Guest Columnists

Charity: Our Christian Calling

by Effie Calderola

A friend of mine is a church secretary. Her duties include greeting those who come to the parish seeking financial assistance. The poor rightly think of a church as a place to find help, and her parish has seen its share of supplicants.

“I can’t pay my heat bill.”

“I’m behind on rent.”

“My electricity’s been shut off.”

Any of the world’s many woes might walk through the office door.

One afternoon, a lady on crutches appeared at the church. I don’t remember the exact nature of her plea, but everything, she said, was exacerbated by the unwieldy crutches she’d been forced to use for a seemingly painful leg problem.

The church doesn’t usually hand out money, the secretary explained, but in coordination with other churches and agencies, they could refer her to food pantries, help with groceries or contribute directly to a utility company or a landlord. Not pleased with this response, the lady on crutches took a form to fill out and hobbled laboriously out the door.

I’m not sure what made my friend stand up from her desk that day and look out on the parking lot. But there, she saw the woman swing the crutches energetically over her shoulder and saunter quickly to her car.

Funny? Yes, but disconcerting as well, because one person’s attempt to scam the system threatens to color our view of charity. We want our money to go to the deserving.

With that in mind, I read St. Ignatius of Loyola’s famous prayer on generosity. One translation of the prayer reads, “To labor and not to seek reward.” I think this is a challenging prayer for all of us who try to do good.

It’s the responsibility of every charity to steward its money wisely and attempt to prevent any misuse of funds. That should go without saying.

But are there any guarantees that the gifts I offer will change the world? Forget it. That’s not why we give. We give because everything we have has been given to us by a gracious God, and we want to share it.

We can’t always ensure that our money or time will accomplish our purpose, but we give freely anyway. We don’t give to “seek reward,” whether that reward is self-satisfaction or a big “thank you.”

I recently reread a book by Jesuit Father Gary Smith called “Street Journal: Finding God in the Homeless.” The book is slightly dated. Father Smith refers to Vietnam veterans he encountersbut never imagined the homeless vets of America’s newer wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He mentions a “new” drug on the street – crack cocaine.

Nevertheless, his book is timeless. Father Smith was the director of a street drop-in center in Tacoma, Wash., for six years. The hopelessness, substance abuse and suffering he recounts cut through the book like a jagged sore.

The violence, mental illness and despair of the streets made their way into his center. How could he do it for all those years? Where were the “rewards?”

No doubt he helped many. Often, he simply stood with the dying, the desperate and the addicted. He let them know that they were loved despite their failures.

Undoubtedly, he ran into many people carrying crutches that they didn’t need and many who carried crosses they couldn’t bear. But he was there for all of them – modeling how to labor without seeking reward.

It’s the challenge of our Christian calling, not to see the results that reward us but to give freely and let God take over.[hr] Effie Calderola writes a syndicated column for Catholic News Service.

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