There are a lot of irresponsible charities out there. Some create dependency, and others hurt local businesses by dumping free supplies. Too often, charities do more harm than good when all is said and done. But as a critic of the bad economic models adopted by many faith-based charities, I’ve found it easy to forget the good that some charities, like soup kitchens, can do for the soul.

In “Defending the Free Market,”Father Robert Sirico tells a story about his experience working at a soup kitchen in Anacostia, a poor neighborhood in Washington, D.C. He describes the faith-based operation as good and generous service. But one day after working at the soup kitchen, Fr. Sirico decides to eat at the fish and chips shop down the street, which is when he realized the soup kitchen could be harming local business:

My best guess was that [the owners] lived nearby, and probably had saved up sufficient funds to open this shop only with great sacrifices. […] And it struck me: we were this family’s competitors!

He goes on to explain that the soup kitchen had an unfair advantage over the fish and chips shop since it was run strictly on a donation and volunteer basis. The soup kitchen owed no rent, paid no wages and didn’t even pay for the soup. Plus, the price they were offering food was very competitive: It was free.

Though Fr. Sirico is very careful not to diminish the good work at the soup kitchen, he suggests there is a better charitable alternative for two reasons:

  1. Solidarity is key. The soup kitchen has room to improve in building relationships. It takes more than just a little chitchat over a bowl of soup to really understand how to best help the people you serving.
  2. The local economy must be considered. Certain charities do more harm than good by flooding the market in the community they intend to help with a free product, which effectually destroys local business.

Even though I agree with these points, something about Fr. Sirico’s conclusion did not sit well with me. Do soup kitchens really do more harm than good?

Soup kitchens reflect Christ’s love

Father Sirico’s conclusion is correct only if the end goal is solely economic.

If the objective of a charity is to lift a whole community out of poverty, that will never be done through one soup kitchen or a hundred soup kitchens. Economic transformation requires a long-term plan of action that creates wealth and provides jobs in a community.

But what if the end goal of a faith-based soup kitchen is just to emulate Christ’s love? Or to build community? Or just to remind someone that they are valued?

The candlesticks in “Les Mis”

Just because the means of the soup kitchen are material (the soup) doesn’t mean that the ends are necessarily materialistic (poverty relief). Sometimes material means are used to reach spiritual ends.

Take the candlesticks in “Les Miserables” as an example. After Valjean is released from prison, he is caught stealing silver from Bishop Myriel. When the authorities bring him back to Myriel, he not only forgives Valjean, but also gives him two silver candlesticks. In this scene, God’s forgiveness and grace is wondrously displayed in Myriel—through a physical object. The candlesticks will not help Valjean’s economic situation much, but they act as a powerful symbol of compassion that transforms his life.

Of course, not everyone who walks through the door of a church-run soup kitchen will have Valjean’s conversion experience, but an encounter with Christ through a compassionate volunteer and a warm bowl of soup is not out of the realm of possibility.

There is certainly room for privately funded soup kitchens in the marketplace, so long as we don’t expect them to meet unrealistic economic goals. While a bowl of soup will never give someone a job or a house, it can still do real good for the soul.