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Learning Charity from an Exemplar

In the past three years on visits to church-based urban ministries nationwide, I have interviewed dozens of down-and-outers who have become up-and-comers: ex-welfare recipients, victims of domestic violence, former drug addicts, ex-cons. When I asked them what helped them turn their lives around, almost all responded, “A friend who cared.” Effective ministries know that friendship is a powerful poverty-fighting tool. Tragically, though, many church benevolence programs emphasize commodities—cash, clothing, and groceries—over relationships. In today’s welfare reform climate, as greater responsibility for needy families shifts from the public to the private sector, churches need to reassess their own outreach strategy. They can learn much from a recently published collection of short essays by Octavia Hill, a nineteenth century social worker who spent her life befriending poor people in London’s slum districts.

Editor James L. Payne calls Hill “the J. S. Bach of social work.” In 1865, she began a system of providing housing for the poor in which civic-minded investors bought apartments run on a business-like basis under her supervision as a social worker-manager. She evicted ne’er-do-wells, oversaw rehabilitation efforts, insisted on personal responsibility, provided employment to out-of-work fathers, counseled young girls, and organized savings clubs and field trips. Her efforts transformed numerous troubled communities and her model was replicated throughout Britain, on the Continent, and in America. Her life infiuenced not only the have-nots but also the haves, for Hill attempted to redirect the misguided and indiscriminate charity of the middle and upper classes.

Hill’s essays reveal the balance of tough-mindedness and tender-heartedness that best serves the poor. Hill always insisted that the residents pay their rent in full and on time. If the head of the household was short of cash but willing to work, she would employ him in making repairs. Believing that people “are ashamed to abuse a place they find cared for,” she would start with clean-up efforts in the common areas of the housing complex. This example was then gradually imitated by the tenants in their own apartments. To reduce vandalism, Hill set aside a small portion of the tenants’ rent each month into a repairs and improvements fund. Tenants could decide how such funds were used—and most wanted to purchase additional conveniences rather than pay for repairs brought about by carelessness or negligence. Moreover, they took better care of new purchases, knowing that they were bought with their money.

Circulating daily among the tenants, Hill became intimately familiar with their habits and cares. She first won their respect through her firm management style and then gained their trust as she proved herself faithful. Having become their genuine friend, she could encourage poor people toward a greater appreciation of cleanliness, education, planning, and saving.

Hill “resolutely refused” to provide any help except that which roused self-help. Indiscriminate charity, she argued, demeaned poor people by implicitly suggesting they were not capable of self-management. Genuine compassion should start not with the desire to help the poor but with the desire to know them. It was common in Hill’s time for volunteers from the local church to go visiting throughout the parish, offering small gifts to needy families. The problem with these well-intentioned but misguided district visitors, Hill believed, was that they did not think of those they helped primarily as people but as poor people. This meant that they did not treat the poor in the same spirit they would have used for their personal friends. Aid to the poor might be “different in amount,” Hill acknowledged, but it should not “differ in kind.” Moreover, Hill warned, indiscriminate gifts could encourage an unhealthy “gambling spirit” among the poor by raising false hopes: “‘Because we went in and gave those boots, because others like us gave coal-tickets and soup-tickets last winter, what may not turn up?’ the poor woman asks herself.”

Hill was well-aware that it was often easier to give charity than patiently to withhold it when it would, in fact, do harm. “The resolution to watch pain which cannot be radically relieved except by the sufferer himself is most difficult to maintain,” she admitted. “Yet it is wholly necessary in certain cases not to help.” Such a principle, of course, did not excuse hard-heartedness on the part of the better-off. In fact, Hill argued for a more sacrificial mercy than the relatively painless act of alms-giving. She challenged the haves to invest in face-to-face relationships with the have-nots, to befriend a few individuals and be their encourager and advocate. Hill appreciated the non-monetary assistance such friends could offer: They could serve as references for poor individuals seeking better employment. Indiscriminate charity, she lamented, made impossible a true friendship through which gifts superior to cash—counsel, teaching, and exposure to beauty, art, and culture—could be shared. Moreover, when alms-giving kept the poor at arm’s length, donors did not learn from the poor lessons of “patience, vigor, and content” which Hill asserted were “of great value” to the non-poor. She exhorted the rich: “See…that you do not put your lives so far from those great companies of the poor which stretch for acres in the south and east of London, that you fail to hear each other speak. See that you do not count your work among them by tangible result, but believe that healthy human intercourse with them will be helpful to you and them.”

Critics of her day complained that Hill’s approach of transformation one person at a time was insufficient in light of the vast scope of the problem. But large-scale projects to help poor families worried Hill. She believed that, when helpers tried to deal with a large number of needy people, the helpers became so overwhelmed by the urgency of need that they tended to “pass over” the most difficult questions about how to provide help that would truly help. The helpers’ efforts might well be benevolent, Hill admitted, but too often they were not beneficent. To assist those with such charitable inclinations, Hill and her colleagues founded the London Charity Organization Society early on in her career. This agency served as a central clearinghouse where needy people would apply for aid and volunteers could ascertain the validity of the request and formulate a strategic response that would foster self-help rather than dependency.

Hill’s philosophy of compassion derived from her front line’s experience of loving poor people. This “thinker/doer” knew firsthand what worked and what didn’t. Unfortunately, her wisdom was not applied as thoroughly in her day as it could have been, since some influential people disdained her call to gritty, face-to-face mercy while others cherished big government “solutions.” Our current situation is not much different from Hill’s. Today we can find churches that ignore the poor, churches that provide clothes and food but not friendship, and churches that define social ministry as political lobbying against cuts in the governmental welfare budget.

Thankfully, though, there are promising signs that an increasing number of churches are willing to engage in the sort of befriending ministry Hill pioneered. All across the country, churches are responding to calls for help from local social services offices and being paired with families seeking to get off welfare. As welfare reforms stir additional churches to greater social outreach, the need for clear “how to” advice grows. If The Befriending Leader becomes standard reading for these churches, both the haves and have-nots will benefit.