Matt de Boer is a Vincentian Lay Missionary now home and working as a teacher in New Orleans. What follows is an excerpt of his New Year’s letter. It addresses, in a concrete way, the struggle to understand the failure of a simple “charity” response to poverty . . .
“Instead of closing with a story about individual students or families, I want to end with a reflection on seeing things from “the other side.” I guess what I mean by this is that in the past month, especially before Christmas, I witnessed and went through a lot of things from the other side – the receiving end of charity. I have been to private schools since I was 4, and I’ve often participated in toy drives, secret Santa, and other holiday traditions that highlight giving. Being with those who received this year shed a lot of light on things for me, but also stirred up a lot of concern in me. When we give to others, whether that is money, food, gifts, or other material things, we often feel a sense of inner peace, an “I did my part” sort of feeling. This is especially common around Christmas in our culture. We may give from our excesses, kindness, or a sincere obligation, but either way, I feel that most often this giving is very impersonal. We sign a check, put a gift under a tree, or drop food off at a shelter. While these are all noble and necessary acts of kindness and charity, we also miss something in these impersonal exchanges. We miss the receiving end, and while it is better to give than to receive, this impersonal charity often disallows the recipients of our charity to give what they have to offer.
The students at Good Shepherd School come from low-income families and, thus, our donors and administrators go out of their way to make sure our children and their families have something to celebrate with during the holidays, so many parties make that happen. Members of the board bought every student a gift to take home. Deuce McAllister and other athletes took them shopping for their families, also letting them spend a few bucks on themselves. The local Jesuit parish made their “wish lists” that they put on a tree come true. I loaded them with candy canes and chocolates for their time off. Many people gave to these students and families (we also had food baskets for the families who needed them), but we all gave things. While it can be nice to have things, especially for children – the value of a new toy or book is priceless – but what about the value of a new friend? A new loving presence in their lives? From what I’ve seen, I estimate that this gift would transcend even the cost of priceless-ness.
Impersonal giving is a good thing; don’t get me wrong, but after seeing the reactions of my students this year to receiving all these gifts, I could tell something was missing. While there was appreciation spoken and thank you cards written, I sensed a lack of sincere gratitude. The younger kids were all really excited about new things, but that reaction is similar to new people. Anything new is exciting when you are 5. Most 5 year olds have friends that are inanimate, but what about when they grow older. Our middle school kids took their gifts, they said thank you, they accepted them and most likely truly were thankful, but many of them also seemed to just expect these things. They’ve received them every year, but is life any different? Maybe it is me being too analytical. Maybe it is wrong of me to try to get into the heads of my students. Maybe it is not right of me to challenge these charitable acts. However, I think the real meaning in all of this is the real meaning of Christmas. Our culture says “give,” so we give – things, gift certificates, money. Christmas is about giving, but not about things. The Christian tradition says that God gave his only Son to humanity for the sake of their salvation. God chose to become human, to enter into relationships with us and to show us how to do so with each other. What have we learned? What do we do?
I guess I’ll stop there, but I hope you can understand what I learned this Christmas season. While giving is always a good thing, it is more complete when it is done in relationship with the recipient. While I am 110% in favor of charitable donations and contributions, I am 210% in favor of charity with one’s time and presence. We all have many gifts, much to give, but these gifts are only made known when we share them with others.”