MISSOURI June 26, 2017 — An act of charity is, almost by definition, a kindly act. But have the idea of charity and the motivation to be charitable changed over the years? Are people more charitable today, or less?
In the past, was charity an act of the heart? Is it now more likely to be a tax deduction or a corporate or celebrity public-relations ploy? Regardless of motives, the recipients of charity still benefit from it. Isn’t that what really matters?
In my opinion, charity was more likely to come from the heart in the old days. Families and neighborhoods were closer, and those connections, combined with greater respect for those down on their luck, made charity a more automatic response to misfortune.
Charity is given in forms other than money. I remember the old-time hobos who traveled by “riding the rails.” They would jump off of the freight train and take up temporary residence close to the train tracks. Occasionally there would be a knock on the screen door on the back porch, and there stood the man of the rails with his small carrying bag. They always had the beard but they dressed neatly and looked “scrubbed”.
Occasionally there would be a knock on the screen door on the back porch, and there stood the man of the rails with his small carrying bag. They always had the beard but they dressed neatly and looked “scrubbed”.
“Is the lady of the house here?” “Do you have any work I can do in exchange for a meal?”
The answer was almost always “yes.” In exchange for a meal, he would cut firewood, clean up a shed, repair a fence. It was nothing major, just something that took physical effort to earn the meal. It was something we could do ourselves and planned to, but showing someone else the respect and dignity to trade work for food was an act of charity.
It was something we could do ourselves and planned to, but showing someone else the respect and dignity to trade work for food was an act of charity.
Other acts of the heart were common: taking food to someone who was ill; doing farm chores for a farmer who was laid up; cutting a neighbor’s grass without being asked; the community getting together rebuild a structure that had been damaged by fire or storm. The most memorable act of charity each year was at harvest
The most memorable act of charity each year was at harvest time, when all of the farmers and their work hands would work together to bring in the harvest, and tremendous meals were prepared by all the ladies for everyone to enjoy at the end of a hard day’s work.
One might call this a communal act of survival, and it might be true. But you had to be there to see the love and charity. It wasn’t the charity of rich to poor or strong to weak, but neighbor to neighbor. It was and act from the heart and an expression of love, and I felt that even though I was still wet behind the ears.
There were similar acts of charity in the big cities. People automatically shoveled snow off the sidewalks and driveways of the elderly. Picking up the paper when it was raining hard and taking it to the door was common and automatic.
I am not saying that charity today has no heart, but in the old days, charity came without hope of recognition or reward. Yes, the great and powerful always got their recognition—Carnegie’s name is on a thousand libraries, Rockefeller endowed a foundation, and American campuses are studded with halls named for benefactors—and acts of charity are performed today and by people who want to remain anonymous, and they are from the heart. But they seem less common.
Charity today, in my opinion, is not as often done freely or without expectation of gain, but with some hidden agenda. It burnishes the corporate image; it is part of the agenda of an organization to show they are charitable; it is part of the celebrity image, and it earns a tax deduction.
But perhaps that’s all perception. Individual, non-celebrity Americans may be as charitable as ever. But do we show that charity as neighbors, or do we do it all impersonally, through churches and foundations?
What should we do? There is no pat answer on how to be charitable. Given the opportunity to provide a kindly act, search your heart and ask yourself whether you want to do it without any recognition or monetary gain. It is amazing the inner happiness you will receive when helping your fellow human being.
However, that’s from a time and place that I am from.