What is charity?
I was looking at the definitions of charity and most all of them talked about a person or organization with resources giving to those in need of those resources. This generally is regarded as a good thing, especially among Christians. We love charity, partly because of the good we perceive is being done, and partly because of the good it makes us feel.
But I think the question we need to ask is - how is this charity being viewed from the other end? Does it lead to those same good feelings we have when we do charity? By definition charity labels the receiver as one who lacks. This automatically creates a culture of haves and have nots. Recieving charity can be a very degrading action to hard working families who find themselves struggling. Often families will resist charity until the come to a point where they feel they have no where else to turn. It is for them the recognition of failure and often the resignation of their worth and ability to provide for themselves. This often leads to people becoming dependent on others- often not because they actually are incapable of providing but because they are being taught that they are incapable.
So what then do we do? It also doesn't seem right to sit back and watch others suffer when we can help, just because we don't want to create dependency. These are thoughts that I have been wrestling with lately. A family in our neighborhood has, for about the past six months had their gas turned off. This means no heat, hot water, or use of the stove, which they have been able to manage with through the summer but have begun to really worry with the coming cold.
The father in this family does drywall on houses and business has been slow. He drives thirty minutes to work, then often sits for 2 to 3 hours to find out whether there is work for the day, and in the past months more often than not there hasn't been work. His wife stays home and takes care of their four children under the age of eight. The fact that they know only a little bit of English compounds the problem, making it more difficult for either of them to find extra work. We began to feel a desire to help but began to wrestle with these questions of how to help. We also realized that the debt they owed to the gas company was more than we ourselves could pay even if that was our desire. So after wrestling with how to proceed, we began to ask friends and neighbors who we knew cared about this family if they wanted to get involved. People began to donate and the total amount given turned out to be ten dollars over the total cost of the debt. We then called the gas company and made a payment, clearing the debt, and allowing the family to turn the gas back on.
As we talked to family we shared specifically that this is not an act of charity, but instead an act of community. We began to help them dream of ways that that they too can take part in helping others in the neighborhood in the same way that this community of neighbors came around them to help.
We realized that when framed as an act of community, helping families in this way can be life giving, instead of life taking. This family now doesn't feel shame for being unable to provide for themselves but instead they feel as though they are part of a community that loves and cares for them, and which they also are able to take part in. In this way, instead of this act creating a culture of haves and have nots, it places us all on the same level, with the recognition that if we begin to share within our community there is enough to go around. This then is empowering to them as they dream of ways that they can use their resources to serve others in our community. These resources go beyond just monetary wealth to their use of time, skills, knowledge, and connections for the sake of others.
As we finished talking, the parents called the kids into the living room and asked " Do you remember when we had hot water in the showers? We are going to be able to have that again." One of the little boys, not remembering at first, said, "no, what is that?" But then before he could be answered he realized what they meant and began to jump up and down with excitement. As we were leaving they told us in their broken English, "We're going to start crying as soon as you leave. Thank you so much."
Interactions like this continue to make me realize how vitally important it is to hold in tension our desire to help with the recognition that help can can actually hurt if we aren't careful.