Contemporary charity need not be just cold bureaucracy

Father John A. Kiley

A handy park bench flanked by garden urns with marigolds and petunias faces the freshly painted door of St. James Food Pantry in Manville. Every Thursday morning that bench as well as the bright interior of this neighborhood food closet will welcome twenty or so village residents who have been feeling the pinch financially and appreciate this local opportunity to take home a few cans and jars of staple food items. On the property next to the food site is a four car garage recalling the days when four priests staffed this largely French-Canadian mill village. Much of the garage stalls now shelters substantial furniture items – beds and bureaus and night stands, tables and chairs and cabinets – which have been donated mostly by older parishioners leaving their homes to move into smaller quarters. An agency in Woonsocket that cares for abused women is grateful for these articles that help set up a new home for its battered clients.
St. Ambrose Church is at the heart of Albion, another former mill village just down the road in Lincoln. Fast being transformed from a row of mill houses along River Road and School Street, Albion, has become a broadly suburban community. Yet not all the village’s former rural roots have been forgotten. Each spring parishioners transform a parcel of land alongside the parish cemetery into a bountiful vegetable garden with a few sun flowers adding a bit of cheer. Tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, and zucchini of course are cultivated, harvested, and then offered to church-goers all summer long after weekend Masses. Parishioners’ contributions are then donated to St. John the Baptist Church in Pawtucket for the needy of that area.
Practical good deeds are as much a part of Rhode Island’s Catholic parish life as the celebration of the sacraments, the education of children, and the care of the sick and dying. And of course, on a broader level, the Catholic diocese of Providence has sponsored the annual Catholic Charity Fund collection for almost one hundred years, benefitting the poor, the needy, and the indigent in many ways. Small acts of charity as well as substantial efforts toward social justice are integral to Catholic church life and have been essential to the People of God since the desert of Sinai.
This coming Sunday’s first reading is taken from the book of Exodus (22:20-26) reaching back to the very first generation of God’s believing community and finding there worthy examples of kindness toward neighbor. “You shall not molest or oppress an alien, for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan…If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him by demanding interest from him. If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?” Later Zechariah (7:9) would still be teaching the same message: “Thus says the LORD of hosts: Judge with true justice, and show kindness and compassion toward each other. Do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the resident alien or the poor; do not plot evil against one another in your hearts.”
Concern for the needy was a vibrant matter for the first generation of Christians as well. St. Paul’s concern for the poor saints at Jerusalem regularly manifested itself in his writings. He mentions it in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 and spends two chapters on it in 2 Corinthians 8-9. He refers to charity also in his letter to the Romans: “Macedonia and Achaia have decided to make some contribution for the poor among the holy ones in Jerusalem (15:26-27).” Toward the end of his life, the apostle proudly cites such charity in his defense before the Roman governor, Felix: “After many years, I came to bring alms and offerings for my nation (Acts 24:17).”
The Christian world urgently needs comprehensive schemes to promote social justice, racial equality, financial stability, environmental awareness and political action. But broader issues need not overwhelm practical benevolence. Believers can still bring the box of cereal and can of green beans to Mass on Sunday for the local food site. And the faithful can still drop five bucks into the collection box for the victims of a recent hurricane or tornado. Contemporary charity need not be just cold bureaucracy. Charity can still be the warmth of a neighborly act of kindness to the needy at the door.