Charity vs. Empowerment

“When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for
 themselves, we disempower them.”
– Toxic Charity, 
Robert D. Lupton

By July 2006, Mission: St. Louis’ Founder and Executive Director, Josh Wilson, had worked with inner-city kids and had seen first-hand the effects of poverty; he had seen need. With a dedicated vision to restore St. Louis, Josh started several conversations with his church, The Journey. His conversations led to an internship, which eventually developed into a full-fledge mercy ministry designed to connect The Journey with residents in at-risk neighborhoods.

After a three-month flurry of unfocused volunteer activity, Josh realized that we were doing harm rather than good. Volunteers did not have personal relationships with any of the people they were serving. Everyone involved was burned out. It was time for a change.


We were focusing on charity, and not empowerment.

Charity is a beautiful thing. It is the act of giving money, gifts or service to the poor or needy. It serves a major purpose: think of the Red Cross and the amazing work they do when a disaster strikes. It meets an immediate need, and it is often a band-aid to help someone when they need it the most.

The turning point came in the form of a relationship with a local school.

Mission: St. Louis organized a school supply drive for a local school, Adams Elementary. This began a relationship between Mission: St. Louis, Adams Elementary and the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. We narrowed our focus, guided our volunteers and put all our resources into one specific community. We built relationships in this community and were able to get to know the people and their needs.

Empowerment is the giving of power or authority to someone. It is giving them more capacity: the tools they need to provide for themselves.  It is the difference of “doing for” and “doing with.”

Empowerment is difficult because it takes time, and it often does not offer immediate results or feedback. It is the result of years of walking alongside someone, building relationship and sharing knowledge.

Since our start in Forest Park Southeast, we have built deeper relationships with schools, businesses, neighborhoods, churches and organizations. We’ve created and grown life-changing programs for youth to older adults in order to empower people in our city with the tools needed to work their way out of poverty. Our two core programs, Beyond School and Beyond Jobs, are transforming lives. Kids in our Beyond School program are making 3 months reading and math growth for every month in our program. Men in our Beyond Jobs programs have a 75% chance of being employed within five months of graduation.

Today, we’re restoring our city through more relationships like the one we began with.

When Mission: St. Louis first found a home in Forest Park Southeast, it was a very different neighborhood. It was crime-ridden and run-down. As it has grown and flourished in recent years, our relationship with the St. Louis community has spread further north. We have been called to North City, where many of the people we serve are living.


While we miss our old neighborhood with all its coffee shops, restaurants and unique style, we are thrilled about our move. Relocating to our new building means we get to learn what makes a whole new neighborhood unique. It also provides us with substantially more space to use in a multitude of ways, and more importantly, our move provides us with the opportunity to work more closely with many of the people we hope to serve. We’d like to truly become a part of this community and empower individuals to transform their lives, families and neighborhoods. 

Maggie Becker