It is funny to me that I hear this term used sometimes as an insult, or at least as a way to critique people who are trying to do good things in their community. I have been called a do gooder in regards to my work at HOMEpdx with folks who live outside in Portland, at best by people who just didn’t understand our relationally-focused work with those living outside, and at worst by those who saw our work as disrupting their safe and secure middle-class existence. I took these small jabs in stride, even seeing them as a badge of honor. After all, I had been called worse, and my friends outside get called worse every day.
But I also came to realize that there is a better reason to be wary of being a do gooder. I came to see that in my effort to do good for those around me, for those in my community, I can actually end up hurting them. That my efforts to go good can end up doing bad. My friend and mentor Ken Loyd often talks about do gooders. About how the church is often full of do gooders. And how this is a good thing! But, he says, in our efforts to do good, we so often end up hurting those we are trying to love and serve.
At the end of the day, I think most churches and individuals who desire to love and serve those living outside would want their work to do good and not harm. Yet it is amazing how defensive people and churches can be when you point out the harm that can come from certain ways of giving and serving. When people have brought food, gifts, or other items that my friends outside don’t want or need, and I kindly let them know a better thing to bring next time, I have been told things like, “Well, at least we are giving," or “Hey, giving something is better than nothing.” And I do understand. Here you are, trying to help, and your efforts are met with criticism, however kindly it is communicated. But if we want to take serious the idea that in our desire to do good we can end up doing bad, then we can’t take these criticisms personally. Because it is not about us. It is not about our intentions, however noble they might be.
It is about my friends who live outside.
Which brings us to what I think is the main reason we inadvertently hurt poor people we want to help: We don’t know them. Which makes it harder to listen to them. So much of the harm that comes from efforts to do good for the poor might be done away with if those who desire to give and serve would take a pause before doing so in order to listen and know those they wish to serve. Then they might see why a meal devoid of protein isn’t the best thing to serve. Or why certain clothing items are not needed as much as other ones. And the simple fact of knowing another person makes it less likely that we will assume anything about their needs and wants.
This is why I truly believe that if the church wants to love and serve the poor, the church must know those who are poor. I know this isn’t easy. And I also know this won’t fix all the harm that comes from good intentions. I mean, I have spent the last three years trying to listen to my friends who live outside, and I still fail sometimes at causing harm when I try and do good. But if we want to truly love and serve our neighbors who live outside, we must listen. We must learn. We must be willing to leave our comfort zones.
Because at the end of the day, us do gooders might not only find betters ways of doing good. We might also meet some new friends in the process.