Seeing Things: Bittersweet Charity

In recent years, charity has gotten a bad reputation. The politicization of all dimensions of life has made even the most heroic efforts on behalf of others seem radically incomplete to certain minds. Thus, Mother Teresa was barely dead before the vultures—Christopher Hitchens and the vile ABC crew of Peter Jennings—accused her of failing to deal with “the causes of poverty.” (Since they know and care so much, they’ll probably soon quit television to become activists for the Indian poor.) If Francis of Assisi were starting today, he’d have to hire a liaison officer with the right, which is to say leftist, political connections before the press would take the poverello seriously.

In some ways, the bureaucratization of charity is understandable. Even apart from questions of social policy, it’s a hard thing to work face-to-face with the poor. Quite often, the people you are trying to help are less than ideal human beings. They get embarrassed by their neediness in a wealthy country like ours. And those providing the help are embarrassed, too, at having to look at another’s radical helplessness. It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy.

That is why for several years now my wife and I have made a point of working with a private relief group in our town. FISH (For Immediate Sympathetic Help) is a coalition of churches and individuals who try to get food, and sometimes cash, to needy people. Sometimes it’s a one-shot emergency for a middle-class family. More often it is not everyday America. My wife goes into squalid apartments to make food deliveries. Some cases are straightforward; in others, she has to untangle various scams. Questions of whether “the system” or the person are at fault are irrelevant in that moment. But one constant is that the people delivering and receiving the help find it difficult to look one another in the eye.

Was receiving charity always felt to be so shameful? I don’t know. Lots of people claim government checks for welfare, food stamps, and social security remove the stigma. But that stigma and the flipside, genuine gratitude, might do a lot to make the whole relief process more human.

The psychology of bureaucratic welfare breaks a basic human bond. The giver never sees the recipient, nor the recipient the giver. Consequently, there is no satisfaction at help provided, and no sense of obligation at generosity. Au contraire, what we more often find in America today is frustration—frustration that some people seem perpetually living off handouts, and frustration that the handouts are meager. Private face-to- face arrangements may not be everything we need to deal with our massive social problems, but they might inject a crucial human ingredient into a situation no one likes.

My personal role in FISH is quite modest, but I have unusual emotions every time I do it. Basically, I stand outside a supermarket, pass out a leaflet asking people to buy certain staples, and collect the food as the shoppers exit. This may seem a low-key operation, but it is not.

The first thing I notice in this situation is how much all of us—myself included—hate to be bothered. When people see me standing in front of them, about half are visibly disturbed. In past years, I have taken my teenaged son (resigned to filial solidarity); but he too is a human obstacle. The best accomplice, and the best at actually getting food into the basket, is my eight year old daughter: nonthreatening, cute, full of energy. After two hours of soliciting, swinging from the supermarket railings, and taking “breaks” to run around the shopping center, she complained, “Who says we have to stop after two hours?”

For those of us no longer a little child, however, asking people to give you something for someone else is hard work. When I first started doing it, my immigrant family’s pride in never asking anyone for anything tripped me up. I got over it. Then, after a couple of sharp rejections by people doubtful of the honesty or effectiveness of relief efforts, I was tempted to begin, “I want to end the welfare state too.” But it’s a hopeless muddle.

So I just make it clear: I’m here to collect food for people who need it. My wife and others will make sure it will not go to scam artists. Bring something back out if you can.

Perhaps I’m kidding myself that something like this, on a far grander and saintly scale, made Mother Teresa what she was, and makes charity into something Christian, instead of a utilitarian way of keeping undesirable social elements out of our way.

But facing the discomfort is necessary. Someone once said, “All God’s children are not beautiful. Most of them are, in fact, barely presentable.” It’s worth remembering at Christmastime.

Robert Royal

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Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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