We had such an overwhelming response from Beth’s For I was Naked and I Clothed You post that ran a few weeks back that Beth continues her reflection on clothing the naked this week.
Welcomed or unexpected, mercy invites us into relationship with one another. Even the best of relationships are complex, filled with ups and downs, and take a lot of effort. When we enter into relationship with those in need of mercy, we can almost guarantee that it will be difficult before it ever reaches the point of being sacred or profound.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about clothing the naked, and it raised all sorts of questions! When we encounter someone who is hungry, thirsty, or homeless, there is a temptation to react impulsively. We feel compelled to do something! But if mercy is about being drawn into relationship, is it enough for me to anonymously donate my used stuff to a shelter or second-hand store? Who am I helping, and does my assistance lead to a sustainable solution?
Around the same time as that blog post, a friend forwarded an article about the unforeseen consequences of people’s generosity that takes place in the wake a national tragedy. The town of Newtown, CT (population 27,000) received over 65,000 teddy bears following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school – do the math, that’s three stuffed animals for each resident. It then became someone’s full time job to sort, distribute, and decide what to do with all of the donations.
I certainly do not want to derail people’s generosity and genuine desire to help. But our efforts toward mercy also raise some important questions:
- How much thought do we put into the items we donate to charity?
- Am I considering the best interests of the receiver?
- How would a church or a lay person know what a person or organization actually needs?
- Is my desire to be generous inadvertently creating an additional burden?
MAKE IT PERSONAL:
My friend Claire is a regular volunteer at a local soup kitchen in Chicago. Last winter, she got to know many of the usual clients, and she noticed how many of them had inadequate footwear for the winter months. She started an online fundraising page, hoping to raise a couple hundred dollars to purchase high quality winter boots, socks, and hand warmers for her friends in need. One by one, she accompanied each of them to a local department store, making sure that each of them received the exact boots they wanted in the right color, size, and style. She reported most of them opted for good fit and function over fashion! Having a personal relationship made a significant difference in meeting their needs.
Not everyone has the time or energy to invest in such relationships with the homeless. Claire’s story of generosity reminds me to keep our giving personal, and at the very least, take time to inquire about what a person needs before you take action in a situation.
ASK BEFORE YOU ACT:
I know a family who lost their home in a fire many years ago. When you’ve lost everything, the last thing you want is someone else’s used towels and bed sheets. They said the best gifts they received were gift cards to their favorite department stores. This gave them the dignity of choice, and it allowed them to replace items on their own timeframe. It also gave them a sense of control over a situation in which they were completely powerless.
If there is a natural disaster or a human tragedy where you truly do not know anyone, make a personal connection before deciding how to respond. Perhaps have someone from your parish contact one of the local church communities. Express your concern, offer your prayers, and then ask, “Is there anything you need? What would be most helpful right now?” As the giver, do not decide in advance what you think they need. Ask, and wait for a response, then respond appropriately.
DO YOUR HOMEWORK:
If you’re planning to do spring cleaning or getting ready to make a move, plan ahead! Ask yourself, “What is the best place for my stuff?” Retail thrift stores (like Goodwill, Salvation Army, or your local second hand store) are equipped to take large clothing donations. For items that are too tattered to donate, there are even organizations that recycle ruined clothing into rags. Check with your local Catholic Charities or a refugee resettlement agency; they will often accept furniture and small household items. Find out which organizations accept used electronics equipment (if it’s in good working condition), or where you can take your old computers, cell phones, and televisions to be recycled. Having a plan will prevent you from unnecessarily dumping items onto an organization that will only dispose of them.
Also, if you are working with an international organization, ask yourself, “Is it culturally appropriate? Will the person who receives this find it useful?” Prior to one of my volunteer trips to Nicaragua, we collected a large number of soccer balls and baseball equipment. Someone also donated a single football helmet and pads, which we ultimately threw out. It was too bulky to pack, and the kids there don’t play American football. They would have very little use for football gear.
Finally, if it’s ruined, broken, or useless throw it away! A good rule of thumb is to ask, “Would I give this to my mom?” If not, it’s no good!
BE KIND AND GENEROUS:
Remember that a smile and a kind word can go a long way. Living in Chicago, where encounters with the homeless are a regular occurrence, I can think of several unpleasant situations that could have been avoided with a bit more kindness on my part. How many people avert their gaze, or worse, when they pass by a person in need? Kindness does not cost us anything. If you are uncomfortable giving cash, consider carrying gift cards in small increments ($3-5), enough for a coffee or sandwich.
A few years ago, I was waiting for a friend at a local coffee shop. I offered a simple hello to the gentleman at the table next to me. It was a bitter cold day, and I suspect he was hiding out from the winter weather. He said he was hungry. I told him that I had $5 to spare and offered to buy him something. He asked for coffee and a cupcake with vanilla frosting. I happily obliged.
It was the year I was in between jobs, unemployed, and asking lots of questions about my calling in life. He and I talked for a long while. His presence reminded me to be grateful, and I think we both walked away with a greater sense of dignity. He brought to life the adage, “those who give also receive”.