Thursday, 1 March 2007

On being charitable

I've written before about the dilemma we find ourselves in when confronted with the need to be charitable (here). I understand that you cannot win. Even when you are generous you will often have the nagging doubt that you have just fallen into someone's trap. So I try to sit lightly with the whole idea of what to do when people come-a-knocking.
A curious series of event has taken place in the last couple of days. I was approached by a person who dropped-in for some help. This happens from time to time, maybe one or two a month. He seemed genuine enough so I gave him a small amount of money. [ It was Ash Wednesday and I had just read about giving to the poor...it all seemed a bit too spooky].
Let me make it clear. In my mind a small amount of money solves little. It makes the problem go away, and he did.
[By way of sidetrack I had a colleague whose reponse to any such request was ...I give everyone $5, that's what I tell them "we give $5!!"... the most that can be said about such a strategy is that it does indeed make the problem go away. In fact you don't actually have to intersect with the depth of the problem at all because ....we give everyone $5!]

So back to the tale. I gave P small amount of money and he went away happy.
Less than 24 hours later there was another request from another person, and my colleague did likewise and had also given a couple of cans of food.
Then yesterday I arrived home after the morning bus run to find a young man on the doortstep with a tale of woe. The story was well-rehearsed and he was even clutching documentary evidence....at one stage he gave me what seemed like an obviously forged Centrelink document...but what would I know ( it looked like a coloured copy off a printer, with the dates changed etc. etc.). He had health problems, he had food problems and accomodation problems.
I could help with the food, but in the end although he said "That would be great"he wasn't terribly interested in the food.
The story got more and more convoluted and I obviously didn't understand what he told me. (Clearly it was money that he wanted and by and large we don't even give $5 we just say no money)
It seemed strange to have a third caller in such a short space of time...had word got around that the priest was a soft touch?
I made a number of suggestions, and each one was met with "that won't work I've tried it"....while that is a warning signal it is also something of the truth.
I wanted to give him $5 and make him go away!
In the end he just kept pushing my buttons, (was I so hard that I actually made him do this) and what little generosity I have began to leak out of the bath tub of my emotion with each attack. He finally got quite angry, and I was conscious of a daughter asleep in a nearby bedroom. I was aware too that I was here with a young unbalanced man without any nearby persons and there were all sorts of vulnerabilities flooding in.
He made the decision for himself, when he walked away and shouted "Why are people so heartless?"...which is enough to push most priestly buttons! I tried to reengage and told
him again about how he had to access more significant help through the system (he would probably have already exhausted this outlet)....."The system is wrong" "I know and that's too bad...I agree with you...but it's the way things are." "Well it shouldn't be!"
He was now pushing my Marxist buttons! I agreed with him; and bar having a revolution there was nought I could do.
I was, as you can tell, quite disturbed by this encounter. In Morning Prayers P&I discussed this...had I made another mistake ...was I being challenged to entertain angels unawares?
She and I can certainly make ourselves doubt our response, we try to encourage each other to be charitable and open
Or had the word just got around?
During prayers another guy came in...who we made to wait because we were doing more important things!
"I hear," he said, "that you are one of the only churches that give out food"
The truth is that we had none left...it takes little to drain our meagre resources

There is no solution to any of this. It is a dilemma. Even if these people are rorting the system,what sort of system or society is it that has such people in it, and reduces people to the humiliation of begging.
There is much more to say...but enough for today I think

2 comments:

Adrian said...

I would really be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this. I think that, broadly speaking, there are 2 ways to address the ills of baseline poverty: philanthropy and activism. I do my best to do the former, which I think in the short-term can have an instant, palpable effect; but I tend to feel that the most important structural changes can only take place at the level of activism. And that is something I'm not always sure how to approach, though I've made different attempts over the years.

Doubtless, some would call this "liberal angst". It's true that there's also the question to consider of the responsibility that individuals should take for their own circumstances.

It seems to me that the role of addressing poverty is preeminently to ensure that all people are given, as best as humanly possible, equal opportunities to grow and nourish and nurture themselves.

But then is that too simplistic an answer?

stephen clark said...

Yes, in short, I think it is too simplistic an answer.
Theer are some people whose lives are so dysfunctional that no matter how much we try to address they are not goign to be able to come good.
We often become inured to these people and start to blame them.
This is how a lot of people feel towards Aboriginal people, for example.
I want to ask a more basic question which is how do we address the dysfunctionality of our society which allows us to strip people opf their dignities.
Most aboriginal people can cope well, what they can't do is play the white man's game. Worse, they are perhaps naive, and don't understand that not all poeople are working together for mutual good. [Some white men want to strip welfare recipients of their paltry Centrelink cheques].
It is easier to blame the poor than attempt to change society.
I will be writing a blog about BOBBY soon. I am inspired to hear Robert Kennedy offering to his people the promise to work to create a just and generous society.
I don't hear the Rudds and the Howards saying anything like this, safe, secure and rich maybe ...but not generous!