The Challenges of Charity

While it’s sort of thematic with today’s gospel reading, I’ve been mulling on this for quite a while.  Since shortly before we came to Liberia, in fact.  It’s the question of how best to be charitable, or, how do decide when to give if someone asks.

Liberia is incredibly frustrating.  The people are poor.  I mean really, really poor.  Sure, in Monrovia there’s some wealth.  And some very, incredibly wealthy people.  There are also the very poor who live in shells of buildings that were either destroyed and never rebuilt, or never finished to begin with.  You also have a society that has grown dependent on handouts, either from the government, or from others (I’m leaving the government’s dependence on international assistance alone for the moment, because, while similar, that’s a far more complex situation.  Similar roots, similar problems, but also far more complicated to figure out and far more pernicious.).  As a foreigner, and obviously one (Nope, I don’t look Liberian.  Shocking, I know, with my northern European heritage), it seems like I get targeted for a hand out any time I’m out on the street.  I could be out jogging and be asked to buy bread for someone, or on my way to or from a meeting and get asked to be a “friend,” which always entails a long term unidirectional financial commitment.  The interesting thing is that quite often, these people will not look like they are squatters who haven’t eaten in weeks.  They can be relatively well dressed, as these things go here.  There’s the feeling that since I’m probably doing better financially than they are that I owe it to them.

The time that’s the most difficult is before and after church.  It never fails that I get approached by at least one person, if not multiple, who says, “I want to be your friend.  Please help me.”  Not that I know who they are, at all.  Many of them just congregate in the parking area; I’m unsure if they even attend mass.  Their assumption is that Catholics are called to be charitable, and, since this is a white guy, he’s got money to spare, therefore, he’s a good person to ask.  I’ve been asked to bankroll weddings, unspecified medical treatment, and travel.  Usually, though, it’s a simply an ask for money.

To all of these requests, I almost always say no.  Quite often, it’s because I don’t carry spare cash.  The one time I said yes, it was on the way to work as I was pedaling up a hill.  She was sitting by the side of the street, selling breakfast (probably gari, which is cassava porridge).  She called out to me one day (shortly after Ebola really took off) and asked for a dollar so she could call her mama in Guinea.  Mama had apparently gone to Guinea and gotten stranded because borders were closed and taxis weren’t running.  It seemed a reasonable need, she explained it well, and I happened to have a dollar on me.  She hasn’t asked for help again, even though I do go by her almost every day.

I worry about being taken advantage of (it’s happened).  I also worry very much about perpetuating a cycle of dependence.  The society doesn’t value hard work or personal initiative, rather, it seems to value how skillful you are at milking the cash cow for everything it’s got.  It seems to be a society of hustlers, grifters, and conmen/women.  I worry that, but giving handouts, I’m just perpetuating the cycle, and the country’s never going to get better.  People will be doomed to living on what they can get from others, and, in reality, that’s just not sustainable.  Donors (eventually) get fed up if they don’t see results, or least attempts at getting out of poverty.

So it’s a difficult line: do I give, knowing that I’m not really helping, or do I sound unChristian and say no (politely, of course).  If I do decide to give, how do I choose?  Because the moment word gets around that I’m an easy mark, the requests will double, if not triple.  I’d be supporting a good chunk of Monrovia’s population, which I cannot do.  Of course, I give to the church so that they can help support some of the poor around, but I know it’s not nearly enough.

At least part of the answer is in today’s gospel, but maybe not the way you would think.  What I took away from today is that it’s not my place to judge if the recipient of my charity will be responsible with it.  He or she will be answerable to God.  I am answerable for providing for the hungry, naked, and imprisoned the best way that I can.  All I can do is decide if a particular request seems reasonable, and if I can meet the request.  What I’ll probably start doing is taking a bag of rice to give if someone asks for a handout at church.  If it means the recipient can eat that week, great.  If the recipient decides to sell it to buy something else, great.  If he or she rejects it, well…then maybe that person doesn’t really need my charity after all.