How NOT to Help Poor People

  • Are you planning an event to highlight your work with vulnerable people?
  • Are you hosting a fundraiser to raise money for your cause?
  • If so, this post is for you and your group.

I’ll never forget an event that made me so angry I nearly walked away from it. Years ago, I was invited to be the keynote speaker at an event designed to raise money for vulnerable children. My team learned as much about the organization as possible, and had several phone conversations with the group’s leaders to prepare for the event.  They talked through their event's schedule, and everything seemed fine, over the phone, in emails, and on paper.  I felt I had a pretty good idea about how I could customize my message to the specific needs of the group, in order to raise as much money as possible for their cause.

However, when I arrived, something felt off to me.  So I just stood in the back of the room to observe the people and the energy in the room. Although it was filled with predominantly white business people who were nicely dressed, there were several “at-risk” African-American kids sitting at tables in the front of the room, all by themselves. While there is nothing wrong with black kids sitting by themselves, something felt a little off to me. What happened next substantiated my suspicions.

A well-meaning leader of the organization got on the microphone and started talking about the kids their group has helped like they were “show and tell” objects: "Little Shaniqua's mom is a crackhead, and so we thought this program would be perfect for her;" Or "Tyrone lives in one of the roughest neighborhoods around here. It's drug-invested with a bunch of thugs, but Tyrone is different..."  And so on...

After dinner, right before I was scheduled to speak, the organization decided to have an auction in order to raise money. That has happened at other events at which I have spoken, so I figured it would go seamlessly. However, when the master of ceremony, a white guy, grabbed the cordless microphone, put on a sombrero (a big Mexican hat) and started marching around the room, I didn’t have a good feeling in my gut. He was trying to get people to place the highest bid for whatever was being auctioned off.  He was dancing, gyrating, singing and getting others in the audience to do the same, all while they bid for stuff: a massage at a spa, porcelain figurines that looked like little Mexicans huddled up in a circle, a bikini, and other things like that. 

While most of the audience was having fun, laughing, and placing their bids, I couldn’t help but notice the faces of the African-American students sitting alone at their tables. They weren’t laughing. They were fake-smiling in confusion (I know that face well because I wore it quite a few times in my youth, in settings like that). They were doing their best to just go with the flow. 

I, however, was in the back of the room fuming.  I felt as though the very real plight of poor people was being cheapened. It felt like that audience just wanted to have fun, but had no REAL UNDERSTANDING ABOUT HOW HARD IT IS TO BE POOR.

There was nothing fun or funny about that auction to me.  It didn't surprise me that the group didn’t even raise that much money through their auction. I believe I could have helped them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars more (I have helped several ogranization raise millions of dollars), but, because of their cultural callousness, or just bad taste, I was no longer sure that most of the money I raised would be used by them in the right way.

When it comes to speaking, if I don't mean it, I won't say it.  I am not some motivational speaker who will give you some cotton-candy message about hope and change without addressing the very obstructions that kill hope and prevent change.  At my core, I am a messenger, a minister, a servant of a God who believes in helping the least, the last, the lost, and the left out.  I am filled with a weighty, inescapable compulsion to be a voice for the voiceless.

So, standing at the back of the room, I could not help but wonder, “Why do so many people of means need to be entertained in order to give to worthy causes? Why can’t the gravity of the causes themselves be enough to inspire their generosity?” I stood there convinced that not all money is good money, and that HOW you raise money for vulnerable people should reflect the very real problems you are trying to address.  To be sure, I am not saying such events need to be weep-fests, for there is nothing wrong with having fun. However, what I am saying is there is something wrong when the methods you use to help people offend or embarrass them or take their plights too lightly.

Of course, after all that, someone got up to introduce me, their keynote speaker.  Although I was very close to canceling my presentation, walking away and refunding their deposit, I felt it was my responsibility to address what I had just witnessed, and to try to help them see the error of their ways.  All of the tears I’ve cried, and all the pain I’ve experienced, and all of the suffering I have seen, and all of the people I have lost, and all of the people who are still stuck at the bottom - often because they were born into poverty-, compelled to me to say some difficult things to that audience.  It was not fun for me. So I'm sure that it wasn't fun for them either. Some sat there stunned and shocked. Some looked offended and angry. Others looked ashamed and convicted. 

My friends, I am grateful for any and everyone who has a heart to help hurting people, especially vulnerable children.  However, as you are sitting in those meetings, planning for your events, please be mindful of how the people you aim to help might perceive your schedule of events. 

While there is nothing wrong with talking about helping underprivileged young people, it is important to be very careful about HOW you talk about the help you’ve provided.  How you talk about them reveals what you really think about them, and, if you are not culturally considerate, you can talk about people like they are emotionless objects, or projects, or trophies that you have “saved.” 

Even though they might live in the projects, poor people themselves are not your projects. They are people who have often been given a bad hand in life- born into poverty, into single-parent homes, often with absent fathers, and who have not been given the same access and opportunities that other people, from more fortunate families, have been given.  It is not their fault that they are poor. So be careful about how you think about, talk to, and talk about them. They are not objects. They are not projects. They are not your trophies.  They are people, with feelings and families and hopes and dreams, just like you.

If you want to help poor people, start right there, please.

Quick Tips for Hosting an Event for Underperforming or "at-risk" People:

  • Do not refer to them with impersonal, pet-like names like "That's my little Fu-Fu," and nobody knows what a Fu Fu is.
  • Do not refer to their mothers or fathers as "crackheads," "thugs," "indigents," or whatever else might sound hurtful or offensive to them.
  • If a black kid can dance, under no circumstances is it ever okay to refer to them as "spider monkeys" or any other name that's related to monkeys.
  • Do not refer to poor neighborhoods in terms that they themselves would not use. If they want to do so, leave that to them.
  • Never refer to people as "throwaways." How would you feel if someone called you a throwaway child?
  • Talk to them like you would want someone to talk to you.
  • See their potential and keep calling them up to it. 
  • Help your donors see the humanity of the people you serve. 
  • Inspire your donors with glimpses of what the people you are helping can become by using success stories told with sensitivity.

Do You Know of Any Groups that Need Clothes and Shoes?

Do you know anyone know of any ministries in the Bahamas, Africa, or Latin America who are serving people who could use some shoes or clothes? I have shoes and clothes in my closet that I have never worn, or worn once, and I want to give them to someone who could use them. Please send me an email about the ministry and a person's contact info at Thanks.

A Word to My Fellow Christians about “Your Blessing that’s On the Way.”

I have to say something that some of my fellow Christians will not like but desperately need to hear.

I keep seeing people post or say things like, “God’s got something BIG for you this year,” or “God is about to take you to the next level,” or, “You are about to BLOW UP!” or, “God is really about to do something HUGE in your life this year,” or that “God is about to make you a millionaire” or that "you are pregnant with possibility so you need to PUSH!!!" All these “words of encouragement” almost always have something to do with people receiving a huge material blessing, or a financial blessing, or a huge raise, or a big promotion. Sometimes it relates to you achieving some kind of fame or glory. 

I understand personally why people/preachers say those things. When wealth, power, opportunity, education, justice, social status, prestige, and rewards have been clustered to privilege some people and exlude so many others, I understand why those who have been excluded would long for a "financial breakthrough," and why preachers are tempted to preach those things.  I really do. However, I don't think that preaching or teaching that kind of message is either Biblically supportable or actually helpful, especially for people who are in poverty. Even if the preacher has good intentions to give people hope, at best, that message is a false hope that will likely lead to despair for everyone but the preacher who preaches it (those preachers usually get rich off of the gifts of poor people, and then argue that their own success is proof that God answers prayer- all while they keep getting richer and their victims stay impoverished).

I can make that claim with confidence because I grew up economically disadvantaged. My mom made $5,000 a year, and we needed food stamps to survive sometimes.  I lived in 26 places before I was 16, and not because we were a military family. Things were hard for us. Hard. Sometimes the sadness was so great that I used to cry myself to sleep at night, praying that God would kill me in my sleep as a kind of sacrifice, just so my mom wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. 

So I know what it feels like to have a deep longing in my heart for more money, things, and significance. I really do. However, the only thing my longings ever gave me were the motivation for me to worry or work. After seeing that worrying didn't change anything, I decided to work - to DO some things- to take action- to improve my life and the lives of those around me. 

I say that to say, yes, God might have big plans for you in 2017, and He might desire to take you to "the next level" (whatever that means), and God might want to bless you with fortune and fame.  If that is the case, I am pretty sure that your blessing is going to require you to do a lot of things that other people will never see (and aren’t supposed to see). 

God’s plan for us is to live with integrity when no one is looking (Psalm 1:1; Proverbs 11:3; 2 Cor. 8:21; Hebres 13:18; Philippians 4:8).

God’s plan is for us is to discipline ourselves to get enough sleep at night so we can have enough strength to serve Him well (1 Cor. 6:19-20; Hebrews 4:9-11; Psalm 127:2; Mark 6:30ff). 

God’s plan for us is to be others-oriented, treating ALL people with dignity and respect (because they are made in His image) (Genesis 1:26; Matthew 7:12; Romans 12:10; Philippians 2:3; 1 Peter 2:17; 1 Cor. 10:33; John 13:34-35). 

God's plan is for us to make disciples (Matt 28:16-20).

God's plan is for us to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly (Micah 6:8).

God's plan is for us to love the least, lost, last and left out (Matthew 25).

God’s plan for our lives might also be for us to keep our homes clean, our families fed, and our own businesses in good order (1 Tim. 3:5; 1 tim. 5:8; Titus 2:5; Proverbs 31:27).

God’s plan for your life might be for you to stop trying to take shortcuts (Colossians 3:23).

God’s plan for your life might be for you to sit down and read those books, and write those papers, and turn in those assignments (Col. 3:23; Psalm 90:17; Proverbs 6:10-12; 12:11; 13:4; 12:24; 14:23; 2 Tim. 2:6).

God’s plan might be for you to go to class and pay attention (1 Cor. 10:31; Prov. 14:23; 1 Cor. 15:57-58; Eph 2:10).

God’s plan for you might be for you to love your spouse when your spouse feels unlovable (Eph 5:22-33).

If you are a parent, God’s plan is for you is to cultivate your children into well-read, well-spoken, people-loving, God-honoring, citizens of His Kingdom and the world (Deuteronomy 6:6-9; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4; Psalm 127:3; Prov. 13:24; Prov. 29:15; 2 Tim. 3:15). 

God’s plan is for you to treat people the way you want to be treated, and to behave in a way that you think they should (Mark 12:31; 1 Peter 3:8; 1 Cor. 10:24; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:3; Matt 7:2).

God’s plan for you might be to fill out that job application, prepare yourself for interviews, and to show up to those interviews on time (Col. 3:23; Psalm 90:17; Proverbs 6:10-12; 12:11; 13:4; 12:24; 14:23; 2 Tim. 2:6). 

God’s plan for you is for you to do your job so well that even your haters have to respect your hustle (Col. 3:23; 1 Pter 3:15ff; Col 4:5-6). 

God's plan for you and I is to remain faithful through the inevitable suffering and persecutiion that will come to those who seek to live holy lives (Romans 5:3-4; 1 Pet 3:14; Phil 1:29; Matt 10:38; 1 Peter 2:21).

Yes, God’s plan for us usually entails you and I doing a whole lot of little things that most people do not care about. 

If we do those little, behind-the-scenes, no-one-cares about things, I believe the more our lives will get better.  Neglect to do those little things, and keep waiting on God to do something big for you, and you are probably going to be waiting, or wasting, your whole life. Not because God is not able, but because you have not put your faith in God to work. Remember, faith without works is dead. Even the forces of darkness believe in God (James 2:19) and they shudder.  Your faith, absent of actual follow through, is meaningless. Why would you expect God to do the super-natural when you won't even do the natural? The Bible I read clearly shows that God is not a genie you or I can rub and get stuff from.  God is not some casino owner who is about to just give us some big jackpot.

Rather, the Bible I read says God has already done what needed to be done when he sent Jesus Christ into this world to trample down darkness, bring death to its knees, and give us a model to follow, and to serve as a sacrifice for the comprehensive, all-encompassing corruption in the world.  He came to inaugurate a kingdom where people who surrender to him will, through the power of the Holy Spirit, live out God's will vertically, internally, and horizontally- loving God, loving ourselves, loving others (which involves more than chump change charity or individualistic faith that never gets around to living out the social implications of the Gospel (social justice, poverty, racism, etc.)), and caring for the environment. That’s what God calls Christians to do. 

So if you “blowing up” or “getting rich” or “going to the next level” does not involve the things I just mentioned, then I am pretty sure those aspirations are not biblically defensible and have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God (which, by the way, is what Christians are really supposed to care about).

Now, please do not hear me saying that being rich is wrong or evil, for Jesus never made a universal indictment against all wealth. Rather, I am saying that your desire to achieve success should not involve committing interpretive rape against the Bible- forcing your own fleshly desires upon the text against its will, without its consent. There ARE biblical principles that, if followed, can help one achieve great success, but almost all of them involve prayer, planning, advisors, sacrifice, integrity, generosity, and hard work.

When I was a broke, struggling college student, I went on a fast to seek God's will for my life. During that fast, I read these words over and over: "Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and ALL these things will be added unto you" (Matthew 6:33). During that fast, I decided that I would take those words seriously in my own life.  I would really seek God and His righteousness with my finances, in school, in my relationships, on my jobs, and in my day-to-day life. Things didn't improve for me right away. However, it's amazing what the discipline of living a life that aims to please God will do for your earthly circumstances. Since that day, I can't even begin to tell you how many more of my dreams have come true (while many of my blessings have been material and financial, my most meaningful ones have had nothing to do with money, power, or prestige). 

Sincerely seek God's heart, and not just His hand, and see how your heart, habits, and even your circumstances will begin to improve. 

When Did I Become Interested in Writing?

Sometimes people ask me what sparked my interest in writing, or whether I was interested in writing before my English class with teacher Erin Gruwell?

As a child, I used to play by myself for four or five hours because I was very shy, introverted and had terrible self-esteem.  Because of that, I always admired people who had a command of the English language. My high school English teacher, Erin Gruwell, certainly had a lot to do with getting me started down the road to writing. By encouraging me to journal regularly, she helped me see that I had a voice.

Then, when I attended U.C. Berkeley, one my classmates, Na’il Benjamin, was one of the most articulate, persuasive people I had ever met.  When he spoke, people listened, and I wanted to have that kind of effect on people as well. 

There was also a Rhetoric professor, Dr. Marianne Constable, who inspired me a great deal to improve my writing.  She chose words so carefully and thoughtfully, and used them so powerfully that she compelled me to take writing much more seriously.

Also, many of the books I read inspired me to write. They helped me see that good writing is a precurser to good speaking.

These days, I find it a lot harder to write in my journals as often as I would like because I am often writing papers for my PhD or writing books.  Still, I recognize how important writing has been to my own healing and growth, so I try to write my more personal thoughts and experiences down in my journals when I have a little time away from the busy-ness of my life. 

Speaking of Writing, I have a new book coming out very soon. I'm excited about it's cover and its contents.  I'll share more once the cover gets finalized.