Friday, March 27, 2009

Charity and Reciprocity

Lent is a good time to focus on spiritual reading. I'm reading Fr. Virgil Elizondo's Charity (Orbis, 2008). I like Virgil/Virgilio (like a good San Antonian the padre answers to both names) Elizondo's writing. It's clear and understandable, not mired in pompous theological jargon, and full of wonderful personal anecdotes to illustrate the points he is making.

And he makes sense. He argues that charity has to combine both the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy. St. Vincent de Paul used to say: "It is only for your love alone that the poor will forgive you the bread you give to them." The fact that charity is needed at all reflects an economic inequality in which we, the benefactors, are at least partially complicit, hence the need for forgiveness. We can make it easier to swallow by adopting an "hoy por ti, mañana por mi" attitude -- we will not always be the donors, the poor will not always be the recipients.

Elizondo says: "To help those with material needs is absolutely necessary, but never enough. In fact if one helps others only materially there is a great danger of dehumanizing them by reducing them to dependent bodies without a spirit. Material dependency easily robs people of their dignity and freedom...The liberation of the spirit comes through the experience of being recognized, accepted, appreciated and loved."

The counterpoint of true charity is reciprocity -- allowing others to help us. In Fr. Elizondo's words, "charity involves the acceptance of my own limitations, rejoices in the gifts of others, and welcomes their assistance." God did not create human beings to be self-sufficient, but rather interdependent on each other and dependent on Him. We are not meant to "have it all".

This is not the same as the Biblical injunction against self-interested reciprocity in Luke 14:12ff: "Then [Jesus] said to the host who invited Him, "when you hold a lunch or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors, in case they may invite you back and you have repayment. Rather, when you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." You should not act charitably only when you think someone can do something for you in return but neither should you make assumptions. The poor may not seem able to repay, but when given respect and opportunity, they often can and want to do so, and to discourage this reciprocity in order to maintain a false sense of superiority is uncharitable.

When I think of charity and reciprocity, I remember Theresa, an African American woman who came to stay at the Mary Harris Catholic Worker House on Fourth Street. Because Theresa was Catholic, we invited her to join us for evening prayer. We volunteers had a little ritual, frowned upon by the house's founder Mike Kirwan, that relieved the tensions of the day. We would end our prayer with a solemn chanting of the Salve Regina in Latin and top it off with a rousing rendition of Janis Joplin's song "Mercedes Benz" ("O Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz?" etc...). Dorothy Day was probably spinning in her grave, but Theresa always thanked us for inviting her to pray and said that singing "Mercedes Benz" made her laugh so hard that she forgot her fear and embarrassment at being in a shelter for the first time in her life.

Reciprocity was also important to Theresa. She did not have any money or much formal education, but the sister could cook! I had money but no experience in cooking for large groups. So Theresa and I developed another ritual. Every Sunday morning we would wake before the others and walk to the supermarket. We would buy the ingredients and I would help Theresa prepare a good breakfast of eggs, sausage, biscuits, juice and coffee for the ladies. I was usually entrusted with a simple task like setting the table or shaping sausage patties. Theresa's face would glow as she would watch the other guests enjoy the food she had lovingly prepared. Coffee and conversation flowed freely, divisions disappeared, and for that moment we were just a group of women thankful for a wonderful meal and welcoming a new day the Lord had made.

Photo: Theresa and "the gang" at Mary Harris House.

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