Beyond the Pandemic: Charity vs. Justice (Part I)

Since direct volunteer opportunities are limited for me (no one seems to want a 75-yr.-old high-risk guy hanging around!), I’ve been considering other ways to support all the people who are so impacted by COVID-19.

That thinking brought me back to an important distinction.  As clearly as I’ve seen this put:

Charity Justice
Charity = social service.  Provides direct services like food, clothing, shelter. Justice = social change.  Promotes change in institutions or political structures.
Examples:  homeless shelters, food shelves, clothing drives, emergency services. Examples:  legislative advocacy, changing policies and practices, political actions.
Charity responds to immediate needs.  Cleans up messes. Justice responds to long-term needs.  Corrects and prevents messes.

Source:  Office for Social Justice, Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis

To be sure, charity has its place.  People in immediate, dire need who receive wise charity can find not only tangible help, but a sense of respect, affirmation and empowerment.  Yet in his book Toxic Charity based on 30 years of inner-city experience, Robert Ludlum critiques the vast majority of charity as most unwise.   He notes that it leaves recipients ashamed, dependent and disempowered (more on that in Part II).

While there is often overlap and interweaving between charity and justice, the distinction is vital.  Consider with me the variation in our attitudes and actions that tend to accompany each:


In Charity Mode In Justice Mode
I contribute money to well-known social service organizations. I contribute to grass-roots organizations focused on changing systems.
I may volunteer for a shift per week in a helping capacity. I attend rallies, speak-outs, protests which are organized by the victims of injustice.
I feel pleased to be helpful, feel good about myself. I’m humbled by how much I don’t know, haven’t had to experience.
I lend knowledge and expertise while serving on boards or committees I take direction from those who know much better than I what is needed.
I feel compassion and sympathy for those I am helping. I’m glad to be giving a gift to them. I feel awed by the grit and resilience of those struggling for fair treatment.  I’m receiving the gift of humility and inspiration.
I try to teach what I know, what I believe would be helpful. I learn what true struggle is like and begin to recognize that I’m part of the systems that dole out injustice.
I receive praise, maybe awards for my work from my family, co-workers and neighbors. I’m sometimes at odds with my family, co-workers and neighbors for what they consider radical views and actions.


Again, distinctions are not always crystal clear.  Even when I’m engaged with a grass-roots justice effort, I can find myself slipping into an attitude of charitable superiority, even condescension.  I’m less defensive about that than I used to be.  I understand now that those attitudes are so deeply embedded in me, so hard-wired that they will continue to surface the rest of my life.  I just hope to be better at catching them and checking myself.  If I don’t catch/check, and those attitudes leak out, there’s no need for defensiveness, for reactions or excuses.  Just acknowledge my white superiority and move on.

The author Debby Irving (Waking Up White) tells of the years she spent working full-time in charitable efforts, and the disillusionment she would experience when the people she was helping didn’t show gratitude!!  That’s a sure sign that some attitudes are seriously out of whack.  In time and with help, she began to recognize that “I was part of a national pattern of white people deciding what people of color needed,” and doing it from a position of superiority:

  • “Aren’t I being kind to help you, poor thing?”
  • “I know just what’s needed here.”
  • “If you’ll just do things as I tell you to do….”
  • Etc.

She came to recognize that the people she was attempting to “help” knew far better than she did what they needed.  What they wanted was someone to work with them to help them achieve that.  They sensed her superior attitude, found it condescending and disempowering.  Predictably, she came to feel resentful about their lack of gratitude for all her hard work!

I worked with men in prison full-time for four years, and as a volunteer for many years after.  I entered as a classic “charitable” helper.  Fortunately, they hung in with me while I was brought face-to-face with my arrogance, my judgmentalism and my lack of ability to truly connect.  I needed to be brought down a few pegs, to become one member of a circle of people who were working on their lives.  Then my involvement morphed into two-way relationships.

Racial Bias Word Cloud

As always, I offer these reflections for your consideration, especially during this time of extreme need for so many.  For now, I’m exercising charity (some suggestions below) out of necessity.  But the test for all of us will come as we look to structure a new normal:

  • Whose lead will I follow?
  • How will I respond to the severe injustices that have been revealed?
  • How will I pursue justice vs. charity going forward?


If you’re able to contribute financially now, consider these possibilities for supporting organizations that are channeling help directly to people most in need in our city:

The Community Crisis Fund, a combined effort of United Way of Greater Rochester and The Community Foundation, specifically focused on responses to the pandemic.

St. Joseph’s Neighborhood Center – located among residents with pressing needs at this time especially.

United Christian Leadership Ministries ; normally focused on justice initiatives; currently also working with families in need:  c/o Rev. Lewis Stewart, 43 Wembley Rd. Rochester, NY  14626.

Contribute to Central Church of Christ, assisting people in need.  Minister Clifford Florence (585) 202-9651.

The Fr. Lawrence Tracy Advocacy Center, 821 N. Clinton Ave. Rochester 14605.  The website says they are closed, but they are definitely working behind the scenes!.


Other Resources:

Sundays Webinar series by Nanette Massey:  “Venturing Beyond the Race Echo Chamber”    Topic discussion and conversation.

Get a subscription to Minority Reporter – to help support it, and to be informed on possibilities for action.  Excellent source of local news as it impacts minority communities.

Follow on Facebook:  Take It Down Planning Committee for important activities and issues.

Contact Action for a Better Community (ABC) for information on local volunteer opportunities and important local news.

12 thoughts on “Beyond the Pandemic: Charity vs. Justice (Part I)”

  1. Thanks, Frank, very thought provoking and so true. I compared what we are doing with REACH Advocacy with the chart and hope I am accurate in thinking we are trying to create a more just system for housing. We need long term change for housing vulnerable individuals who can not afford even “affordable” housing.


    1. What an excellent response, Sarah! From what I know of REACH, it does seem that you are doing much-needed charity, with an eye toward more permanent solutions – the justice piece! Keep it going!


  2. Love this distinction…Think about what St. Vincent DePaul said..something like “Will the poor forgive us for our charity?” Definitely required reading for the Board of Feminists Choosing Life.


    1. Thanks for weighing in, Carol. I do hope I didn’t disparage charity too much. There’s a way of doing it that’s consistent with justice. I just wanted to make the distinction sharp.


  3. Frank, breaking down the difference between Charity and Justice is really helpful. I have heard you speak of it and understood what you meant by the attitude of charity as being possibly condescending but I didn’t understand what you meant by justice. Thank you for the time and effort you put into these blogs.


  4. Frank< there is also CASA, that assists children in the family court. I was a CASA, a court appointed child advocate, both in California and Rochester NY and the people in the oh so small CASA office (i hear that they moved to better digs) are great! It can be very rewarding to impact the life of a child in what is mostly dire circumstances and I am pretty sure they accept us older folks. Check it out:
    Local # 585-428-5297
    Tell Mary Ann Wolfe i said hello if you call… she's GREAT!


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