Religious charity. Let's cut the proselytising?

Down the road from me is what used to be a neatly kept public park where local children and families could go for a walk with the dogs, play ball games and use the little playground swings and slide. Today it is generally overgrown, littered with rubbish and frequented by the homeless who sleep in the darker corners and defecate behind the electrical sub station. The other day I noticed an unusual sight, a prominent group of people gathered in the park which, on edging closer, turned out to be a bunch of eager, smiling, glassy eyed, evangelical Christians handing out food parcels to the local indigents who were then made to stand in a circle clutching their little hampers while the keen types proceeded to sing hymns, pray and tell the unfortunates about Jesus.

Here was religious charity at work; doing what could be perceived as good and caring while actually doing a very public marketing campaign. Were these people really concerned about others' hunger and poverty or were they using their “charitable work” as a recruiting tool or worse, as a public relations stunt to get more recruits from the wealthier parts of the community? Were they hoping that the god was watching, taking note, and setting aside the necessary visas for eternal bliss?

Now I have no problem if religious people share their faith with whomever they choose (just stay away from my gate and schools) but does that give them the moral grounds to take advantage of people’s hardships as a way to win followers? Surely it would be more admirable to help those in need out of their hardships without the proselytizing?

Another example was the recent Typhoon Yolanda which devastated the Philippines. The Pope, as usual fired up the PR machine, tut-tutted and publicly announced he was praying for the victims while the Catholic Church proudly announced that they were including 12000 rosaries, 10000 scapulars and 1000 Tagalog Bibles in their relief packs. How sweet? Taking up space in a relief delivery with religious trinkets: space that could have be used for urgently needed items such as tents, food, fresh water and medicines.

When the Haiti earthquake struck we had even more public religious chartable grandstanding. John Travolta lead a highly publicised team of Scientologists to Haiti for their own missionary work (e-meters included) and Christian missionaries descended on Haiti with audio-Bibles.

Not long ago we had the case of Saad Mohammed Ali, a U.S. resident and former Iraqi who is fluent in English and Arabic. He applied for a caseworker position at World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, for a job that involved helping Iraqi refugees resettle in America. Ali was obviously ideal for the position but the response to Ali's application from World Relief was to the effect that the agency could not offer him the job because he is not a Christian. Quite obviously they did not want non-Christians to be seen to be doing charitable work and not spreading the word of Jesus.

Now don't get me wrong. I am not denying that many religious Charities do bring relief to the suffering around the world. What I am saying is, how much more effective that relief would be if they did not expend time and resources on proselytising as well? And before the persecuted Christians start frothing, let me also point out that Jewish and Islamic charities are not any different as they obviously carefully select who they will help and who they won't on religious criteria.

The religious will be quick to point to their “spiritual charity” that addresses the spiritual needs of the victims of disaster. However, real charity is the giving of something without preconditions and a hidden payload. Charity with a religious agenda is not charity. It is business masquerading as charity, a marketing campaign, and it needs to be recognised as such. Some of these religion based “charities” are even blatant scams where money is syphoned off for “administration” or other purposes or verge on the criminal such as Pat Robertson’s Operation Blessing which used supporter donations to mine diamonds in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

If the purpose of religious charities is to collect money to help the needy they would simply set up secular charities or give the proceeds to existing effective secular charities like the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. Instead their collections are principally for the purpose of disseminating their own religious beliefs in the guise of humanitarianism.

Beware of practising your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” - Matthew 6.1.

Some secular charities. Take your pick:

UNICEF provides children in over 150 countries with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, emergency relief, and more.

Oxfam works in nearly 100 countries to overcome poverty and injustice.

CARE a humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, puts special focus on working alongside poor women because, equipped with the proper resources, women have the power to help whole families and entire communities escape poverty.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement promotes humanitarian principles and values; provides disaster response; teaches disaster preparedness; promotes health and provides care.

Save the Children Federation works to ensure that children in need grow up protected and safe, educated, healthy and well-nourished, and able to thrive in economically secure households.

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises and helps people to survive and rebuild their lives.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières is an international medical humanitarian organization working in more than 60 countries to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe.