Yogi Berra once said, “To say a player has potential means he hasn’t done it yet.” There are lots of folks offering ideas about Christian community development they say have potential for transforming communities. Bob Lupton doesn’t just have potential ideas. He has done it for more than thirty years in Atlanta. I’ve been following his work since I first became aware of him at Eastern University twenty years ago.
Last spring he published Compassion, Justice, and Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor, a short but powerful book reflecting on the essentials of Christian Community development. Unlike so many activists, Lupton understands basic economic realities and incorporates them into his development strategies. Bottom line, Lupton sees people as the image of God. We are all called to stewardship and the poor have been excluded from that call. They must be reintegrated into the world of markets and exchange to become restored stewards and images of God. True transformation of the poor, in economic terms, occurs when people become responsible for themselves, not when they are made objects of romanticism and pity as is so frequently happens with many social justice advocates. Lupton writes:
Remember your last garage sale? Or the last antique bargain you purchased at a flea market? Or the last car you traded? How is it that when a transaction is done well both purchaser and seller come away with a sense of gain? It’s the magic of exchange. And it transcends the boundaries of age and gender, race and class. Whether the find is a rare Babe Ruth baseball card, a silk blouse reduced for quick sale or the perfect piece of land at the right price, the ecstasy of exchange is for all to enjoy.
Exchange is remarkably invigorating process. The very thought of acquiring a new treasure motivates us to calculate value, rearrange priorities, juggle finances, analyze past performance and make predictions about the future. And ultimately, it pushes us to the risky edge of letting go of something valued in the hopes of gaining that which will be of greater worth to us.
However, when the labor you offer is unneeded in the marketplace of when your abilities area worth less to employers than the amount of your welfare check, you are exchange-less. Indeed, poverty may be defined as having little of value to exchange. And when society subsidizes you for being a noncontributor, it has added insult to your already injured self-esteem. (43-44)
Later he writes:
…the time has finally arrived when we can venture out from behind our timidity and admit to ourselves that inequities are not necessarily the same as injustices – which is in no way to minimize the damaging effects of injustice. To be sure, many inequities are created by human malevolence, but many more, perhaps most, are not.
To pretend that, given equal opportunity, all people could do equally well is a romantic and altogether unhelpful notion. Our hearts may desire it to be so and political correctness may keep us from publicly saying otherwise, but kindhearted denial is hardly a kindness. We are equal neither in capacity nor potential. We are equal only in responsibility.
Of course, there will always be those among us who must rely on the responsibility of others – infants, Alzheimer’s patients, the severely brain-damaged. But for the rest of us we are responsible to do the best with the uneven hands we have been dealt. Remove the personal accountability and atrophy of the spirit sets in. (71-72)
Then there are his great little one-liners that I have enjoyed reading over the years:
Good neighbors are preferable to good programs any day. And they’re a whole lot cheaper. (93)
In the next to last section of the book he writes:
The marketplace gifts, often unappreciated by the softer sciences, are essential to the transformation suggested in the preceding pages. Thus, my parting words are directed specifically to those who make their living in the marketplace. (111) [Unappreciated? Kind of like Darth Vader was "unppreciated" by the rebel alliance. J]
Chapter Seven's story about a clothes closet ministry that degenerated into a power struggle between providers and clients until a group of Methodist businessmen got involved and evolved markets is priceless.
Lupton is an exceptionally engaging and lucid writer. At 140 pages this is a very quick read but there is enough here to set your brain spinning for days. It gives a window into what Christian community development could like based on tried and true methods. I highly recommend this book.
You can learn more about Robert Lupton and Family Consultation Services (FCS) Urban Ministries. You can also sign up for his monthly Urban Perspectives newsletters and read issues dating back to 1993.
From the book’s back cover:
ROBERT D. LUPTON has invested more than 34 years in inner city Atlanta. He is a Christian community developer, an entrepreneur who brings together communities of resource with communities of need. Through Family Consultation Service Urban Ministries, which he directs, he has developed three mixed-income subdivisions, organized two multiracial congregations, started many businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide variety of human services. He earned a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia. He speaks at conferences and churches across the nation, and consults with similar missions.