I was raised in a Christian culture that idealized charity and mission trips. Our church, solidly middle class, was one of those large churches before there were mega-churches. When we helped people, which we did often, it was very much a patron-client model. As in:
- Our youth group is going to the soup kitchen to feed the hungry
- We are taking a group on a mission trip to help that blighted community two states away
- We are donating some funds out of our excess to the needs of people across the world who can’t afford X, Y, or Z
As I try to think back on this early formation, it occurs to me I was very rarely if ever taught that I was the hungry, the blighted community, or the needy. I was taught instead that I had so very much, and it was the Christian thing to do to give from the overflowing cup of blessings I had received.
What we especially NEVER did was go meet the racially and economically OTHER just down the hill by the river and join those communities in Christian mission.
I was supposed to have compassion ON the poor. I was not trained to see myself in solidarity WITH the poor. And I definitely was never taught to consider my/our complicity in the systems that put people in poverty in the first place.
I think I continued generally in the charity mindset until my early 20s, around the time our denomination published a rather remarkable statement on Christian mission as accompaniment. This model, focused on how global churches relate to one another, focuses on “the mutual respect of the churches that are in relationship, the companions. The conversation is no longer between a giver and a receiver, but between churches, all of which have gifts to give and to receive.”
I was already experiencing mission as accompaniment in my work as an ELCA missionary in eastern Slovakia. I was learning as a teacher that I had gifts to share, as well as much to learn, and that Christian mission could be deeply reciprocal rather than patronizing. I was also getting my first exposure to the eastern bloc, which had itself loomed large in my imagination as the system the west “opposed.”
I was a Cold War kid, and crossing that no-longer existing wall did some thawing.
However, once you have been trained in the charity mindset, it’s a lifelong journey shifting to an alternative way. Like racism, something I can work against and train in anti-racism, I’m continually learning practices of anti-charity.
A simple example: This spring and summer, when the Marshallese community was experiencing especially tragic outcomes from COVID-19, I went into my normal charity mode. And indeed, early in our planning there really was a dynamic of “we have a need and you have the resources.” However, because I had a long-standing friendship with Albious Latior, a leader in that community, we leaned on our relationship in order to discover together how to minister as Christians.
We discovered along the way needs on both sides: a need to share resources, a need to tell the story locally and nationally, culturally appropriate ways Marshallese “gift-back.” Certainly we’ve never perfectly disentangled ourselves from the charity mindset, but inasmuch as possible we’ve placed the Marshallese community itself in the driver’s seat for our way of accompanying.
I would add, notice also how this accompaniment model of ministry leans toward the local. Rather than raising funds to send missionaries far away, we have developed a relationship between different people groups right here in NWA.
Around the same time we were developing this partnership, a Facebook group emerged online titled Y’ALLIDARITY — NWA Mutual Aid. The description: “NWA Mutual Aid is a volunteer collective that exists to help build resilient communities through organizing collaborative efforts, connecting folks to existing local resources, and providing a space for the community to connect and exchange support. ”
I’m going to be vulnerable here and admit I’d never heard of “mutual aid” prior to the launch of this FB group. I’d seen t-shirts reading “Y’allidarity.” They’re kind of common among those of us who are socialists of some kind or other in the South.
But not “mutual aid.” And actually for a month or two I thought “mutual aid” was a label they’d created themselves. It was only recently I learned it had a longer pedigree.
So first, like most things, one of the best things you can do right now is pause and read about mutual aid over at Wikipedia. Do it! Wikipedia is actually a kind of model of mutual aid, so it’s the perfect place to learn more.
One thing you learn right away: mutual aid has a very long pedigree, traced all the way back to an anarchist philosopher, Peter Kropotkin, who argued that cooperation rather than competition was the driving force for evolution.
If like me you’re reading old classics right now, you might check some of his essays out.
More recent “anarchists” have continued reflecting on mutual aid, and one of the most accessible, and short, books is Dean Spade’s Mutual Aid: Building Solidarity During This Crisis.
So here’s the BIG difference between mutual aid and charity. There are actually two parts. First, mutual aid is about responding in community, creating innovative ways to share resources and support vulnerable neighbors. It’s survival work.
But mutual aid conjoins meeting basic needs with social movements demanding transformative change.
Combining aid with social movements demanding change: that was definitely NOT on the agenda of middle class churches when I was growing up, and it’s STILL not on the agenda of most churches yet today.
I know a lot of churches that feed people. I know very few churches that organize movements aiming for a basic income for everyone.
I know a lot of churches that give out a bit of cash assistance. I know of very few churches that attempt to deconstruct rich foundations so wealth stops being doled out in tiny doses by the elite.
Perhaps the pandemic has facilitated the kinds of shifts we really need right now away from patronizing charity.
Solidarity not charity! We need not just aid but transformation toward collective action.
There’s a great quote toward the end of Dean Spade’s book, taken from the document Mutual Aid Disaster Relief.
The only thing that keeps those in power in that position is the illusion of our powerlessness. A moment of freedom and connection can undo a lifetime of social conditioning and scatter seeds in a thousand directions.
I continually ask myself this question: why are so many Christian communities willing to throw themselves into forms of charity, especially ones they perceive as mostly apolitical, but they won’t lead or join social movements demanding transformative change?
Is it possible they feel powerless? Or are they in thrall to middle class captivity they can’t see that transformative change is at the heart of the gospel, not ancillary to it?
What I especially love about mutual aid is its secularity. My previous term for this, accompaniment, as useful as it is in church contexts, was developed in and by a Christian church.
Mutual aid is the work of everyone. It’s a grassroots term, a concept from down below, an-archist in the literal sense of that term.
I’m gonna lean in to learning from the mutual aid folks, because that’s the final thing I know about mutuality that leads to transformation.
Often the most faithful concepts are elevated and practiced not in the churches, but in the inspiring communities the churches are invited to join.