Monday, April 27, 2015

The priest who said 'no' to charity

In May 2010 I went on mission trip to two small, rural villages in Haiti. Our mission trip fell just a few months after the devastating January earthquake and aftershocks. However, our focus was not on building housing or offering medical care, but on building relationships.

On our final morning in the first village we stayed in, some local women were invited to come and sell their hand-made bags, pot holders and other green and brown grass-woven goods. I grabbed some cash, and went down to visit them.

Before I began looking at their crafts for sale, I was stopped by one of the priests. “Don’t just accept their prices,” he said sternly. “Get them to drop their prices a little before you accept.”

I was confused. 

The priest explained, “If you just hand them money, it’s as if their work isn’t worth anything. Don’t just throw your money at them. Show them dignity by giving them a fair deal.”

It was so difficult to offer $2 for a bag that probably took a week to make, especially when I knew how poor these women and their families were. But as I gave them the fairer prices, there seemed to be something more equal between us. I wasn’t just giving out of charity. I was an equal. We were sharing in one another’s dignity.

It is easy to buy and sell as if all actions are private: “I have this, and you want it. So, give me what I want, and you can have it.” It is even easier to think “I am giving my stuff to you” when we are being charitable. But is it really ours to begin with?

Dorothy Day is known for saying that the extra coats we have hanging in our closets, our empty buildings and any “extra” things we don’t truly need are actually the poor man’s possessions. Their possessions, she says. So our giving isn’t “from me to you,” but “it is yours anyway.”

In his book, Being Consumed, William Cavanaugh asks us to consider what we do when we go to Mass and receive the Eucharist. If we truly become the One Body of Christ that we receive, should we not live as if what I have is not mine, but ours?[1] 

[1] Cavanaugh, William T. Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2008. Chapter 4.

Image: Me and one of the students in Haiti after something of a dance-off - notice the toilet paper under my flip flop strap to cover a wound incurred from trying to break dance a little too hard...