Charity or missionary work?

My brother in-law and his wife have started a new charity with the goal of ending poverty in their area of Florida. I really want to support them, because I think this is a very worthy goal. The thing is that they are born-again Christians and pastors of an Assembly of God church. This immediately makes me suspicious of ulterior motives, so I posted this message on their Facebook page:

This is great. But I hope it won’t be like the people in the news recently who got mad because volunteers gave out free food to the homeless on Thanksgiving without making them listen to a sermon first. I really have a problem with charities that claim to be about helping the poor but that are really about witnessing and trying to convert people. Charities should not be camouflage for missionary work.
Am I being too cynical?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. No your not being cynical. There is a homeless shelter where I live called the Rescue Mission. I have spoken to many homeless vets and others who refuse to stay there because they get proselytized to. They would rather sleep in a cold abandoned house. There is no secular alternative. Not to mention all the homeless that put up with the nonsense just so they can stay there. It’s a front for true charity when your main goal is conversion and not truly helping people.

  2. I think using a charity in mission work is fine (that is moral, but not ideal) just as long as the motives are made clear from the beginning. If people find out there’s a sermon when they’re already sitting at the table, then that’s out of bounds.

    No subterfuge.

    Personally, I would sit through a sermon even if I am *guarunteed* to win either a toaster or a Jeep Wrangler.

  3. Your axioms are different. In your belief system witnessing is a useless appendage. In your BIL/SIL’s belief system, I am sure that they are truly convinced that witnessing could lead to salvation from damnation for the people they are helping (i.e. save the body and save the soul). Unless something changes their fundamentalist axioms to those of a humanist, you’all are just never going to agree. In fact, if you suspended disbelief temporarily and accepted their axioms of the existence of an afterlife and the need for salvation, then you might agree that what they are doing is moral.

    In the fundamentalist framework of belief only feeding their body would be akin to a ship happening upon a life raft with shipwreck survivors and giving them food and water, but not taking them aboard.

    It sounds like you both have a laudable moral impulse to do the right thing (i.e. help the homeless), but because your fundamental beliefs are different, the way you go about it is different. You are probably saying “how could you witness to these people – that is so cynical” and they are saying “how could you not – if we don’t they might burn in hell?”.

    Where they would cede moral high ground is if they didn’t really believe in their axioms and were just trying to bring in new converts to the church to increase church power and influence. That would be cynical.

    Billy Clyde Tuggle

  4. Am I being too cynical?

    Not remotely. It’s a rare “faith-based” charity that does NOT do this.

    Interesting thought just occurred to me: Sustenance or other assistance for the poor usually comes at the price of enduring sermons and “witnessing” (witnesses without evidence, hah!). You could probably accumulate some statistical information that shows the equivalence between the two, e.g., so many calories of nutrition per minute of sermonizing. There would be some variance because this is a market that is difficult to arbitrage, but make no mistake, it IS a market.

    And that fact gives the lie to the basis of Pascal’s Wager: that faith is without cost. The market has established the cost.

  5. Certainly not cynical, but maybe a little passo-aggro.

    I think instead of that paragraph, which hints at vague dire warnings (i.e., “I hope it won’t be this…”), simply linking to the story about that particular event and asking if there was going to be a sermon first. I don’t know what sort of relationship you have with them, but if it was me I would probably come straight out and ask them if they were using food as bait for attending a sermon.

    As RoaldFalcon said, if they are clear about their agenda — both what they hope to gain, and what the order of events are — then all is well.

    If you wanted to be cynical, you could point out that “curing poverty” isn’t possible, because poverty is a comparitive measure, not an absolute value — sort of like evil. They won’t cure poverty in their area, but they can do things like work to provide food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc. (Of course, none of those things will be helped by gathering together for a sermon, so if they insist on a sermon at all, they are working against themselves.)

  6. Not at all! If your inclined to support them you should know if they are being upfront about their true motive.

    I was invited to a “party” several years ago by a relatively new friend. I show up and was just about to ask for a beer or something when they all joined hands to start a prayer circle. I was a bit stunned for a second, then as soon as possible I made an excuse to step outside (phone call) and I bolted. I only knew one of them and I felt like she lied to me. It’s definitely not cool to be suprised like that.

  7. Am I being too cynical?

    No, you’re not. And you can’t even specify that your donations be used only to feed, house, clothe, etc. Even if they agree, that just frees up monies from another pot that they can put toward evangelism. Either way, you’re contributing toward spreading their religion.

  8. @Billy Clyde Tuggle Very good point.
    Why do the evangelists assume that the hungry and homeless are also starving for spiritual enlightenment? I seem to have missed the correlation there. The opposite doesn’t seem to be true – aren’t there lots of well fed people who practice no religion? I think the hungry just make easy targets. Personally, I would rather starve than sit through a sermon.

  9. While some faith based operations will have those receiving help/assistance listen to some form of witnessing, inner city missions most notably with sermon before meal, the majority no longer do this and it’s seen as somewhat 19th centaury by many of the biggest Christian outreach organizations such as World Vision and efforts by non fundamentalist denominations. Also many denominations have substantial third world medical clinic outreaches that simply provide medical care with no sermonizing.

    I don’t think anyone who asks how the money you give to a non profit organization is going to be spent is anything more than prudent and responsible, certainly not cynical. But the model of having a group of people sit through a religious services complete with sermon and singing happens every evening in nearly every city of any size with a downtown homeless outreach mission. Why should someone be surprised that some folk wanted to maintain this practice given its known historical tradition, and anyone going to a downtown mission knows that the sermon comes before the meal? If you don’t like this then start your own charity or give somewhere else. Many of these missions are the only hope for many homeless, mentally ill and desperate people and while this may not be ideal it is the current reality.

  10. Hmm, I wrote something a lot longer but deleted it in favor of something more straight to the point.

    Basically I agree with Billy Clyde Tuggle and James Fox in there assessments.

    I feel it does come off a bit accusatory that they may have some deviously hidden agenda, that they don’t actually care about serving the poor and their true motivation is to convert people. That it’s not possible those helpings the poor see it as serving god and that alone is the motivation.

    Instead of being cynical you could a) take a wait and see approach in which if you don’t approve of their actions you can give your resources, be it time or money, to another organization. b) give them a small donation initially and see what they do with it, and decide later if you want to keep giving, or c) not give any money or resources to any organization but rather make accusations of ulterior motives to those who are trying to make a difference, while doing nothing yourself. (this isn’t meant to be a snide remark at you writerdd, as I don’t personally know you)

  11. I know quite a few people who need to go to rehab because they are alcoholics (my younger sister and an ex-bf among them) but they refuse to go to AA because of all the god-talk. I honestly think putting GOD! into everything that’s “supposed to help people!!!!” just leaves a whole bunch of people out that need the help just as much as those who don’t mind the GOD! talk.

  12. The problem is that some religious beliefs, even though they are based on error, do help people sometimes.

    The concept of a “higher power” is integral to the AA program, and AA would not work without it.

    Personally, I was a LOT happier as a Christian, than I am as an atheist. That’s just a fact. Believing in a loving, all-powerful God who made “all things work together for good” was a huge stress-reliever, as were the clear moral and behavioral guidelines.

    The atheists need to come up with programs that works just as well without all the hooey. I suppose that’s the job of the psychiatrists and chemists. I honestly don’t know what to do about it.

    But anyway, Go Chemists!

  13. I sent this follow up email to my SIL:

    Hi. I hope my comment didn’t sound snarky. I meant that [Mr. WriterDD] and I would consider donating money to support a charity that is helping the poor, but we don’t give money to organizations that promote specific religions, so I was trying to feel out what direction you were going with this project. If it’s just to provide food, etc., we’d be interested. But if it involves witnessing and spreading the gospel, then that doesn’t work for us.

  14. @RoaldFalcon: AA doesn’t work. Not in any meaningful way when it comes to relapse studies and recidivism. I don’t think it has anything to do with the god talk, just a bad treatment modality.

  15. @James Fox: “Can I buy you a drink?”

    That’d be great. I guess I do sound like I need one sometimes.

    But since AA doesn’t work….I better be careful!

  16. I’m not sure. Sometimes I tend to be a little too skeptical of the people closest to me who are probably the only people who deserve the benefit of the doubt. I have to keep my desire to play the Advocatus Diaboli in check, with some people.

  17. Cynical, yes. “Too” cynical, no! It’s the religious community’s own fault that the rest of us distrust them so much, and with good reason. Maybe they should do something about that!

  18. Cynical? I think not. I think that religions that proselytize, spread though a society in a manner similar to a virus. Only those with a strong immune system resist(Read Skepticism). Sadly, religions will exploit those, who need aid, in order to expand there ranks. Ironically, the people proselytizing truly feel they are helping.

  19. Not so much cynical, more skeptical. Anything other than merely inviting people to their church makes the whole charity thing seem like an angle to me.
    So what happens to the needy folk if they decline to join the ranks, or play along at all. Are they eventually given an ultimatum? Are they henpecked by churchisms until they run screaming back into the streets?

  20. writerdd: I’d say you were being just cynical enough.

    In our day to day lives, far more harm is caused though misguided good intentions than through a deliberate desire to harm. Just because someone means well doesn’t mean they will ultimately succeed in doing good.

  21. One word (well, acronym really): CAFOD

    CATHOLIC Aid For Overseas Development

    For a while now, I’ve hoped someone would start AAFOD…

  22. @Marsh: Yes, but there isn’t, is there. That’s something that has always bugged me about athiests. They feel they can’t support religious charity work because they disagree with thier reasons for doing it. So instead they’ll do…. nothing.

  23. @skepticalhippie

    So you know exactly how much time and money every Atheists gives to charity?

    They all do nothing?

  24. They feel they can’t support religious charity work because they disagree with thier reasons for doing it. So instead they’ll do…. nothing.

    Not the reasons. The fact that they use the charity as a platform for gaining converts. I am more than happy to contribute to a charity run by a religious organization if they keep the charity separate from proselytizing.

    And there are many secular charities to which those who do object to the religious reasons behind many charities can donate.

  25. @writerdd: That’s it exactly – I’m happy to donate to a charity that keeps it’s preaching and it’s aid in separate boxes, but there’s something unsettling about the two going openly hand in hand… from there, it really isn’t any kind of step away from the ‘Church’ of Scientology sending along worker bees to relieve stress and offer aid after the London bombings etc – how much of it is for genuine humatarian reasons, and how much is for shamefaced recruitment and PR?

  26. (apologies for the awful grammar, that’s what I get for opining swiftly and slyly whilst at work! Let’s just leave it with a few ‘its’ rather than ‘it’s’ and switch to ‘humanitarian’…)

  27. @skepticalhippie: That’s simply not true- atheists give plenty and often of their time and money to charitable causes- there’s simply a visibility problem when you don’t already have bodies of mobilized people, structures, and capital with the same brand name.

    As for writerdd’s considerations being cynical, I wouldn’t say so-I think you are trying to navigate the murky waters of tradeoffs that all nontheists must in a theistic world-when does moderate faith make people nice and when does it provide cover for the fundiebats? Where do the fundiebats stop and the moderates start-when both seem to vote against no-brainer Good Things in equal proportions? How much is proselytizing from a family member/romantic partner/coworker/whatever a form of personal expression of concern for your wellbeing and of their beliefs, and to what extent is it an unwelcome invasion?

    Your line of questioning seems like the sort of cautious, skeptical support we all need to exercise in a crazy world.

    I had a version of this a little closer to home just a couple months ago. I have a lot of cousins, and its pretty standard issue for them to come knocking with various fundraisers or pledge drives for travel abroad for school or competitions or the like, and my family invariably provides support-travel is ranked as a Good Thing for curing provincialism and expanding horizons. The last request, though, came from a cousin whose family has gone off into Christian SuperWoo Land, and the money was for a mission trip to Thailand. So, if we chose to support her, to what extent were we furnishing her with access to a mind-expanding experience, with exposure to other cultures and socioeconomic conditions, and to what extent were we paying for another footsoldier of SkyGod to trammel on other people’s peace and quiet?

  28. wet_bread has it exactly right. The next move will show their hand.

    Maybe they could modify it to preash WHILE the poor and hungry eat. At least it wouldn’t seem like outright coercion on the down and out.

  29. Or better yet, why don’t they just have the religious pamphlets, bibles, and preachers readily available *just in case* someone is interested in learning more? If actions speak louder than words, then you shouldn’t need to cram religious propaganda down throats while doing a good deed. …not that I’m trying to give religious people any ideas.

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