents. But we care. The divisions violate our sense of who we should be as a people, and of our possibilities. We want a solution.

Surely part of “the solution” lies in ordinary people experiencing the same connections that the Luptons and Boyle discovered. It is radical, and at the same time amazingly doable. It doesn’t require millions of dollars in investments, or trips to foreign countries, or getting Republicans and Democrats to agree with each other. It just requires us to rediscover our neighbors in our own backyards.