Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Charitable Results?

Back in the late 1980's, Cabrini-Green, one of Chicago's largest high-rise public housing projects, was in a state of complete disrepair. The buildings constantly smelled like urine, gangs took over and occupied all of the units on an entire floor, and some of the buildings were not even being managed or maintained at all. The Chicago Housing Authority needed the units to house the poor, but didn't have enough funds to pay for the renovation to make all of the units in the buildings livable. Several Chicago area Churches along with Moody Seminary got together and offered to provide volunteer labor to renovate the unlivable units if the Chicago Housing Authority would pay for the supplies. A deal was struck and the upgrades began.

I jumped at the chance to be part of this volunteer project. I loved spending my Saturdays wearing old jeans as I scraped and painted and laid tile. Most volunteers showed up once a month. I showed up every week. I would have showed up every day if I could. It felt great to be part of a team that was turning old dilapidated buildings into livable space for the needy. The difference in the buildings from the time we started the first unit until the time we finished the last unit was remarkable. I felt a sense of accomplishment along with a sense of joy that I was helping to make this part of the world a better place. I especially loved the children that would come running up to me with big smiles on their faces when they saw me walking toward a building carrying a paint brush and a paint bucket. These kids, in the middle of complete poverty, were some of the happiest kids I had ever seen. Why wouldn't they be happy since they had what every kid wants; lots of friends, lots of space, and little supervision. In many ways, they had a better life than what I had growing up. They would follow us up in the elevators to the units and we let them help paint until they got tired and wanted to go find something else to do.

For the first several months I was pretty oblivious to anything except the work I was doing and good feelings it gave me. But as the months went by, I started to make observations about what was happening around me, and I started to think about the affect my charity was having. I noticed that none of the residents of the units we upgraded ever volunteered to help upgrade other units and I especially started to notice that after the boys and girls passed a certain age, they quit coming out to greet us, and they weren't smiling anymore when I saw them. Then I had another one of those light-bulb-turning-on moments. The Chicago Housing Authority, Moody Institute, the Churches, and my charity was having the exact opposite of the intended affect. It was a Gremlin affect. We were turning good kids into monsters.

At six years old, everything in the life of Cabrini Children was good, but as they got older, they started to believe that their lack of money made them inferior to those of us who had enough money to show up and volunteer. The children who lived in Cabrini-Green didn't have a father to walk five dollars back across the street in order to demonstrate the unimportance of money. At six, they wanted to help. At six, they knew how to operate a paint brush, but by the time they turned ten, they no longer wanted to help and they were no longer willing to do something as simple as painting a wall in order to make their home environment better. Not only did the adults who lived at Cabrini not appreciate us, they hated us because they believed that they were inferior to us. We conditioned a whole segment of adults to need charity and those who received the charity hated those who were providing the charity. When we treat adults like house pets, is it any wonder we get the results of more disease, more crime, and more poverty?

Throughout the Middle East today, this same phenomena is taking place. An entire generation of Muslim Adults are growing up feeling inferior to people in the West and feeling inferior to the rulers of their own country who are financially wealthy. It is a complete misconception, even a lie in some cases, that money has anything at all to do with individual worth. Even most Christians and their Pastors believe that money makes a person better, better off, and superior to those without money. They may not say it with their mouths, but they demonstrate it by their actions. Pastors and Christians propagate this myth every day with some what they teach and some of what they do regarding charity. It is quite a shame that those who should know better, don't make more of an effort to understand the poor as well as teach and demonstrate the unimportance of money.

I can't tell you how happy I was to learn that Cabrini-Green has finally been demolished. I just wish that some of the ideas about helping the poor could be demolished along with it.

In my next post I will discuss some of the similarities and some of the differences between the financially rich and the financially poor.


Anonymous said...

What Paul Theroux learned in Malawi you learned in Chicago. What I would like to learn from your upcoming posts is why you think these lessons of unintended consequences are lost on so many?

David M. Smith said...

Hi Derek,

That is a very good question. I’ve been thinking about it since I you posted a comment yesterday.

I have a few theories that I will try to write about later.

Thanks for hanging with me through this.

Dave Kresta said...

Interesting posts (from 4 years ago, I know), but still relevant today. I would point out that most Americans have an incorrect view of poverty, focusing on the material aspects as opposed to the social and psychological aspects. I have written a blog post on this at Learning empathy for the poor through unemployment.