Season's Warning: The Bowery Mission

The other day, I got this piece of mail soliciting donations for a “Thanksgiving meal ticket” for New York City’s homeless, from an organization calling itself the Bowery Mission:

I skimmed the letter, which looked like a run-of-the-mill charity solicitation. (I normally give to America’s Second Harvest for this sort of thing.) I was about to throw it away when a thought occurred to me: The name “The Bowery Mission” sounds distinctly religious, but I hadn’t noticed anything in the letter to indicate that this was anything other than a secular organization.

I went back and read more closely, and this time I found it, buried in small print on the back of the donation form:

We are committed to:
• Using your contributions faithfully and wisely, in accordance with our mission to minister in New York City to men, women and children caught in cycles of poverty, hopelessness and dependencies of many kinds, and to see their lives transformed to hope, joy, lasting productivity and eternal life through the power of Jesus.

…Our meals are the primary reason many people come to The Bowery Mission. Once they’re here, we introduce them to the full services of our Mission and to the power of God to change lives.

From researching this group on their website, I found that they are and have always been a religious organization – one that, in their own words, “strive[s] to achieve a balance between preaching the need for personal salvation and translating faith into action via the social Gospel”. But, aside from that easily overlooked small-print disclaimer, there is nothing in their letter that says this.

It would be eminently possible for a non-Christian to read this letter and decide to donate under the mistaken assumption that this is a secular charity – and this, I suspect, is precisely what the Bowery Mission intends. By avoiding upfront disclosure of their religious intent, they’re more likely to receive donations from people who would not give if they knew their money would be used for Christian evangelizing. Their religious nature is made more apparent on their website, but even there it is far from prominent.

To be clear, I don’t object to religious groups providing charity for the needy. I don’t even object to those groups engaging in proselytism as part of the bargain, so long as their funding comes only from private sources. What I do object to is misleading solicitation that phrases a group’s mission in secular terms, when in fact sectarian preaching and evangelism are part and parcel of that mission. When I donate to charity, I want 100% of my donation to be spent on providing aid to those who need it. I don’t want any of that money to be spent on promoting religious ideologies that are untrue and that accomplish nothing toward the goal at hand.

If any other atheists are solicited this holiday season by the Bowery Mission, beware! Your gift may not be put towards the ends you expect. There are many worthwhile secular charities, ones that simply seek to aid human beings in need without spreading false and divisive religious ideologies. We should seek to aid them instead.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Christopher

    I don’t give to charity anyway – they do little more than perpetuate a mentality of dependence on outside forces for support, robbing the individual of self-relience.

  • mike

    Hey Ebon, the pictures aren’t showing correctly from the permalink page — only from the site index. Looks like you’ll need to add a leading slash to the image URIs.

  • Ebonmuse

    Thanks, fixed.

  • Michael

    @ Christopher

    Yeah, those spoiled orphans after tsunamis and earthquakes should get their act together and get rid of that mentality of dependence!

  • Antigone

    *rolls eyes* And Christopher comes in to remind us all how moral he is in his amorality. Better to die strong then to get help and be weak, right?

  • Alex Weaver

    Now if only someone would fix the script that automatically posts slight variants of the same “sore loser in a game best won by reciprocal altruism” comments every time a vaguely related topic comes up.

  • Valhar2000

    I find it best to ignore Christopher when he gets all extremist in his libertarianism. I mean, when you steer him away from that subject, he’s alright.

  • Ebonmuse

    Christopher, you have made your viewpoint on these areas more than abundantly clear. Stop dragging threads off-topic.

  • Christopher


    And Christopher comes in to remind us all how moral he is in his amorality. Better to die strong then to get help and be weak, right?

    I know you say that sarcastically, but yes I would much rather die in position of strength that continue living in a position of weakness: better to die a king than live as a pauper.

  • Christopher

    And that’s my last comment here.

  • Antigone


    I don’t wish to drag this further off topic, so I’ll ignore your “king” comment, except for this:

    I prefer to have my name spelled correctly. It’s common courtesy.

  • Cerus

    It saddens me to think of the great sum of money I’ve given away through tithing over 15 years, that it all could have gone to a much worthier cause.

  • Brad

    Religious charities are notorious for secular advertising. It really is dishonest, but I suppose the churches think the ends justify the means or something. Ebonmuse, you said,

    Your gift may not be put towards the ends you expect.

    Christopher has made a similar point. In abundence, yes, but relevant here as well in that we are talking about the well-being of the poor. Should he not talk about that on this post?

    Also, I agree that blind charity isn’t always useful, and is even detrimental. Personally, I would like to see charity spent on helping people become economically and mentally independent. This helps both society and the individual in the long run. For example, I remember Google expanded a free phone number and voice mail project:

    For homeless individuals, a phone is a luxury, and yet, telephony communications is an essential tool in our society. Without a phone number you can’t apply for a job or even get on a waiting list for low-income housing.

    The other services associated with the homeless shelters are debatable. Another, more globally broad initiative is known as “microcredit” or “microfinance,” where the poor are given avenues in which to obtain financially sustainable circumstances. The Christian organization Habitat for Humanity is such an organization. Once again, the efficacy of these types of initiatives is debatable. This leads me to suggest, Ebonmuse, a post on what you think of Catholic Social Teaching’s main tenets from a humanist perspective. Note that CST is not a specific and minute part of religion, it is actually very broadly accepted.

  • Godless Woman

    I have had a few people come up to my door asking for pop bottle donations or monetary donations for different activities, such as a soup kitchen or a teen rec center. In each case their speech didn’t include that they were a religious organization, but when I asked them if it was ran by one they kinda stuttered out a yes and had a look on their faces like they really weren’t supposed to say that.

  • The Ridger

    teach a man to fish lolcat style

  • Leum

    I have to confess some confusion. Why are religious charities hiding their affiliation? In a country where 70+% of the people are Christian, is there really such a strong impact on donations if they admit to being religious?

  • Ebonmuse

    I’d very much like to know that myself. Then again, the demographics of New York City may well be different from the demographics of the country as a whole.

  • Lynet

    Well, I would guess that it comes down to this:

    (a) More people support helping the poor than support proselytization.

    (b) Those people who do support proselytization would prefer to be supporting proselytization by someone who agrees with them in as many respects as possible.

    Admit to trying to convert people, and you’ll find that only those who agree with your theology will donate to you.

  • Leum


    I don’t know. The Salvation Army seems to do all right, but maybe people forget that they’re a specific denomination since their charity work is so famous.

    I suspect you’re largely correct though, but I don’t think it explains the situation entirely.

  • Modusoperandi

    Valhar2000 “I find it best to ignore Christopher when he gets all extremist in his libertarianism.”
    Did you see the pins that the Libertarians are all wearing now? All they say is “Mine!”

    Christopher “…but yes I would much rather die in position of strength that continue living in a position of weakness: better to die a king than live as a pauper.”
    How’s that working out for you? Still reading Rand in the “apartment” in your parents’ basement?

    On topic: to be fair, the Bowery people are fairly liberal (theologically) and follow the Social Gospel. To True Christians they’re practically heretics, but as far as I’m concerned the Social Gospel isn’t bad. I don’t really care if the plate of food comes with a prayer, as long as the plate of food comes with food. It’s better by far than using your donations to send bibles to Iraq or buying the pastor a new Lincoln, but it’s unfortunate that they aren’t more up front about their motivation (and the attached strings).

  • Nes

    In addition, I’d also suggest that the Salvation Army does as well as it does because it has those damned annoying bell ringers* outside of stores making people feel guilty (or at least trying to) if they don’t donate.

    Having just now looked at their position statements, I can safely say that they will never see a penny from me (which is too bad, as my position at work allows me to see that they help a lot of people in my community; but I just can’t support an organization that takes many of the positions that they do).

    (* – Listening to the bell ringing for 4+ hours straight while at work is beyond aggravating. The bell ringers themselves may not be annoying.)

  • Sam

    This simply makes me sad to think that people who profess to sacrifice for others would collect money and appear charitable, and then use that money for their own benefit (and false beliefs). Though it probably shouldn’t, this surprises me, and actions such as this continue to surprise me daily.