Toxic Poverty Work
Healthy poverty work begins when we grapple with the idealistic belief that we can rescue people from their circumstances. I call this savior syndrome. This is when we believe that advocacy alone can rescue those in poverty and their neighborhoods.
Having this mindset is a toxic way to go about doing poverty work. The reality is loving our neighbors, disrupting injustice, and making sacrifices does not give us superpowers to rescue those who live in the condition of poverty. Accepting this is key to preventing toxicity from derailing our good intentions.
Another characteristic of toxic poverty work is paternalism. Paternalism has to do with power and authority. It is often assumed that the person who has the most resources is the one who should control the situation. This often leads to a one-sided relationship where the person or entity who has the relationship attempts to control the situation to meet their needs.
A third characteristic of toxic poverty work is burnout. I have seen too many people start off on fire for God and the neighborhood eventually leave poverty work – or, worse, lose their faith because their faith was too narrow to handle the circumstances around them. Their good intentioned poverty work morphed into a deconversion process. Doing poverty work can be like playing an 18,000-hole round of golf, and it is easy to become weary in well-doing.
Maybe the most common characteristic of toxic poverty work is cynicism. Cynicism can be toxic to our poverty work because if we dabble in it too much, we lose the hope of the Gospel. Too much cynicism hurts our ability to imagine hopeful scenarios for the people and the neighborhoods we serve. Imagination is one of the most underrated aspects of poverty work. We all want to see transformation, and that cannot happen without reinvention. And it is impossible to reinvent without using our imaginations.
Unfortunately, there is nothing we need to do to become toxic poverty workers. It is what naturally flows from our sinful nature. Therefore, the biggest antidote is self-awareness. What is our mindset concerning the poor? Do our actions towards them match biblical teaching? Are the goals of our work redemptive? These and other questions are ways that we can check ourselves and leave the rescuing to God where it belongs, and not corrupt our good intentions.
September 19, 2021 | Maury Cox
My desire is to continue to be used by God. I am a 68 year old retiree that isn’t done serving others and the Lord. But I need to be properly equipped to guard against the pitfalls mentioned.