Team: Volunteers and committee members at Cornerstone Foundation’s Christmas store. *Photo supplied
Team: Volunteers and committee members at Cornerstone Foundation’s Christmas store. *Photo supplied

Have you ever read something that caused you to rethink the way you have been doing things for years?

Perhaps you may have happened upon some information which challenged you to critically evaluate actions and attitudes you believed were steeped in tradition, built on solid foundations, and so were right?

Two books, Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton and When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett, caused Cornerstone Foundation to take another look at our benevolence policy for the holiday season and evaluate if our philanthropic actions were actually helpful, or whether we were doing more harm than good.

Poverty is complex and it plagues almost every country in the world.

Bermuda is no exception. An impoverished individual struggling to climb out of his circumstances can become overwhelmingly discouraged, and often to the point of feeling paralyzed.

What is our moral, spiritual, biblical or socially responsible response to poverty in Bermuda?

Often we respond — just wanting to help and to make a difference — without proper analysis. 

Often the needs are so sudden, so tragic, or so great that we just gather whatever resources and manpower we can muster and get to work, helping the afflicted.

Dependency

Many long established charities and foundations work this way in response to earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, drought, floods and depressed economies. Basic human needs must be met.

What happens after that? How do we continue to help without becoming part of the problem?

I read not long ago that if you give someone something once, you elicit appreciation; twice, anticipation; three times, expectation. If you give four times you have created entitlement, and by the fifth time you have established dependency.

I recall giving a young lady who had three children a grocery voucher on a Friday, and by Monday she was back asking for another, and another…

When I simply didn’t have any more to give she cursed me, asking how was she supposed to feed her children!

With so many people struggling to pay rent, electricity and even to put food on the table, ‘What harm can there be in a handout?’ I had thought. Would I really be doing more harm than good? 

It is often easier to just pull out a few dollars and send someone on their way.

After all, it helps them address a problem and makes you feel good about yourself. What is wrong with that?

It is much harder to determine what can I do for you so you don’t become dependent on my giving to survive, or how can I invest in your life so you can use your God-given gifts and talents to support yourself and contribute to society. 

To many, including ourselves, it seems much easier to just give material goods or money to address the problem, but in doing so we were creating an entitlement mentality and in many other situations, a dependency on us, the giver.

Poor people didn’t create this problem, we did. And authors Lupton and Corbett inspired Cornerstone Foundation to look at and to respond to the problem a little differently.

For Christmas 2011 we transformed our office into what seemed like Santa’s Workshop as we put together food hampers and wrapped gifts.

In Toxic Charity, Robert Lupton describes a scene not too different from our scenario above and quite common for families in need during the Christmas season:

“We watched as the children danced with excitement, yet the mothers seemed self-conscious and subdued.

“On the other hand, the fathers would leave the room only to return after the gift givers had departed.

“For the first time, I saw the darker side of our giving tradition, as parents were exposed for their inability to provide for their families in their own home and, in front of their own children. Our system of kindness was destroying their pride.”

We reflected on our Christmas store of 2011. We remembered that quite a few families, mostly single moms, picked up hampers and gifts, and as the season of giving approached they seemed tired but relieved to be on the receivers’ list.

Were we really helping or were we simply filling an immediate void?

We hadn’t really given much thought to our charity model, but we were coming to the conclusion that it really wasn’t working as well — and in the spirit — for which it was intended.

For Christmas 2012 we did something different. We decided to give a ‘hand-up’ rather than a ‘handout’. We opened up a Christmas store and invited low-income families whom we knew or who were recommended to us through schools or other community programmes we are involved with, to shop in our store.

We stocked the shelves with brand new toys, iTunes cards, Wii games and a large order of non-perishable goods from Butterfield & Vallis.

Vision

We also sold fresh apples and oranges. We decorated the store, offered free gift-wrapping, and had children singing Christmas carols, all to create a warm and welcoming holiday shopping experience.

All merchandise was significantly discounted. Shoppers had the opportunity to make choices and to feel good about how they were spending their money.

Children saw Mom or Dad’s sacrifice at the check-out counter. There were no free toys or groceries; it was a shopping experience.

We hoped our store gave a small gift of dignity back to those who were struggling, discouraged, and less fortunate than ourselves.

Cornerstone Foundation would like to thank all our individual and corporate sponsors, and, in particular, Butterfield & Vallis, BELCO, Friesenbruch-Meyer Group, Orbis Investments, Burville Ltd., Phoenix Stores, Arnold’s, People’s Pharmacy and Sports R Us. 

Thank you for supporting this shared vision for our community.

All proceeds from the Cornerstone Christmas Store help to support the CedarBridge Academy lunch programme.

We are now planning a Back-to-School store for September.

Our hope is to offer low-income families the opportunity to equip their children for a successful academic school year in 2013-14.

Gary Simons is senior pastor at the Cornerstone Bible Fellowship. It meets every Sunday at 10am at the Ruth Seaton James Auditorium, CedarBridge Academy. Contact 295-9640.