What is Charity?
There was a Samaritan on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the only one who stopped to help a man who’d been set upon by thieves. A priest and a Levite had walked right past the injured man, but the Samaritan treated his wounds, took him to an inn and made arrangements for his expenses.
The story, told in the Bible, is timeless — a parable famous not just in Christianity, but across many cultures and beliefs. And yet it’s so simple: one man helping another.
We can’t know the Samaritan’s motivations, but we can guess: compassion and empathy, responsibility and kindness. We can guess charity.
It’s a fraught word, charity. It’s used to describe institutions and organizations, a type of giving, a type of action, a particular feeling. It’s used negatively and positively.
As we enter the holiday season, people’s thoughts often stretch beyond themselves and the walls of their homes, out to their neighbors, their neighborhoods, their communities, their country, their world. Their thoughts turn to charity. But what does that mean?
“Charity is our neighbor,” said Linda Taylor, executive director of the Center for Independence. “Charity to others is, in many ways, a selfless act, that when you give to an organization for their charitable works, you are giving to your community, you’re expecting the community to benefit.
“Charity is an act of community building and community support, and I think it has to be something that comes from within.”
According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are 966,711 public charities in the United States, and Giving USA reports that in 2011, charitable contributions by individuals, bequests, corporations and foundations were $298.42 billion. Of that number, individuals gave $217.79 billion.
Also, the U.S. Census Bureau’s and Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey reports that between September 2009 and September 2010, 26.3 percent of Americans ages 16 and older volunteered through or for a charitable organization.
But those who work for and with charitable organizations, who volunteer and donate and give what they can, say the concept of charity goes far beyond the 501(c)3 designation.
“(Charity is) giving of your time, giving of your abilities, giving funding that you have to give,” said Julie Mamo, executive director of Grand Valley Peace and Justice. “It could mean a kind word, it could mean when you are out in public and come across someone in a vulnerable situation — someone who’s homeless, someone who’s migrant — you are kind, you offer a smile, you offer a sandwich, you offer a helping hand.
“A smile is big. A smile builds people up inside, it gives them hope, it gives them acceptance, it leads to a kind word. Charity can really be an easy thing.”
One of the most often-cited discussions of charity comes from the Bible, from 1 Corinthians in the New Testament. The apostle Paul, writing to the Christians in Corinth, used the Greek word “agape,” which means love. Translators of the King James Bible also interpreted it as “charity”:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.
“And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.
“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
“doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil.”
“We would consider charity to be love,” said the Rev. Vaughn Park of Heritage Church in Grand Junction. “And the purest expression of love is the gospel, the gospel of Christ. I think you can describe what love is or what charity is by what it does, and the trust expression of what love is, is a person, and that would be Christ.”
Charity is a key tenet of Christianity and many world religions. One of the five pillars of Islam is almsgiving, and charity is cited in the Quran: “They ask you about giving: say, ‘The charity you give shall go to the parents, the relatives, the orphans, the poor, and the wayfarer.’ Any good you do, God is fully aware thereof.”
Hinduism and Buddhism strive toward the dana paramita, or the perfection of giving. In the Tipitaka, a collection of scripture in Theravada Buddhism, the Buddha is said to have taught that giving should not only be done, but done without expectation of reward.
“I don’t believe people make donation judgments based on how much tax support they get out of it,” Taylor said. “I think they make charitable giving — make gifts of time and gifts of labor and gifts of in-kind good, they give what they can — because they believe in what the outcomes are.
“It’s interesting when I look at our numbers, a lot of our charity comes from people of modest means, so sometimes charity and the charity of volunteerism comes from people who have lived or walked the path that they are trying to help the person behind them.”
Added Kristy Schmidt, internal executive director of Marillac Clinic, “Charity is a philosophy. Charity could be providing something for someone that they don’t have the means to access otherwise.
“For us, it really goes back to our mission of serving the poor and the vulnerable populations, to really be that safety net, to really take care of those who are less fortunate, those in need, that have limited resources… A lot of people are a paycheck away from being in that situation.”
Charity is a two-sided coin, the help being given lovingly and the help being graciously received. Charity cannot exist without both sides.
And it’s vital to human experience, because need is constant: “In reality, there have always been less fortunate and more fortunate people,” said Jeff Basinger, executive director of the Western Colorado AIDS Project.
“It’s just kind of the nature of being on Earth that, based on genetics and family resources and geographic location and history and a lot of other things, it created a condition called need: somebody always needs something that somebody else has, and somebody else always has something that somebody else needs.
“Whether or not the person who needs what somebody else has is willing to accept it and grow with it and be empowered by that ... to me, that is also kind of the downside of the word charity, this idea that it’s a hand-out instead of a hand-up. That’s why you hear more about an empowerment model, where we’re not going to take care of people for just an hour or just today, but actually look at what it is that they need to empower them to self-sufficiency.”
In fact, the word “charity” is sometimes interpreted negatively: charity case, I don’t want your charity, etc. It’s interpreted as the receiver being less and the giver being more, as a fundamental inequality rather than an act springing from love and a sense of “we’re all in this together.”
“We don’t really throw the word ‘charity’ around a lot,” Mamo said. “It’s something that we find within us, and we are a charitable organization, but we really don’t talk like that. We say ‘direct service providers.’ We’re advocates for those who don’t have a voice in the community.”
“It can be a very humbling experience to encounter an unfortunate turn of events in life — loss of one’s health, loss of transportation, loss of housing, loss of income,” Basinger said. “It all stacks up to loss of self-esteem, loss of confidence. So, we try to meet people exactly where they’re at, without judgment, without reprimand, without any kind of harsh encounter, with compassion and empathy.”
Charity, apart from being an impulse and a philosophy sprung from generous hearts, is a way to effect immediate change within an immediate range of influence. It’s a way to make things better within arm’s reach.
“I still look in horror at pictures of people across the world being decimated, but I feel absolutely impotent to do anything about it,” Taylor said. “But I can donate a table and chair set to somebody who’s been homeless who’s setting up a home.”
In his “Essay on Man,” British poet Alexander Pope wrote:
“For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
“His can’t be wrong whose life is in the right.
“In faith and hope the world will disagree,
“But all mankind’s concern is charity.”
So, charity the belief, charity the action, charity the philosophy and the institution, meet on the side of the road, with someone who needs help and someone who’s able to give it.