An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘charity’

Facebook Follies

Last week I posted a quote by Stephen Colbert on my Facebook page:

 “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.”

My post stirred my niece, Rudi, to righteous indignation:

“We should force everybody to be as righteous and charitable as we are, at the point of a gun. Because it’s what Jesus would do . . . . Your method of helping the poor is really just feeding a scheme of graft and corruption, without doing much to help the poor.”

A couple of minutes later she added,

 “The people of the United States already give far more to charity than so-called enlightened people of Europe,  so I don’t know why everyone complains that we are selfish. It really is quite offensive.

While I didn’t expect everyone to agree with Colbert’s thought, I didn’t think it was offensive. Since I don’t check Facebook religiously, my daughter Jaycee called to tell me about Rudi’s response and to say, “Don’t worry, Mom. I’ve got your back covered.”

Jaycee’s comment on my Facebook page said she is now relieved from feeling selfish when she buys a latte’ grande instead of helping the poor. By taking care of herself instead of the poor, she’s not feeding schemes of graft and corruption.  That’s the most activity on my Facebook page ever. I hope it will boost the company’s stock.

I did not post a response to Rudi. Were we able to meet for a one-on-one chat, I might have assured her that I really haven’t proposed “a method of helping the poor.” Possibly Stephen Colbert has proposed a method which Rudi knows about and assumes I agree with it—more likely she is placing words in my mouth—a hazard of emotional argument.

Part of my reason for posting Colbert’s quote is in hopes it might stimulate thought and constructive discussion. In a constructive discussion, I would acknowledge the reality of graft and corruption (G&C) in government social programs. I would also point out that G&C occur in the programs of charitable organizations as well as those of churches. Even the Mormon welfare system is not without problems. I’ve seen able-bodied men receiving Church aid for their families because, “I can’t get a job in my field.”

G&C are hardly limited to aid for the poor—dare we say Wall Street and the financial institutions? Congress is rife with corruption caused by corporate campaign contributions. Why single out programs for the poor as potential sources of G&C?

Another thing I would point out to Rudi is that, in my mind at least, right and righteous are not the same thing. It is right to obey traffic signals and doing so makes us safer without necessarily making us righteous.  Voluntary obedience of traffic signals would create hair-raising adventures on every city street. Likewise, voluntary donations to help the poor won’t do the job.

Preventing hunger and disease for others is the right thing to do. Keeping my neighbors alive and healthy so they can work and pay taxes benefits me as well as them. There is nothing particularly righteous in trying to see that American children receive adequate nutrition, health care, and education so they can grow up to be productive citizens. We all benefit from that—and pay the consequences when it doesn’t happen.

Rudi is right about surveys showing that Americans give more to charity than Europeans. What she overlooks is that churches receive the majority of American charitable donations—and not all the donations received by churches are spent on charity. The lion’s share of Mormon tithing funds goes into three areas—temples, missionary work, and Church education. These areas of focus are important for the organization but could not be defined as charitable works.

I don’t have the answer to our modern social problems, but I wish we were having a constructive conversation about the issues instead of tossing barbs on Facebook.

Worth Watching

For an uplifting experience, check out this segment from Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

The kind of Christ-like love evidenced in the lives of the Catholic couple who founded this homeless shelter in Helena, Montana boggles my mind. I can be nice to the unfortunate, but I don’t love them. Is this kind of love a gift from God? Or is that my excuse for not trying harder to cultivate that virtue?

Is It Really Charity?

In a recent post I wrote about how much to give to charity. Today, I want to bring up an equally touchy subject—one with which Congress is currently wrestling— are all donations really charity? Utah, which is over 60% Mormon, ranks high among states for charitable giving—yet nonprofits that provide services for the poor are always starved of funds.

I suspect the vast majority of itemized donations by Utahns are tithes to the Mormon Church. My question is—does supporting a church really count as charity? If charity is defined as helping the poor and the church spends the majority of contributions on helping the poor, of course, that counts. But I have heard that a relatively modest percentage of tithes and offerings paid to the Church funds programs benefitting the poor and needy. The lion’s share of Church expenditures are for three programs—CES (BYU, seminaries, and institutes), missionary work, and temples—none of which directly benefits the poor—with the exception of building and staffing temples in developing countries which does provide jobs for qualified members there.

Large Mormon families of average income sacrifice to pay their 10% to the church, leaving them little or no money for giving to other organizations. Most members prioritize Church donations—feeling confidant that 100% of their donations are well spent instead of going for the high salaries paid to CEOs of some organizations—and with a belief that their donations further the work of the Church in preparing the world for the Second Coming. Less altruistic motives include the fact that  non-tithe payers fail to qualify for temple recommends and leadership positions in their ward and stake. We are also told we will be blessed for making these sacrifices—with the implication that God will withdraw blessings if checkbooks close.

Giving to support a person’s church is necessary and commendable. I’m just not sure that it constitutes charity. Donating in order to maintain membership status and privileges seems more like paying dues to a social organization. Donating out of fear is sad.

Giving to an organization where most of the contribution benefits others in a demonstrated way—such as micro loans to help establish small businesses and improve farm yields, food for starving children, and funds to educate and improve skills is closer to my definition of charity. I think this is what Isaiah had in mind when he wrote, “Draw out thy soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted.” (58:10)

Giving ’til It Hurts

Several years ago when George was an ordinance worker at the Jordan River Temple, another worker showed up for prayer meeting in a spiffy, new white suit. During prayer meeting he asked the counselor in the temple presidency how to go about donating his old suit to a worker in a new temple in a developing country. “Why don’t you donate your new suit to the brother in the new temple?” the counselor replied.

Shock and disbelief registered on the faces of the questioner and most of the group. Instead of praise for his generosity, the owner of the new suit received implicit criticism. The counselor, however, was on the same page as C.S Lewis who, when asked how much a good Christian should give, said, “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. . . . There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them.” (Mere Christianity)

Sobering thoughts—giving away what we want for ourselves. And the tricky part, of course, is distinguishing between our needs and our wants.

Charity, defined as “the pure love of Christ” (Moro.7:47), is obviously more than donating items we no longer want to the poor. Maybe true charity is working to create a system that equalizes, not income, but opportunity.

“. . . Are We Not All Beggars?” (Mosiah 4:19)

As I approached my car parked along a street in a less affluent part of Salt Lake City, a thin, gray-haired man spoke to me from the sidewalk. His voice was soft and hoarse, so I walked through the snow to the sidewalk to hear him although I was pretty sure he was asking for money. He said he’d just arrived from Texas and had caught a cold and wondered if I could spare a dollar or two for him to buy some cough drops.

I have a strong prejudice against facilitating negative behavior—and I define begging as negative behavior—so I generally refer panhandlers to the homeless shelter or Salvation Army—and donate to support these organizations. Habit kicked in and I referred the man to the shelter instead of giving him cash. He looked so pathetic and disappointed that my conscience burned. As I drove away, I realized I could have offered to buy the man some cough drops or food in the nearby mini-mart. Or I could have just handed him a couple of bucks. How could I be so unfeeling to a fellow creature on a cold day a week before Christmas?

I confessed my lack of compassion to George when I returned home. He tried to salve my conscience by telling me the man might have gotten angry and violent if I’d offered to buy him food instead of giving him cash. Nice try, George. I was bigger and stronger than that poor, old man.

An hour later, George and I were approached by a woman in a supermarket parking lot. She said her car had broken down and she needed $2 or $3 to take the bus to Salt Lake. “Bus fare is $1.00 for senior citizens,” I told her. George knew I needed to repent for refusing the sad, old man in Salt Lake, and handed her four quarters. As the woman walked away, a store employee picking up shopping carts asked if we’d been solicited for money and told us he’d seen her doing that yesterday. Maybe if I’d followed my conscience the first time, I could have held my ground against the scam artist.

My friend, Tanzy, insists all panhandlers are scam artists being supported in luxury by the gullible. She knows this because she heard a man on talk-radio relate his career as a street beggar in Salt Lake during the ‘70s. He claimed to have made $70,000 year by driving his Cadillac downtown, parking it in a mall garage, then hitting the streets pretending to be a college student needing bus fare to get to his classes at the University.

My brother who does math in his head heard Tanzy and said since buses don’t run on Sundays and holidays, the man couldn’t have played his scam more than 200 days a year—necessitating a take of $350 a day to achieve a $70,000 annual income. With bus fare about 25 cents in the ‘70s, approximately 1400 people a day would have to ante up a quarter—or about 140 people per hour, if he worked ten hours a day. We found it implausible that anyone could consistently talk 20 people a minute out of a quarter in Salt Lake City in the ‘70s.

Believing her talk-show source frees Tanzy from guilt over refusing to fork over cash to beggars. My daughter, Lolly, gives to every beggar although knowing that many times her money will go for booze or drugs. Straddling the fence on this issue gives me a pain in the heart as well as the butt. I think I need to go with Lolly’s approach. I doubt anyone who isn’t desperate would beg—whether they need the money for food or for pain relief. And who am I to judge people who probably lacked the advantages I’ve enjoyed—loving parents, a secure home, and an education?

You Can’t Take It With You–Especially If You Don’t Have It

Who would you leave your fortune to, assuming you had one to leave? Bill Gates is urging fellow billionaires to divest themselves of the bulk of their cash before finally cashing in their chips—which will be a great benefit to foundations and charities—not to mention their children who won’t be burdened with unearned riches. Few of us will leave an estate large enough to cover the cost of stowing us underground let alone funding world-changing programs. Still, it’s nice to dream.

Churches are generally favored places for bequests. A colleague once speculated that should she win the lottery or gain some other unlikely windfall, she would donate half to her church. Being a Mormon, I figure I’ve already donated plenty to religion, so my imaginary fortune will subsidize a secular foundation.

I tend to favor literacy or literature programs like the Utah Humanities Council’s lending library for book groups and their Motheread/Fatheread program. As a reader, I harbor a fond belief that literature can change the world—that wide reading develops our imagination. I think the failure to imagine how other people think and feel allows human beings to treat fellow beings cruelly—and to commit or fail to prevent atrocities on groups of people we believe are not like us. Foreign films also allow us to see people of other cultures as more like than different from us. Yes, I would fund humanities programs because if we help human beings learn to value each other, we just might solve the rest of our problems.

Where would you put your money?

Charity Begins with the Poor

Dr. Toby Ord, an Oxford academic, has pledged to donate the bulk of his lifetime earnings to fight world poverty. He calculates that for each £15,000 (approx. $22,500) donated to effective charities, 55 lives are saved. His website estimates that if the typical US citizen gave 10% of their income to the right NGOs, each year, 1900 cases of malaria could be prevented, 170 people could be cured of TB, and 1100 additional years of school attendance could be provided.

Now donating 10% of income is routine for active Mormons. For years George and I cheerfully wrote checks for 10% of our gross income—even though our kids went without things they really needed. We believed we were obeying the Lord’s will in furthering the work of the Church and that all the world’s problems would be resolved once everybody was converted and the Savior arrived. I did not believe this obedience would unlatch the Windows of Heaven to rain greenbacks upon our family. Experience had proven otherwise. Still, I felt our family sacrifice was making the world a better place. George agreed. Our children did not.

Eventually, I realized that most of our tithing dollars were going for temples, missionary work and CES. Fast offering was an extra donation to relieve the suffering of the poor. I upped that after a General Conference address promised that increasing our fast offerings would increase our blessings, not realizing that “our” referred to the church as a whole rather than to our family in particular.

I cut back on fast offerings about 10 years ago when I learned that nearly all of my donations were going to help Americans who actually have access to government welfare programs rather than to starving Latter-day Saints in developing countries. Church welfare to countries outside the US has increased since that time, but I suspect the bulk of fast offerings collected in the US still remain in this country. Yes, it’s nice to help people in the current economic system with house payments. But to my mind, that lacks the urgency of providing aid to members in countries like Ecuador and Guatemala where children risk brain damage and stunted growth because of severe malnutrition.

I appreciate the assistance LDS Humanities and PEF provide to the poor in other countries. Donations to those funds, however, are in addition to the 10% tithing required by all members who want to maintain worthiness for temple recommends and leadership positions in their wards and stakes. True believers will continue to make tithing their primary or only charitable donation.

C.S. Lewis observed that if we aren’t giving up something we would really like to have, we aren’t giving enough to the poor. But how much is enough? No one else can answer that question for us. And money isn’t the only thing we can contribute. We can donate our time to help others. We can also change our lifestyles so we are not consuming more than our share of the world’s finite resources.

The scriptures are replete with admonitions to remember the poor and to avoid greed. If Dr. Toby Ord keeps his vow to donate the bulk of his lifetime earnings to save the poor, I suspect the Lord has reserved a top spot for him in the Celestial Kingdom regardless of his religious beliefs. I’m less sure of my own placement.

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