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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: What Is True Charity?

A growing national network of Christian ministries is trying to answer that question

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will offer his opinion on stories in the week’s news or, sometimes, offer a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we do what we do.

In the summer of 2000, James Whitford and his wife started a ministry for the poor in downtown Joplin, Missouri.

That ministry, Watered Gardens Ministries, has had great success. According to its website, it has “since grown to a multi-campus ministry that shelters, feeds, clothes and does much more for people who are hurting, addicted, homeless and poor.”

But in the early years, Whitford was not sure if the work he was doing was having an impact. “We reached a point within the first few years of ministry when we realized our good intentions may actually be part of perpetuating a problem,” he said. “We had a heart for the poor, but not a mind for the poor.”

This set Whitford on a journey. He read Marvin Olasky’s book The Tragedy of American Compassion. Olasky wrote, “Dependency is merely slavery with a smiling mask.” Whitford came to believe his own work might be perpetuating that dependency, that slavery. He said, “Today, that mask is the continued distribution of resources in the way of food stamps, housing assistance, and short-sighted forms of private charity lacking meaningful outcomes.”

So, he set out to transform Watered Gardens into a ministry that does not perpetuate dependence but treats people with dignity and respect. Watered Gardens stopped providing handouts and started creating opportunities. The ministry continued to grow, win national awards, and change people’s lives.

Whitford began to wonder: “Could we teach to others the lessons it took us so long to learn?”

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His attempt to answer that question led to True Charity. True Charity is a network of nearly two hundred organizations that seek to improve charity, influence relevant policy, and inform the public about the importance of effective compassion. The group held its annual conference last week in Springfield, Mo.

The theme of the conference was “Flourish,” and it was impossible to attend the conference without being confronted with some important ideas that drive the True Charity network.

First is the idea that the people these ministries serve are God’s image-bearers. Bryan Lewis, the opening keynote speaker, launched a ministry called Hope House in the West End neighborhood of Bowling Green, Kentucky, in 2009. He said, “I was 25 years old. I was arrogant. When I began the ministry, I said to myself, ‘The neighborhood can start getting better now that we are here.’”

He now says, “I had a god complex. I wanted to fix people and be applauded for it.” He said he could see that the neighborhood was not flourishing, so in desperation he started asking questions. “I was told that people coming to us felt like cattle being herded. I heard they felt like they were a means to an end, and that end was not to help people, but to help us feel better about ourselves.”

He said his perspective and the nature of his work changed when he started seeing the people he served as God’s image-bearers, and the community he served as a special place with unique assets, with a history and culture that he should respect. He came to realize, he said, that “Jesus was in the West End neighborhood long before we got there.”

James Whitford, True Charity’s founder, told the group that for a community to flourish it needed three things: freedom, vision, and purpose.

Freedom includes financial and physical freedom, but it also includes spiritual freedom, he said. Any charitable work that does not include a spiritual component is destined to fail. To those who thought of “freedom” merely as a political slogan, he reminded the group that scripture says, “It is for freedom that Christ set us free.” (Gal. 5:1)

Whitford and the other speakers also spoke repeatedly about the value of work. The creation story tells us that God is a worker, and if we are made in His image, we should be workers too. “Work unleashes worth” is an expression I heard more than once at the True Charity conference.

The final general session speaker for the event was Amy Sherman of the Sagamore Institute and author of the book Agents of Flourishing.

She began her talk with a Bible verse that many in the room used in their mission statements and even in their fundraising appeals. That verse, Jeremiah 29:7, says, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

She said that this verse reveals God’s “good, compassionate, missional heart.” She reminded us that this verse was spoken to a people in exile, and that we should “seek the flourishing even of our enemies.” She said that this verse also teaches that “peace and prosperity” go hand in hand, and that prosperity is a result of “peace with God, with self, with others, with the world.”

The True Charity network has grown dramatically in the past few years. This year’s conference was the largest ever. But Whitford says this is just the beginning. In five years, he hopes to have one thousand members – a five-fold increase.

That is an ambitious goal, but if last week’s conference is any indication, there is a hunger for the ideas that True Charity is promoting. There seems to be a growing consensus that the old ways of helping the poor are not helping at all, but are in some ways hurting them, our communities and cities, and the nation. A growing number of people are looking for new ways.

According to Whitford, “There has never been so important a moment in our history to provide just and effective alternatives to state welfare, to empower and ennoble the poor, and to take up the mantle of true and effective charity.”


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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.