A pilgrimage to Rome comes complete with the whole range of Catholic experiences. As you gaze at the splendor of Michelangelo’s dome, your coat tail is tugged by an ancient looking crone with a begging cup. As you stroll across St Peter’s Square, you might spot (or smell) the toilets and showers for the homeless set up on the sidelines by Pope Francis.

As you visit the historic basilicas and churches you can bet on the beggars with their pleading expressions, their practiced poverty and their sometimes studied squalor, and if you watch for them, you’ll see Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity busily serving the down-and-outs.

Jesus said, “The poor you shall have with you always,” and the Catholic Church doesn’t disappoint.

The poor—whether they are genuine or not—congregate around Catholic churches because the needy know we care. Down through the ages Catholics, along with other Christians have rolled up their sleeves and got to work feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, healing the sick, educating the ignorant and tending the dying.

It is one of the marks of Christian authenticity. We should be proud that the poor populate our porches and parking lots.

Helping the poor may be one of the most compelling things we do, but it is also one of the most complex. We’re supposed to help the poor, but how do we do that? Is the quick handout after Mass or the hastily written check really the answer?

A priest of my acquaintance who does admirable work with the poor tells his wealthy parishioners, “Just give them money. You have it. They don’t. They need it, and you need to give.”

Well, maybe and maybe not.

In America’s complex culture, who is poor and what comprises poverty? Is it just a lack of food and decent housing? Anyone who has even started to work with the needy will soon realize that the problems of the poor are bewilderingly complex, and that very often the charity we dish out contributes to the problem rather than curing it.

I work as the priest of a small parish in the roughest area of a prosperous Sun Belt city. Greenville, South Carolina, is famous as the home of Bob Jones University. Upstate South Carolina is redder than a lobster with sunburn, where no one apologizes for clinging to their guns and their religion.

The state might be red, but we’re not all rednecks. Greenville is also home to the North American HQ of Michelin and BMW. Down the road is the famous Clemson University. High-end Furman University is on the edge of town, and Greenville’s downtown is in the textbooks as a model for successful urban renewal.

There is a brisk cosmopolitan atmosphere, with plenty of smooth restaurants, galleries, concert venues and sports facilities.

My parish however, sits on a junction of the major North-South artery I-85. Surrounded by hotels, restaurants and gas stations that were prosperous thirty years ago, the area around our parish is one of Greenville’s shadows.

The gas stations, hotels and restaurants that are not boarded up have become the haunts of hookers, pushers and gang members. The once lower-middle-class housing has become the refuge for low-income immigrants, the indigent, the addicts and disabled.

The people with get up and go, have got up and gone.

But we’re still there as a Catholic witness. Our little parochial school is open for business, we’re building a new church and trying to reach out to those in need. For decades we have run a successful food pantry. On Saturday mornings our parishioners turn up to distribute groceries to the folks who huddle in the cold for a handout.

We’re not alone. It  happens all across this prosperous, largely Christian town.

I asked the hefty and rather blunt director of one of the major Baptist charities what it was like to be homeless and hungry in Greenville.

“Hungry in Greenville?” he chuckled. “If you’re hungry in Greenville and know where to go, you can get three cooked meals free of charge every day of the year.”

“Even Christmas?”

“Especially Christmas.”

“Does it do any good?”

“Well, they’re not hungry,” he admitted. “That’s about it.”

Those who run the soup kitchens, homeless shelters, food pantries and welfare programs are constantly faced with the dilemma of how to help genuinely those who line up for bags of food.

“Are we really helping people by simply giving them groceries, soup and a sandwich?” Don’t they have greater needs? By giving handouts aren’t we like the family members of an alcoholic who make excuses, turn a blind eye, bail him out and prop him up? Aren’t we encouraging dependency and enabling indigence? Aren’t the handouts humiliating?

Do the folks we help really need food, or do they need much more?

Atlanta author Robert D. Lupton asks the tough questions in his provocative book Toxic Charity.  Based on his forty years’ experience working in front line urban renewal projects, Lupton challenges American Christian assumptions about charitable work.

He contends that handouts not only do not relieve poverty, but they encourage poverty. He uses Africa as a large scale example. Since 1964 the African continent has received well over $1 trillion in aid, yet country by country, Africans are worse off than ever. The overall per-capita income is less than it was in the 1970s, with over half of Africans living on less than $1 a day.

Quoting African economist and author of Dead Aid,  Dambisa Moyo, Lupton says toxic charity is the “disease of which it pretends to be the cure.”

Do-gooder governments and NGOs are not the only ones to come under Lupton’s fire. He asks why American church groups spend millions on so called “mission trips,” which too often turn overworked and underfunded aid workers into tour guides for suburban teens, undermine the local labor market and encourage further dependency.

He tells of local church communities in the developed world who do nothing but provide endless hospitality and logistics management for “poverty tourists” who come for a week or two, gawp at the poor, paint some playground equipment, and then go home.

With shocking naiveté and crass cultural condescension, we waltz into other countries and cultures waving our wallets and providing solutions that are often inappropriate, insulting and ineffective in the long term.

Lupton tells first hand stories of his work among the urban poor in Atlanta, recounting how the well meaning and well off Christians undermine local urban communities with the misplaced charity he calls “toxic”.

What’s the antidote? Lupton lays out six principles:

  1. Never do for the poor what they can do for themselves.
  2. Limit one-way giving to emergencies.
  3. Empower the poor through employment, lending and well planned investment grants.
  4. Serve the poor, not your self image.
  5. Listen to those in need.
  6. Do no harm.

What to do with a traditional soup kitchen or food pantry? Lupton suggests turning it over to those who are being helped. Some food pantries have become food co-ops which are run by the poor for the poor.

With ownership and local management, the food pantry becomes a place of community enterprise, self reliance and pride rather than a weekly exercise in humiliation for the poor. The antidote to toxic charity is to engage and grow with those in need rather than simply giving handouts to the poor.

But this requires hard work, patience and the willingness to live and work with our neighbors. We have to roll up our sleeves, get our hands dirty and make many greater sacrifices than just writing a check or handing out groceries.

A great example of the right approach exists in my own parish. “The Turning Point” was founded by Fred McCain —an alcoholic from Brooklyn who lost his business and ended up sleeping in his car. After his own recovery, Fred helped his first fellow addict to a new life. Eventually, he bought one of the dilapidated hotels to house men in recovery.

Turning Point helps the addicts find jobs and provides transportation to work. They live together in the hotel, pay rent and go through their recovery programs. Because they’re working and contributing, the charity is self supporting—not relying on gala dinners, advancement directors and huge fund raising campaigns.

It is low key, down to earth and, on my visits, the men in recovery have a sense of pride, a sense of humor and a sense of direction and meaning to their lives.

The antidote to toxic charity is to remember that “charity” is the old fashioned word for “love.” True love desires the best for the other person. True love is never self serving, but always listens carefully to the other person— working with them patiently to grow toward all that is beautiful, good and true.

If we really want to love our neighbors we need to challenge our motives and methods—striving to avoid toxic charity, and to develop a charity that is both tough and tender and truly serves those who are in need.

(This article is adapted and expanded from one first published at Aleteia.org.)