Modernizing the “works of mercy” list?

Modernizing the “works of mercy” list? November 22, 2015

Here’s the website for The Cradle Fund, an organization which provides direct aid to refugees from Syria and Iraq, to which we donated last Christmas, and likely will again.

And here’s an article about a Toronto couple that used the money they otherwise would have spent on a lavish wedding, on providing for a refugee family resettling to their area instead.  But, mind you, this was Canada.  In the United States, the notion of “sponsoring” a refugee family — as was the case when a church would provide for the needs of a family from among the “boat people” — doesn’t appear to exist any longer; it’s been replaced by contractors using government funds to establish a refugee, or refugee family, getting them connected to welfare programs, then, after a couple months, moving on to the next person, and the next allotment of government funds.  Indeed, a google search for “sponsor a refugee family” turns up primarily Canadian hits, though there is a link to a site about helping refugees in Chicago — but, even there, having looked through this a bit, it doesn’t look like what we think of as “sponsorship.”

In fact, here’s an article in the National Review, that says that

The Refugee Act of 1980 transformed refugee resettlement from a largely charitable endeavor into a huge government-grant program carried out by organizations that are classified as non-profits but should be more accurately described as government contractors. 

Relatedly, it’s Giving Tree time at a parish near you.  Parishes likely run their Giving Trees differently, but, around here, some years ago, they changed the process from one of buying specified gifts for the family, via cards that listed ages, sizes, and likes, to a request that Giving Tree givers buy gift cards or just write checks, to be used to give the heads of the family the opportunity to buy gifts for the children.  And there’s a certain logic to this, but it does diminish the feel-goodness of it all.  If it’s now a matter of writing a check, and not shopping and wrapping gifts, why not write a check to any number of worthy causes?

The reality is, we all want to be able to do something to help the needy.  The corporal works of mercy prescribe for us an agenda:

  1. To feed the hungry.

  2. To give drink to the thirsty.

  3. To clothe the naked.

  4. To shelter the homeless

  5. To visit the sick.

  6. To visit the imprisoned

  7. To bury the dead.

But how do you make sense of this in the year 2015, in middle-class suburban America?  We can’t host refugee families in our homes.  That’s not how the system works.  And even if it did, those for whom there some hope of repatriation are better off in the local region.

Look at this list:

Feed the hungry?  Transformed, for the most part, into “donate to a food pantry” — and yet, food pantries are probably better off with a cash donation they can use to buy the stock they need most, from retailers who sell it at volume discounts.  (I suppose extreme couponers could probably buy it cheaper, or maybe if we buy loss-leaders.)

Give drink to the thirsty?  Yes, people seize upon this in projects to build wells in Africa — wells which, without funds for maintenance, fall quickly into disrepair.  And remember the article about the project to build wells operated by “hamster-wheel” playground equipment by kids simply playing?  It required too much effort for the kids to think of it as “fun” and it quickly became an inefficient way for women in the village to pump their water.

Clothe the naked?  People donate to the Salvation Army and get upset when the donations aren’t given directly to the needy, but that’s not their mission.  And, worse, donations make their way to Africa, destroying local textile industries.  Or, you get projects like Little Dresses for Africa, which I’m skeptical of, though I was never able to find out enough about whether they did more harm than good.

Shelter the homeless?  In your own home?  Really?

Visit the sick?  Let’s presume that “visit” means more than “keep them company” and has to do with providing medical care for them — but in 2015 America this doesn’t exist as something individual volunteers do.

Visit the imprisoned?  Well, that’s worthy – though I don’t know how much prisoners care for strangers visiting them.  Maybe there exist tutoring programs or the like.

And bury the dead.  Who among us picks up a shovel?  Of course you can’t; the best you can do is contribute to a fund that provides burial for the indigent.

All of these have been transformed, in the year 2015 in America, not completely but nearly so, into a big #8:  “I was needy and you wrote a check to a charity” or, depending on your politics, “voted for politicians who will implement required programs.”

And we want to be able to do more — Little Dresses for Africa speaks to the desire to do something more direct than write a check.  I heard from a fellow parishioner at a church group that her job gives her the opportunity to choose to take extra hours, and she is able to think of these extra hours as dedicated to charity, and, in that way, do something more than just “write a check.”

So, too, is the case with our debates and discussion about refugees.  Bringing them into the United States, even a small, even symbolic number, meets our desire to do something personal and hands-on, even if it’s no more than imagining that, once our government funds these refugees, we could be that friendly face at the grocery store — without regard for whether that’s the most practical way to render aid.

UPDATE:  I’m being misunderstood, so let me rephrase by means of an example:

I work part-time.  Should I choose to, I could increase my work hours and pay proportionately.  Let’s say that, when the kids are older, I want to increase the good that I do.  Is it better for me to use the time I have available, freed up because I no longer need to supervise homework and piano and cook for 5, to hand-sew pillowcase dresses, or to work the additional hours, earn more money, and use that money to buy twice as many, or to donate it to an in-country group which purchases clothing which is respectful of local traditions?

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