Archives For Helping the Poor

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Michael Jeffries

Abercrombie & Fitch refuses to make women’s clothes in XL and XXL sizes. Why? In the words of Abercrombie CEO Michael Jeffries:

“Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends…A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong.” (Read a recent article about this here.)

Whoops. Of course, the company can target any demographic it wants to. No big deal. But that’s a pretty sleazy thing to say (Abercrombie’s overall image does nothing to soften the sleaze), and it’s caused a bit of an uproar. Jeffries actually made this statement in 2006, but his words have been passed around with greater intensity recently, and a backlash is forming.

A video recently came out in which USC graduate Greg Karper calls the world to rebrand Abercrombie’s clothes. In the video, he explains that many companies will donate their defective or unsold clothes to the poor, but Abercrombie burns them so as to preserve its cool-kid-only image.

Karper’s proposed rebrand involves gathering up Abercrombie clothes and giving them to the homeless. “Together,” he says, “we can make Abercrombie & Fitch the world’s number one brand of homeless apparel.”

I’ll be honest, I find the video hilarious and clever. And there’s a sense of poetic justice to the whole thing. But in reality, Karper’s idea is a pretty awful. On the one hand, he wants to give clothes to the homeless. So it sticks it to Abercrombie, and it also helps the poor. Okay.

Don't Fitch the HomelessBut on the other hand, he’s advocating giving the clothes to the homeless because he wants to embarrass Abercrombie. In essence, Karper’s strategy validates Abercrombie’s assessment of the homeless: they’re gross. Abercrombie doesn’t want ugly people in its clothes? We’ll show them! We’ll clothe these nasty homeless people with their cool-kid-clothes.

Plus it’s one more way to further alienate the homeless. Let’s stand against this brand by getting homeless people to wear it! Rather than standing together with them, coming alongside them in their pain and alienation, this strategy uses them to poke fun at Abercrombie. And anytime you find yourself using people, you know you’ve taken a misstep somewhere.

It’s one thing to point out the sleazy nature of Jeffries’ statement. Or to choose to buy a different brand of clothes. But to manipulate a marginalized group of people in order to make your point is itself a bit, well, sleazy.

Asleep on a BenchYesterday, I wrote about what it means to love our neighbors and help those in need. Today I will continue with some additional thoughts.

Another factor pulling on us in this discussion is how much more connected our world is than it was during Lewis’s time. Many people, especially in our American nation made up of immigrants, see the rest of the world as “our people.” We are all part of the human race, right? So, why shouldn’t we want to help when disasters strike elsewhere or when we become aware of a famine in a distant land? I’m not saying that we should care about Americans more than we care about Mexicans or Canadians. It is not really about whom you love more. You should love everyone. It’s more about who is closest to us. My neighbor is closest to me and Jesus told me to love my neighbor. The child in the village in India is not really my neighbor until I come into contact with him. He is someone else’s neighbor. And that Christian neighbor, if he has one, is the one with the responsibility and the call to love him. You may actually make it more difficult for Christians in other places to love their neighbors by competing with them and their limited resources.

Do you know that you do not need to have an abundance of physical resources to love someone? You may actually be challenged to get creative or to really sacrifice something of your own to love someone. That’s what Christians are doing in India and China and Uganda. That’s when love really shines in contrast with the darkness of self-preservation.

You may be overwhelmed by all the troubles of the world today. You may feel overwhelmed because of the way people are suffering on an island 3,000 miles away from you. Do you trust that God is sending people and already has people in a lot of the places about which you are worrying? Today, there may even be someone 300 miles from you who is worrying about her sister, who is also your next door neighbor, and you are the one God has placed in your neighborhood to serve her. Don’t allow the problems of the whole world to blind you and make you feel like you have to pass by the man in the road who was beaten and lost everything to thieves. Don’t allow your politics to get in the way of loving the alien who lives in your neighborhood and works the fields everyday to care for his family, and provide fruit and vegetables to your table. When you get very good at loving your neighbor who you can see, then maybe you will be ready to understand how to love your global neighbor who you can’t see.

The second part of Lewis’s quote is also a good reminder that worrying about the rest of the world will do very little to actually confront or solve the problems. If you are so consumed with the problems of the world that you have no joy, or are unable to enjoy the good things God has given you, you won’t be much help to people who are suffering. They need hope and they need a picture of what it looks like to live the abundant life with God. Don’t lose sight of the hope of the kingdom to come; and keep praying for that kingdom and God’s will to be done in both your neighborhood and the slum across the ocean, as it is in heaven.

PovertyC.S. Lewis is easy to quote because he almost always gets it right, and he has a way of saying things that forces us to think more deeply about everyday issues. Many of us are involved in donating, volunteering or working for organizations with stated missions of “caring for the poor” or “serving people in need” in other countries. The news we see everyday and the clamoring by thousands of nonprofit organization for our attention communicate to us that there are never-ending global problems which can only be solved if we would simply get involved by giving our time, effort and money.

On the issue of local versus global charity Lewis said,

“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know).

A great many people (not you) do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don’t think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we’re doing it, I think we’re meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise.” -from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis (Volume 2, Letter of Dec. 20, 1946)

This whole movement to feed people or build infrastructure for people in other nations besides our own, with or without their help, is actually a very modern development of the past 60-75 years of world history. The idea that we need to help all people everywhere is often driven by a wartime mentality. It is also often influenced by an arrogant assumption that the world’s problems will not be solved unless we are involved. The modern movement to do international charity work is largely a result of the aftermath of our wars. Older organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have been around for over 100 years, and they were also started in the midst of war and conflict, or with a wartime mentality. Even the name “Salvation Army” makes us think of fighting a battle.

The creation and proliferation of nonprofits in America didn’t really start to take off until after WWII and then again after the Korean War. Lewis wrote this statement in a letter in 1946, after the end of WWII, when news of all the world’s problems was streaming in like never before. The British were also hit like never before on their own island and saw the devastation and suffering all around them, in addition to news about the rest of their country and the world at large. People who felt compassion (or maybe guilt) felt the need to help the suffering children and families of Europe.

We often want to help in areas where we believe someone or something else was the cause of people’s suffering; but how often do we look to make the personal or communal changes necessary to promote justice and mercy in our own communities where we and our neighbors are the causes of, or contributors to suffering? You may have noticed that Lewis is not saying we should not be involved in helping with problems far away, or supporting those who do. He, and I in agreement with him, are only saying that with all the information we are gathering to ourselves about all the evils going on in the world, we should be careful that we don’t deceive ourselves into believing that we need to be involved in helping in all of those situations, or that it is better than doing something for someone in our own community. He also warns us against the danger of imagining that our great knowledge or anxiety over all the problems is equal to being involved in providing solutions. Worrying about all the problems doesn’t do anything to fix them. It actually becomes more difficult to help people in your own neighborhood or right in front of you because you will become so overwhelmed with all of the other problems of the whole world.

Remember the story of the Good Samaritan? Think about the men who passed by before the Samaritan stopped. They had too many excuses or other things to do that they used as reasons for not helping the one in need right in front of them. You may be so heavily invested in devoting your thoughts, time and money to a charity or towards the thought of helping someone far away, that you miss a real opportunity you have to personally help someone living in your neighborhood. If you really want to help and give your life to someone far away, the best thing for you to do is probably to move there or partner with someone who lives and works there among the poor.

We’ll conclude these thoughts with another post tomorrow. Stay tuned…

I mentioned before that our book of the month feature wasn’t necessarily going to be a monthly feature. I wasn’t lying. We’ll just post about great books we’ve read whenever we feel like passing them on to you.

This “month” I want to recommend When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert. You might think that this book is only directed at people who are ambitiously trying to end world hunger, but the reality is that this book is a must read for every Christian. If you’ve ever gone on a short term mission trip, this book is for you. If you’ve ever donated money to a ministry that reaches out to the underprivileged, this book is for you. If you’ve ever felt any degree of compassion for those who are suffering…well, you guessed it.

Though North American Christians often try to live as though there were no major problems in the world, poverty is a huge problem, both overseas and in our own neighborhoods. Corbett and Fikkert convincingly argue that very often, our efforts to help those who are impoverished show our ignorance regarding the issues involved and the solutions that would truly help these people. Because of this, our efforts to help often hurt both ourselves and the poor people we are reaching out to. We hurt the people we are trying to help by making them dependent on us financially, making them feel inadequate or dehumanized, and/or removing any opportunity they have to work towards a solution to their own problems. We hurt ourselves by fostering our pride and sense of superiority when we swoop in like superman to save the day.

Their book explores the nature of poverty, the problems and systems that cause it, and the right way to think about help those who are hurting. This doesn’t mean that we leave the materially poor to solve their own problems. It means that we get actively involved in correctly diagnosing the situation and offering solutions that include the impoverished in their own relief.

I’ll highlight three profound observations that Corbett and Fikker offer, observations which have completely changed the way I think about helping those who are hurting.

The first observation is that an “asset-based” approach to addressing poverty is better than a “needs-based” approach. In a needs-based approach, we go to the affected person or area, figure out what they need, then provide it, donate it, or build it. In an asset-based approach, however, we start by finding out what the affected community has to offer. What skills, knowledge, and systems do they bring to the table that can help them address the crisis using their own resources? This is an infinitely better approach because in addition to solving the immediate problem, it also gives those who are hurting affirmation and ownership over their ability to do what needs to be done.

The second observation is an insightful distinction that Corbett and Fikkert make between relief, rehabilitation, development. We tend to think of poverty as poverty, so we respond to it all the same. But they argue that not all poverty is created equal. Some situations (such as the aftermath of hurricane Katrina) require relief. Something needs to be done immediately, and often it will entail providing money, counseling, and building materials. Rehabilitation comes when the initial crisis is over, but the community needs to rebuild to get back to where they were before. Development comes when the infrastructure of a country needs long term work to improve the overall quality of life. The problem is that North Americans tend to treat all poverty through relief strategies, and providing this type of aid typically cripples rehabilitation and development.

The final observation comes through the way they define poverty. Material poverty is what usually comes to mind when we hear about poverty, but Corbett and Fikkert identify poverty in four fundamental relationships: with God, with our fellow man, with ourselves, and with the rest of creation. When these relationships are not working properly, we are impoverished. For this reason, middle to upper class North Americans are some of the most impoverished people on the planet. Often a poverty of relationship leads to material poverty, but the most important issue to address is the poverty of relationship.

If you choose to read this book, I can pretty much guarantee that it will be a game changer in terms of the way you view poverty alleviation, short term mission trips, and the nature of poverty itself.

Buy it through our Amazon store: