Thursday, August 24, 2006

The vagaries of charity

The San Diego Union-Tribune had a story today about St. Vincent de Paul Village in San Diego having to cut back services for the homeless due to a falloff in donations. After two years of donations of almost 22 million dollars in 2003 and 2004, donations fell to just over $15 million last year and $6.7 million for the first half of this year. 50 employees had been laid off prior to this recent cut in services.

The only factor mentioned for this was the change Congress made to the tax deduction for donated vehicles. This caused the amount the charity received from vehicle deductions to drop from $5.7 million in 2004 to $3.2 million in 2005. The amount the charity made from a vehicle didn’t change, but only the value of the deduction the donor received. Still this accounts for only a small portion of the drop in donations. The timing wasn’t broken down to see if some donors were donating to help victims of the hurricanes last year instead of this charity.

Most of this article is about the human beings involved, the greatest focus being on one couple that is homeless after a fire destroyed their apartment. He is 32. She is 22 and pregnant. The article ends with a quote from her, “I’ve never been so scared in my life.”

I’m sure there are many different directions one can go about the sociology of this. One could write about how different charities have to fight each other for publicity. I’ve particularly disliked how this is done in medicine as if one disease should be cured more than another. One could write about how much it would take to assure everyone in need so they wouldn’t have to be as scared as the above woman. One even could write about how one change in society ripples to affect the rest of society, how tax law changes how charitable people feel.

That’s all so beyond me. I know my personal reaction, how millions of dollars is far beyond anything I can do, beyond anything everyone I know can do. It’s like a force of nature. All one can do is adapt. Yet it is about the behavior of people just like me, over 2 million of them in San Diego County. Shouldn’t I have some understanding of that?

I think I do. I know what it’s like to be busy taking care of my own life. I know I’ve had many patients and clients who were afraid, but they were OK in terms of getting their needs met. Sure, some way to reassure them would have been valuable to them, but that’s not necessarily the highest priority for someone who wants to help them. At the same time, I see clients each day I volunteer who are being neglected by the system and are in a downward spiral as a result. Someone has to know what people really need. That starts with the person asking for help, but extends to other people who know the situation.

After that it’s such a struggle to get government to do more, to get business to do more, to get individuals to do more. How much are we supposed to do? More than we are collectively doing now, the poverty anyone can see should say at least that much.

So what am I supposed to do? For some years I’ve believed I should live my life to end poverty and live my life to end conflict. God says so. I don’t remember exactly how we came to that. It’s in the Bible. It resonates with what’s in me. God in fact will confirm for me right now in words that this is His desire, any time I need that. What does this mean? It means I do as much as I can do for both. That’s not much. I mention whenever I have a chance that this is what it means to follow God. Sometimes I create a little conflict in order to lobby against conflict in some larger context. In every way, I do whatever I can for both, to end poverty and end conflict.

It’s not enough. There’s no way I can compensate for almost $7 million in lost donations, in money, in labor, in rhetoric put together, even if I could find perfect words to say about this. It’s not enough to fix the problem, but it’s enough from me.

I think this is the crux of how to see this. Many people realize that their efforts either to end poverty or to end conflict will not make a difference to the problem. So why bother? Many would emphasize that a community must exist to work in this direction. Yet communities do exist, and they talk their way out of doing everything they can do. A church might earmark 25% of what they bring in for charity. It’s not enough. What about labor? What about rhetoric? Is 25% enough? Is the denominator of what’s being brought in enough? I haven’t found churches to be up to the task of looking at this. I haven’t found many people up to the task of looking at this. Yet I’m sure God is up to that.

God is my hope for many things, not mindlessly, not magically, but from everything I know of Him. I don’t think God looks at the world and says everything is fine. If He does, then I’m way off in my understanding of God valuing love and truth, not the opposite. But I don’t think that’s it. Some say it is the freedom God has given people that causes so much trouble. Perhaps, perhaps this world is worth it for the sake of freedom. I’m skeptical God sees it that way. I suspect God looks at this world and sees something that needs to change, whether that’s the slow change social scientists can track in the real world or the dramatic change predicted by traditional eschatology. So change it will.

I made my peace with God years ago, surrendering to Him, whatever and whoever God is, as every other way I learned about was not right for me. So I live as I understand I should live. Lots of people don’t. Maybe they’re right and I’m wrong. I’ll risk that. Why everyone else risks God meaning exactly what He has said about the importance of charity is beyond me. There are a lot of distractions in life, but none worth being against God.

1 comment:

elbogz said...

Conrad Hilton, founder of Hilton Hotels wrote this
There is a natural law, a Divine law, that obliges you and me to relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute. Charity is a supreme virtue, and the great channel through which the mercy of God is passed on to mankind. It is the virtue that unites men and inspires their noblest efforts.
Love one another, for that is the whole law; so our fellow men deserve to be loved and encouraged — never to be abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness. The practice of charity will bind us — will bind all men in one great brotherhood.