Grace for the Day: When charity gets personal

Maybe you have seen the commercials of a company that sells socks online, whose major marketing message is that for every pair of socks that you buy, they donate a pair to help the homeless. This is an example of a win-win-win situation. It is also an example of the growing trend toward impersonal or vicarious benevolence. 

Americans can be very charitible, however with the speed and disconnectedness of our lives, that charity is rarely shared on a person-to-person level. We give to organizations and organizations give to people. This institutionalizes charity. The person offering the charity and the person receiving the charity never meet. The institution distributes gifts to folks who need, and they receive the thanks for the gifts which they did not supply, but merely distributed. 

Charity organizations have to streamline their distribution so that more funds go to the recipients rather than to the costs of supply and distribution. Imagine flood victims lining up to receive bottled water from the back of a delivery truck. Folks have contributed money to buy the water and other folks are receiving water from the charity, often at the hands of a volunteer or two. To the recipient, who is very grateful to receive the water, the distribution is little more than obtaining welfare or food stamp proceeds from a government. They wait in line, receive a benefit from someone they do not know, and move on so the next person in line can be supplied.

There is a difference between helping people and helping people get fed. Feeding people treats a symptom. Helping people confronts the underlying cause. If treating symptoms allows a person to remain in their symptomatic situation then it simply enables them. Helping people always comes at the cost of personal involvement. 

I once encountered a young man who had little except the clothes that he wore, who was being threatened by the IRS with prosecution and imprisonment. He was seeking a place to stay and money. Obviously, he was very bad with money, so feeding the symptom would be of no help to him at all. I found him an efficiency garage apartment where he could stay rent free and took him to a thrift store to get some clothes. 

I then got very involved in his life to help him get his finances under control. It did not take too long to discover that his expenditures were not adding up. There was a massive hole in his budget. It turned out to be cocaine. He and I then had a very serious talk about him confronting the problem, not merely the symptoms. He needed to go to rehab. Everything else he suffered was a product of his cocaine addiction. It took quite a bit of personal involvement in his life to discover the real problem. We met because he had burned bridges with every charity organization in the region, who saw no benefit in continuing to supply his symptoms and who thus cut him off.

Charities are great, but nothing compares with seeing the eyes light up in someone whom you personally help. It is not only rewarding to you, but the recipient feels the personal involvement. It is really rewarding to them to have a face and a name associated with someone who really cares and takes the time to show it. Getting involved in people’s lives is messy, but it is so much more rewarding than clicking on a link, entering a credit card number, and facelessly supporting faceless people. 

Jesus did not set up an office and invite people to seek him. He went out where people were and healed them, one at a time. He not only wanted them to be free from suffering, but he wanted them to know the name of the one who was reaching out . . . Jesus, in the name of God himself. That is as personal as it gets! 

Stephen Parker has more than 25 years of experience as a minister and as a Marriage and Family Therapist. Reach Parker at

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