Season’s Warning: The Bowery Mission

Season’s Warning: The Bowery Mission October 5, 2008

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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