When I was a freshman in college, I really wanted to do something for Spring break, but I was pretty much broke. I was not thrilled with the idea of lounging around back home for the duration, so when I saw a blurb in the Catholic student center’s bulletin about a spring break alternative trip to Washington DC, I was all in. The trip was more of a mission trip: we were all driving up in vans and serving the homeless population in our nation’s capital. A local church would be hosting us for the week, and there were several organizations that we would visit and volunteer at. It really was quite the experience. Until that trip, the farthest from home I had been was Texas, so going to DC was shattering records. I did not realize what kind of an impact it would have on me to visit a city that big.
We made and distributed sandwiches to the homeless in parks. We picked up and delivered trash bags full of day old bread from bakeries to soup kitchens and shelters. We listened to talks given both by dedicated volunteers that knew the ins and outs of the homeless population of DC and some of the homeless men and women themselves. We were faced with the stark reality that many had nowhere to sleep at night in a city that was installing park benches with arm rests in the center to deter them from sleeping in parks. It was humbling and memorable.
Perhaps the piece of information that affected my life the most came from a talk given to us as we arrived in the city by one of our group leaders. She was letting us know that it was okay to say no if we were approached by someone asking for money. Many of us were only 18, and from more rural areas where poverty is not as prevalent in the same ways that it is in the inner cities of our nation. I had never been asked for money before. Our leader explained that there are many reasons people choose to give or not give, and that she makes a point to set aside a certain amount of money to be given to those that ask. She told us that a common worry for some people is that the money will be used for alcohol instead of food. (To show my naivety at the time, that thought had never crossed my mind.) She then told us that when we choose to give our money to those in need, the act of charity is in the gift, not what the receiver chooses to do with said gift. When we choose to help others, the help is the important action, not what others choose to make of the help.
This is a simple thought at first, but it really is rather complex when I begin to apply it to all works of charity. We give others our time, talent and treasure because it is the right thing to do, not because it allows us some control over how they live their lives. We give out of love.
I was reminded of this fact as I read my parish bulletin this weekend. I was reading about the success of the Thanksgiving and Christmas giving campaigns that our rather large parish takes on every year. The outreach programs provide many opportunities to give, but the numbers seem to increase around the holidays in a way that brings tears to my eyes.
During holiday seasons, our parish takes donations in the form of gift cards to the local grocery stores in addition to supplies for the local food pantry. A few sentences in the bulletin write up on the subject struck me, and I wanted to share:
“This is such an overwhelming gift of personal entitlement for our recipient families. When you give this opportunity to a family in need, you give them far more than money; you give them the dignity and the freedom of choice.”
I read these words after weeks of seeing posts on the internet about the restrictions that should be put on food stamps. I am fully cognizant of the fact that our nation is not only in an economic crisis, but a spending crisis as well. This being said, I do not lose one iota of sleep over any of my tax dollars that go to food stamp programs, regardless of what the recipients are buying. Is there corruption or fraud in the system? Certainly. Do I believe restricting purchases will solve this? No. No good comes from attempting to control another's decisions in this way. People are graced with a free will. They have the capability of making decisions for themselves, and putting together a plan that restricts the “dignity and freedom of choice” to satisfy those that scream the loudest is futile.
Instead of finding ways to force those without to be reliant on those that deem themselves capable of decision making, I would rather work towards providing educational opportunities that address these concerns. I see many distractions when people start talking about government spending and the fraud in the welfare system. I see people speak of restrictions and rules that they themselves cannot follow.
Maybe this is a limited comparison. The income taxes we pay are mandated by law if you have income to be taxed. Everyone pays for things with their tax dollars that they do not support. Some of these things are of heavier weight than others; for instance, monies that support the abortion industry, drone attacks, unjust war, the death penalty. Then there are other, less “heavy” expenses such as bank or industry bailouts. (I am equating heavy with issues of life or death, and less heavy with issues that are not life or death.) Charitable acts of time, talent and treasure are not mandated, but done out of love for others. In one case you have no choice but to part with the money, so this does limit the comparison a bit. I still submit that the same rules apply from my perspective: the good deed is in parting with the time, talent or treasure. It is not in whether or not you get to decide what they do with the gift.
What do you think?