Every Advent, early in the season, my parish has a “wishing tree” standing in the back of the church. It’s a Christmas tree with little tags hanging on it, like ornaments, and each has the first name of a child, gender and age, and a wish that child wrote down for a Christmas present. These are children from families that cannot afford to buy gifts for their kids, so we take the tags and prepare the gifts and put them back under the tree. Some of the wishes are heart-breaking: not for toys or books or things of hobbies but for shoes, for a warm jacket. Some are very non-specific: “clothes, size small.” I wonder how many are written by the parents.
When I brought home a tag on the first Sunday of Advent, my sister saw it and wanted to contribute, too. I brought her another one, and together we put our hearts and some money into two children we didn’t know. It was good.
My sister is not a member of my parish, of course. She is an atheist, as well as the rest of my family, but it did not occur to her or to me to care about that until another relative found this a problem.
“Why do you have to contribute through a church?” he asked. “Can’t you find a secular charity?”
Sure, she can. She does. So do I. But here she came upon a child in need and wanted to help, and it happened to be through a church, so what does it matter?
The relative with the problem explained: “It’s organized religion. Now this family is getting a present and thinking, ‘Isn’t it great that we are religious?’”
“You don’t even know they are religious,” I said.
They turned to me: “Are these all children from your parish?”
“No. They are children from the community. I don’t know who is who.”
I walked away feeling unfinished and dissatisfied—with my family, with my own answer, with the world. Because something important was left unsaid, something about giving and accepting love no matter where it comes from. And I wondered how many families would assume their present came from a kind-hearted Christian and was as wrong about the source of their care as my relative was about its destination.
I don’t do all my service through the Church or in overtly religious terms, not at all. In fact, when I choose to share what money, what talent, what time I possess, I base that decision on the clarity of opportunity, nobility of spirit, inclusivity, and maximum usefulness of the project that I can discern at the time, be it stopping for a person on the sidewalk, volunteer ESL teaching, or the global food distribution program. At the same time, my faith is more than a profound part of me—it is who I am, whole—and my Church is one crucial, outward, social expression of that faith, so naturally I encounter the efforts of my Church toward social justice and want to participate in them. I am the Church, so her charity is my charity.
This fluid mix is love that knows no borders, much like my sister’s instinct to care for a child—her love. The question becomes: Is it more right or wrong to care in the name of something rather than something else? Is it wrong to be moved by faith in offering help? And is faith-based charity the exclusive purview of organized religion?
The way I see it, people come together for many and varied reasons: to share hobbies or interests, to work on a cause, to work in a job, to support each other through challenges like illness or grief, to coexist gracefully as neighbors, to help stand up for each other against discrimination, to share and profess common faith… We are social creatures, and we form communities. What those communities do with their strength in numbers is a whole other, follow-up question. Will a corporation build a park for local children? Will an LGBTQ organization participate in multiple sclerosis marathon? Will a church raise money for the poor? And when they do, will the children, the MS patients, and the poor refuse their loving care because of a particular reason that brought these benefactors together?
My religion-disdaining relative singled out charity given by a church as an unworthy cause partly because he presumed that we would care only for “our own”: Catholic for the Catholics. He was wrong; our “wishing tree” is part of a community outreach in my town, and several organizations take on responsibility for a number of children. This is not just for our parish. But what if it were?
If this undertaking were for our church’s poor families, it would be all right, too. Because there would be another undertaking then, for the town’s families. And there would be our collection for South America and one for the hurricane victims in the Philippines. And there would be our other undertakings, counts and counts. I don’t know of any Christian church or synagogue that limits its good works to its own faithful (not that faith is possible to prove anyway). I am less familiar with the charitable practices of mosques and other religious organizations, but I know a few, and they don’t check “religion passports” at the door of their shelters and soup kitchens either. If yours does, it is wrong, but I doubt any reader of this essay will answer “yes.”
The way I see it, people come together for many reasons, and whenever they come together enough to do something good for the world, they are brought together by faith. Not all faith is religious. All people who step outside of their own little worlds enough to help others, believe in a larger good. They believe in love. They are connected to each other to feel compassion. They believe in some noble ideals: justice, freedom, peace…
We are brought together by faith to make the world a little better, and it doesn’t matter who we are and whom we help, as long as we help.