Tending the Kettle

PETER A. JAY

December 16, 1991|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- These are difficult times, there's no getting around it, and so it was with unusual trepidation that I ventured out this year for what has become an annual appearance as a seasonal bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.

In the past, as a rule, this has tended to be a happy experience. Christmas shopping may be a stressful undertaking for many people, as it certainly is for me, but that never seemed to dampen their charitable impulses. Without fail, when I would conclude my two-hour stint in Bel Air's Harford Mall and turn over my post to a successor, the Army's little kettle would be stuffed with contributions and my own faith in humanity's basic decency shored up for another year.

But would recession-tinged 1991 be different? I wondered. Visions floated before me of tight-faced Dickensian people grimly clutching their lean purses, unwilling to spare a thought or a coin for those less fortunate than themselves. The Salvation Army had other volunteers; perhaps it would be better this year ** to stand aside.

However, conscience prevailed, and on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally the height of retailing chaos, I found myself once again by my kettle. What followed was reassuring.

There were, it seemed to me, slightly fewer shoppers than on similar days in previous years, but the mall was certainly bustling. And the contributions were forthcoming, too, though I waited in vain for the total stranger who slipped up to me a couple of years ago and dropped a personal check for $500 into the kettle.

Charity in the United States is in deep trouble, I keep reading. Various reasons are given. Changes in the tax laws are said to discourage large donations. Too many charities have been revealed as little more than fund-raising scams, with all but a penny or two of every dollar received going for administration, salaries or consultants' contracts. And of course there's the brand-new phenomenon of greed, which everyone knows was invented by Ronald Reagan.

All those things may be true, for all I know. But my own experience makes me doubt it. Not only do the contributions pour in to the Salvation Army kettles at Christmastime, but other organizations have been able to raise money in the slack economy too.

One activity I've been involved with recently has been the creation of a local land trust -- a non-profit group dedicated to the preservation of the natural landscape by buying, when possible, tracts of environmentally valuable land to protect them from development. Land thus protected is commonly sold at a later date to state or local government for permanent stewardship in the public interest, with the proceeds of the sale placed in a revolving fund for future purchases.

No such enterprise can be successful without a broad base of support, and I've been amazed, as word of the land trust's creation has spread, at the number of people willing to join and support its efforts. The fact that contributions are tax-deductible seems to be of secondary interest to most people, and of no concern whatsoever to many.

People give money most willingly, I think, when they are persuaded it will be well used. If they know the people they're giving it to, so much the better. This common-sense attitude benefits small local charities, whose solicitors and donors are likely to know and trust one another, and can work against big anonymous causes. It's also at the root of most resistance to taxes; the government is perceived as big, anonymous and unreliable when it comes to doing what it has promised to do.

The 126-year-old Salvation Army is a nationwide effort, helping feed, clothe and shelter millions of people each year, tens of thousands of them in Maryland. It often reaches people whom both churches and governments miss, and a major factor in its success has been its strong community-based organization.

Tending a kettle in the climate-controlled ambiance of a mall is easy duty, and gives the tender plenty of time to observe and reflect. I came away from this year's effort with two heartening conclusions. One is that the necktie is on the way out; while a couple of thousand shoppers must have passed by me, I only counted five with ties. And two is that generosity remains very much present in our putatively self-centered society.

George Bernard Shaw's 1907 play ''Major Barbara,'' about a Salvation Army recruit who is the granddaughter of an earl, suggests that poverty is the worst of crimes. Now, 84 years later, though poverty certainly hasn't been eradicated, in much of the world it's been pushed back a bit.

And what's especially encouraging is that so many people are willing to do what they can to push it back a bit more. The contributions to Salvation Army kettles and like causes aren't huge, of course, but they are symbolic. They demonstrate broad acceptance of the principle that charity, which begins at home, shouldn't stop there.

C7 Peter A. Jay's column appears on alternate Mondays.

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