The how of giving seems simple enough.
We give at the office. We leave old clothes, tattered paperbacks and a worn-out Mr. Coffee in a box on the front porch for Goodwill or Disabled American Veterans to pick up. We drop a buck into a can when some Bambi-eyed youngster knocks on the door and asks for a donation to one charity or another.
Giving has never been so easy. Even giving at the office means a pre-arranged, computerized payroll deduction every week or so. No muss, no fuss. We don't ever have to think about it.
And maybe that's not such a good thing. It might be appropriate to wonder whether giving has been made so easy that we are in danger of forgetting the reason we give in the first place.
Certainly the beneficiaries of our charity are glad we give at all, but by engaging in what might be called oblivious giving, are we doing a disservice of sorts? Do we miss the point of giving when we lose sight of why we give?
Workers and officials of local charitable organizations suggested as much in recent interviews. They explained that giving is a hollow gesture if not backed up by compassion.
"Sending in a check is fine, but you have to go beyond that by asking why your check is needed," says the Rev. Gretchen van Utt, a United Church of Christ minister who is chaplain of Johns Hopkins University and an official of the South Baltimore Homeless Shelter. "A check is a Band-Aid. Band-Aids are fine, they may stop the bleeding for a while, but then you have to address why this bleeding is happening. Why are so many people poor and homeless?"
After asking that question, some people may take the next step and "get out in the street and do the dirty work that attacks the root of the problem," van Utt says. However, she adds, "I know that can be easier said than done."
"I try to explain to people that helping those in need is more than charity, it's a matter of doing justice," says the Rev. Tom Bonderenko, the administrator of shelter programs for Associated Catholic Charities. "Charity is what we want to do. Justice is what we need to do."
Lois Rosenfield, the director of the Baltimore chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the chairman of the board of the local Salvation Army, learned about giving while working as a teen in her father's drug store almost 40 years ago.
Block's Pharmacy, at Reisterstown Road and Virginia Avenue in northwest Baltimore, was a neighborhood hub in those days. Kids gathered there after school, and adults dropped by to ask the pharmacist about quick remedies for minor maladies.
"Young and old would come in and pour out their hearts to my father about all kinds of problems," Rosenfield says. "He was counselor, confessor, doctor, so many roles to so many people. He loaned money to people in need. He'd slip a Hershey bar into the bag when he made a prescription for a sick child. Young men became pharmacists because of his example."
She says her daily exposure to her father's generosity made an impression that continues to this day, long after the drug store disappeared.
"My experience in that store taught me how to work with people," she says. "I learned about community and the importance of lending a hand to the people who lived around you. I saw the results in the way people were moved or really helped along by the things my father did for them."
In the late 1960s, Pat Hatch lived in South Korea, where her husband was stationed with the U.S. military. The Vietnam War was in full rage. Americans were hardly beloved figures in Asia, particularly those connected with the armed forces. And yet, Hatch says, South Koreans embraced her and her husband from the start, showing them how to create a good life in a strange land.
Hatch would remember the South Koreans' kindness more than a decade later when she helped organize the Foreign-born Intervention and Referral Network (FIRN) in Columbia, a private non-profit organization that helps immigrants settle in the area.
A great reward of her work, Hatch says, is seeing former FIRN clients volunteer to help new immigrants find homes in America. In this way, the generosity of her South Korean hosts is repaid every time Hatch's organization helps another immigrant family get settled.
"Once you've been on the receiving end yourself, you want to give back," she says.
About five years ago, Marian Carr responded to a notice in her church bulletin and volunteered to teach illiterate adults to read and write. Today Carr is the president and coordinator of the Literacy Council of Carroll County, a private non-profit organization with more than 100 volunteers. During the past two years, they have tutored more than 200 illiterate Carroll County adults.
Carr says she gives her time to the organization because "there's a need."