Saturday, May 2, 2009

Don't Give to that Charity...They'll Only Use It To Buy Booze

As the economy has tanked, more and more calls have come to my church for emergency assistance.

We're a small church that exists only because we have a small endowment. We give a fairly solid amount of our budget to support local charities and service organizations. We volunteer our time to help out. But what we don't do a tremendous amount of is direct giving to individuals.

In fact, we pretty much don't do any direct giving at all. I struggle with this a bit.

On the one hand, I tend to think that communities can better serve those in need if they pool their resources. The scattershot, church-by-church approach to giving tends to result in disjointed care. For families who are genuinely struggling, that means an arbitrary hit-or-miss approach to getting help. With the economy hitting parishioners hard, it also means that faith communities are rallying around their own, and may not have the resources or the energy to help those outside of their fold.

It also provides a rich environment for folks whose entire livelihood is a carefully manufactured sob story, like the young woman who comes by our church every year having been "just laid off this week and forced to live in her car." It's a late model Accord, the EX-L, with sunroof and navigation and leather seating. Or the man whose car "runs out of gas" in the church parking lot, and who needs cash...preferably twenty get to work.

It's for that reason that a local charity that our church supports recently set up "charity meters" outside of local businesses as a way of reducing giving to professional panhandlers. Why give loose change to someone who's just going to buy a forty with it, when you can drop those quarters with a group that you know will provide housing, food, and sustained support to people in need? It's an interesting idea, but I'm not sure it'll either work or last.

That's because just giving cash or loose change to local charities is not enough. What that does not do is engage you personally with human beings who are struggling. It doesn't develop relationships. It doesn't engage you as anything other than a Sugah Daddy or a Lady Beneficent. If you don't really get to know the humanity of children of God who've fallen on hard times, then it's hard to say you're showing charity. By that, I don't mean charity as a process of financially supporting the disenfranchised. I mean charity as a spiritual gift, as charis, the essential manifestation of God's reconciling love.

Relationships governed by grace are a vital part of the way we are called to help transform the world, and that path includes but goes far beyond the financial.