Helping those in need isn’t about you. The wealthy often think they know what is best for everyone they deem “poor”. They think because someone is poor, they must be doing something wrong as if there’s always, without exception, a correlation between not having enough money and making bad decisions.
By Donna Caito
19 July 2021
I term “wealthy” as anyone who isn’t living at or below the poverty level in the United States. Almost eleven percent of Americans are classified as living at or below the poverty level. Therefore, eighty-nine percent of Americans should be trying to help eleven percent of the population. (Imagine that America. It would be awesome.) But it seems an exceedingly small percentage of that eighty-nine percent have any sort of true compassion and mercy for the poor and marginalized.
I know plenty of people from all classes. Poor. Working class. Middleclass. Wealthy. Rich. Bottom one percent to the top one percent. It doesn’t matter how much money someone has in their checking account or 401K. I know plenty of wonderful, loving, hardworking people who are barely scraping by. The differences of access to things like safe housing, healthcare, a good education, and resources oftentimes have nothing to do with a person’s choices. The odds are stacked against some people, especially minorities, which is why rags to riches stories are exceedingly rare.
I have noticed that eighty-nine percent often have a list of demands or restrictions on their help. Do this or that or the other thing and I’ll help you. Like the many who only give the homeless figt cards for fast food. Their reasoning is that homeless person “might use that money to buy drugs or alcohol.” Then the wealthy go home and crack open a beer or a bottle of wine or some mixed drinks. The wealthy’s drinking is sanctioned but the poor man’s is not.
Funny, but I don’t often hear about the wealthy donating money to rehabilitation facilities or even coffee and doughnuts for narcotics anonymous or alcoholics anonymous meetings. People are so overly concerned about alcoholism or drug use they refuse to spot a fiver to a homeless person. You’d think places that combat addiction would have an overflow of resources.
Or maybe that poor person would’ve used the cash to buy some cheap food, probably still higher quality than most fast-food places, and get a hotel room for the night? A good pair of socks and some shoes? Laundry detergent and visited a laundromat for the first time in who knows how long? Shampoo or conditioner and ducked into a truck stop to take a shower? Of course not! The wealthy say the money was going to be used on drugs or alcohol so it must be true!
Can you imagine a bunch of Catholics doing the same thing to the Church?
“I had a horrible experience in parochial school some of my tithing money can go to Catholic schools. It can only be used for the CCD kids. And I need to approve the religious ed books before you buy them because I don’t like the ones you use. Also, CCD is on Wednesdays, but my son has clarinet on Wednesdays. Move CCD to Tuesday nights. But not during basketball season. He has basketball on Tuesdays from November to March so during those months it must be on Thursday evenings after seven. And that Mary who teaches second grade at religious education took up my pew at Mass the other day AND gave me the stink-eye when I loudly told her to move. You’ll need to fire her. I don’t care if she’s volunteering her time and the children love her! Fire her! What? You don’t want my money? You ungrateful Church! No wonder why everyone is leaving you!”
That’s what I think whenever I hear when the wealthy dictate the terms of their assistance.
Many times, I have seen that eighty-nine percent donate literal trash and expect the poor to be ecstatic about it.
When I worked in a pregnancy center the amount of garbage we got was so disheartening it was beyond the beyond. I remember one young man, a part of a Christian private school volunteering their time, tell me that I shouldn’t throw away stained and ripped clothing because “the poor should take what they can get.”
My response was, “So what you’re really saying is poor people shouldn’t have nice things?”
Or the wealthy think, “If I like this thing, the poor must also like this thing!”
It is like when you get a gift you have no need for and honestly don’t want while smiling and pretending you really like it. The voice that you pitch an octave too high and hold it up for everyone to see as if it is the kindest most thoughtful gift you have ever gotten in the world. In the meantime, you are scouring the wrapping paper for the receipt.
“Oh my gosh! Where did you get this?” you exclaim as you hold up the clown clock with the eyes shifting back and forth as the seconds tick. The hour chimes and you hear a cackling laughter that scares the cat.
“Don’t you just adore it?” the person shrieks in their clown sweatshirt and leggings. “I have one just like it at home and love it so much! I knew you’d want one, too!”
In the meantime, you are trying not to scream due to a strong case of coulrophobia.
This is the same feeling I had at the pregnancy center whenever anyone donated yet another pack of newborn diapers. Almost everyone donated newborn diapers. We had a mountain of newborn diapers. So. Many. Newborn. Diapers.
Somehow the wealthy think babies born in poverty don’t grow up.
You know what we always ran out of almost every single shift? The thing we begged and pleaded for but rarely received? Size six diapers. Newborn diapers are exponentially cheaper than larger sized diapers. You can get like fifty newborn diapers compared to like twenty size six diapers for the same price. Everyone likes to think of the squishy, squashy cute newborn in diapers they donated. Doesn’t that make you feel good inside? Definitely not as good as those annoying, booger-filled toddlers in diapers.
People would spend money on newborn diapers and excitedly hand them to me even after reading the bold-faced typing on our website specifically asking for larger diapers. I would smile, take the package of newborn diapers, and thank them liberally. At the end of the shift, I’d chuck that package of newborn diapers onto the growing mountain of newborn diapers that towered over my head while simultaneously texting my boss that we needed to use our already strained resources on the more expensive size six diapers because we ran out halfway through the shift.
Then people would say the inevitable, “The child shouldn’t be in size six diapers! What kind of a mother has a child big enough to wear size six diapers when they should be potty trained?”
Maybe a mom working two to three minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and doesn’t have a spare moment to properly potty train so it’s taking a bit longer? Someone who has a special need kid? A kid who is potty trained but needs those diapers at night? Even a mom who believes a kid should decide when they’re ready to be potty trained and not some random stranger?
But the wealthy thought babies born to poverty didn’t need size six diapers, so I rarely ever got size six diapers.
Corporal works of mercy are meaningless if it’s not done with the needs of the person or people you’re trying to help in mind. If you’re solely doing it for the “good feeling” you want to experience yourself, you’re not serving the Lord. You’re serving yourself.
Feeding the Hungry
They all ate as much as they wanted, and they collected the scraps left over twelve baskets full.Matthew 14:20
In our nearest city, the Catholic center that serves meals every day to the homeless is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas. That’s not due to religious reasons. If it were needed, I’m sure they’d do it. It is because countless other organizations have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. There is no reason to be open. No one comes. Most of those places hosting Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners turn away volunteers because of the sheer amount of people who “want to give back during the holiday season.”
Funny thing, though, during the rest of the year, the Catholic center in our area is basically begging for people to help them. For some reason, the wealthy only seem to remember the poor and marginalized the end of November to December twenty-fifth. I guess people are too busy from January to October.
If you want to help feed the hungry the best way to do it is call and ask what they need. Call them the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and chances are they’re going to tell you that they have it covered. Call them on a random Tuesday in June and watch the magic happen. Poverty is a yearlong epidemic. It doesn’t suddenly disappear the day after Christmas.
If you want to come into the good graces of any non-profit organization and truly give back to the hungry, call them and say exactly this, “Hello? What time do you need volunteers? And what do you need me to do?” Bonus points if you add, “Who do I make the check out to?”
Give Drink to the Thirsty
After this, aware that everything was now finished, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.”John 19:28
Water is vitally important to life. Clean, fresh water is something we often take for granted. There are people around the world literally dying of dehydration. Want to change the world? Start by supporting organizations giving out water.
I know, I know. Bottled water is the bane of existence. However, when someone is homeless, bottled water is vitally important. A bottle of water can not only give someone something to drink but also helps them wash their hands or wipe their sweaty brow. A gallon jug of water can mean the difference between life and death during a heatwave or in frigid temperatures.
Bonus points if you actually take the time to have a drink with them.
Have a natural disaster? Donate bottled water. See a homeless person on the street? Give them some bottled water. Want to buy something for a food bank instead of calling and asking what they need? Donate some water or milk or anything with electrolytes. Want to donate to babies born to poverty? Donate formula and gallons of fresh water. Want to protest the injustices of the world? Start with the right to clean and fresh water. Beware, though, because you might fall down the rabbit hole of social justice. Consider yourself forewarned.
Or, again, go online to a reputable organization and donate money.
Shelter the Homeless
Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.Matthew 8:20
One thing I’ve learned in the past year working in low-income housing is that my clients face two things: a long waiting list and tons of paperwork. Someone during the pandemic asked me how they could give back to the poor. They were laid off for a time, able to live off savings and unemployment, and wanted to take the time they were waiting for their job to come back with volunteer work. They had a degree in business administration. She wanted to use the degree but had zero clue how to do it besides join a board of directors. I actually felt a little bad about crushing her spirit while always complaining about how many nonprofits had huge boards of directors never doing the work they were trying to direct.
My immediate response was, “If you have the time and inclination, you can join or start a volunteer group that would help people fill out paperwork they need for things like public housing, utility assistance, phone assistance, food programs, government health insurance, and generally anything they need to survive. A lot of people have trouble trying to get access to and fill out the right forms and I feel awful I have to rush them through it. If you can help them fill out the forms, it would be a relief to so many.”
Hammering nails or stocking shelves not your thing? Cool. Volunteer your time to fill out paperwork for those who can’t read the language or don’t have the reading comprehension or patience to fill out a twenty-page application (of which there are many). Tell an organization you’re more than happy to stop by an afternoon a week and file stuff. Volunteer your time during tax season. Teach classes on basic computer skills. Be a receptionist for a nonprofit, answer phones, and take messages.
Manual labor more your thing? Awesome. Volunteer at Habitat for Humanity. Go to your local food bank and stock shelves. Sort through donations. Plant flowers or trees. Paint buildings. Deliver groceries or meals. Be a handyperson for a day. Rake leaves. Offer to mow lawns. Shovel sidewalks.
And, of course, money. Because, again, any nonprofit is probably using a ridiculously small budget to do big things.
Visit the Sick
Jesus entered the house of Peter, and saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with fever. He touched her hand, the fever left her, and she rose and waited on him.Matthew 8:14-15
The thing I’ve noticed about my elderly residents is the more involvement they have with people the happier they are. A large portion of my day is spent listening to stories about residents’ family members. I’m pretty sure I’d be able to recognize them on the street. That’s before I’m shown the photo albums. And yes, that’s album-s in the plural. Say what you will about the elderly, they’ll take multiple trips up and down an elevator to show off their grandchildren. Especially the single males my age who “have good jobs” and “are great with children.”
The problem I have is there are only so many hours in the day and a laundry list of things to do. While I love visiting, I still must process paperwork, call contractors, schedule services, keep up with the property, and deal with whatever else comes. It always breaks my heart when someone is talking to me and the phone rings. I see the light dim in their eyes, and they say, “Well, I’ll let you get that.”
Side note: I’ve never worked in a place where the clients are asking several times a day if I’ve had my lunch. Usually, they’ll also ask what I’ve eaten and if they can make me a plate of something. And then they close the door and announce very loudly I’m on my lunch break. Sometimes they sit on an armchair outside my office like the doorman in the Wizard of Oz. It’s beautifully hilarious.
If you want to start helping the sick, simply spend time with them. It doesn’t have to be in person. Write a letter. Send a postcard. Call them on the telephone. Draw a picture or cook a meal and drop it off. Don’t worry about it taking hours. Even a fifteen-minute conversation can be something that lights up someone’s world.
Visit the Prisoners
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”Luke 23: 39-43
Long ago, I used to be a correctional officer. Honestly, I was awful at it. I was young, dumb, and very full of myself. And what a correctional officer shouldn’t be is young, dumb, and full of themselves.
What I quickly learned with prisoners is they have twenty-four hours in a day and practically nothing to fill their time. Usually there is only one television to the entire block of inmates. Libraries are woefully under-funded and rarely have anything worth reading. Forget having computers, games, or any type of hobbies besides cards and dominos. Imagine sitting down for twenty-four hours a day and having absolutely nothing to do in a dangerous place that smells like garbage and body odor with noise filling your ears all day every day.
Time stands still in prisons and jails. Even working there seemed like the longest hours of my life. I’d look at the clock from time to time and wonder if they were messing with them. Black days.
Visiting the imprisoned doesn’t necessarily mean going to an actual prison. Write a letter. Put together a carpool of people who need rides to visit their loved ones. Join a ministry who helps children of the incarcerated. Become foster parents. Donate books to prisons and jails to keep their reading materials up to date and accessible. Support your local Alpha program getting into the prisons. Give money to a nonprofit working with those incarcerated like the Innocence Project. Write your congressperson or senator about the deplorable conditions of American prisons.
Sure, prison and jails are scary. They’re even more frightening to those who have to live there. A lot of people in the Bible spent time in prisons. Our time is now to reach our incarcerated brothers and sisters. And if clanking doors and yelling guards isn’t your thing, that’s okay. There is other important work to be done.
Bury the dead
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. Nicodemus, the one who had first come to him at night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and bound it with burial cloths along with the spices, according to the Jewish burial custom. Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by.John 19: 38-42
The interesting thing I’ve noticed about working with the elderly is not the fear of dying. It’s the fear of being forgotten. I’ve been with people taking their last breaths who had no one to mourn them after they’ve died. Their things stayed in an apartment until we contacted the next of kin. Oftentimes, it took weeks or months. Even then, most people just sent a waiver from a lawyer and told us to junk everything. Everything a person had swept up into a truck and sent away to parts unknown.
I’ve been to funerals with no mourners. Celebrations of life in empty rooms. People forgotten in a day or two. It is said when an old person dies, a library burns.
Go to funerals. Like my father says, “Suit up and show up.”
Mourn. Send flowers if you’re unable to attend. Share stories and keep that memory alive. Write letters. Share snippets of that person to others. Visit gravesites. Pray for those in purgatory. Let’s give our best even in death.
Give Alms to the Poor
But take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will not have recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.Matthew 6: 1-4
Imagine you’re starving and have no money. You swallow your pride and ask a complete stranger for help. They say sure. No problem. They’re more than happy to get you some food. Relief flashes across your body while they lead you to the grocery store. Before they give the assistance you so desperately need, they whip out their cell phone and start recording you at the lowest point of your life. If they’re feeling particularly magnanimous, they’ll make sure to ask your permission on camera. Better to do that than have someone point out the hidden agenda. In your desperation, you readily agree to anything while being anxiously afraid they’ll rip that food right out of your hand. Some people can’t afford dignity.
The caption is usually something like,
“Helping my new friend Donna who is homeless and needs food! I took her to the grocery store and bought her grapes! We’re all in this together!”
“My waitress is a poor, single mom who couldn’t afford to buy presents for their children for Christmas! I tipped her fifty dollars on a twenty-dollar bill! Merry Christmas, Donna! Remember, its’ better to give than receive!”
Talk about a warped power dynamic.
Can you imagine having to thank them profusely as your darkest days are spread throughout the internet? Just for some random person to be called your “savior” and how wonderful they are? Your dignity is wasted for a bunch of thumbs up, karma points, and atta boy’s?
Altruism is something I’ve tried to both practice and teach my daughters. I loathe social media posts of people showing off what great things they’re doing for the poor and marginalized when the people they’re helping are offered up like a sacrificial lamb. My thought is always, “Way to kick someone when they’re down.”
When did we, as a society, become so self-absolved that we can’t just do something good because it’s what God wants us to do? Because it’s the right thing to do? Why do we need constant validation? I want my reputation, the way I interact with people, and the way I respect other’s personal autonomy to speak for itself. I want the person I am helping to know I’d never use their fall for my gain.
There’s also a small part of us that thanks God we’re not in “them” while ignoring the fact that He is.
Mercy isn’t taking. It is constantly giving. Mercy is looking at someone and letting them know they’re more than their bank account, mental or physical health, criminal record, or age. True mercy is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “compassion or forbearance shown especially to an offender or to one subject to one’s power.” Compassion is defined by Merriam-Webster as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
A desire to alleviate it.
I was at the pregnancy center handing out diapers. We were inside the Catholic multicultural center and had a waiting area the size of a small living room. Usually there were between twenty and forty people waiting in that small area with their small children. During those open hours, we had multiple people come in and drop off bags of clothing, toys, and other things for babies and pregnant women. To say it became circus-like at times was an understatement. And I was the ringmaster. Oftentimes, I was the only one working.
One woman came in with her young daughters. I remember her as it was an enormously busy day, and I was at my wits end. She waited a bit and then handed me a bunch of bags. As per usual, I thanked her heavily, gave her my business card, and put the bags on the mountain of other bags in the stock room to be sorted. My nickname for the growing mountain was “the beast.”
Later that night, I got an email from her. She wrote that she saw the small area, many people waiting, small children all over, the fact that I was by myself, and the fact that she had to wait several minutes to get my attention (small dig but whatever). She said she had a solution. Hurrah! A volunteer!
Her solution was that she and her daughters would bring craft supplies and do arts and crafts for the children while their mothers shopped in our center. It was the perfect solution as she would bring the craft supplies and keep the kids busy. She had cc’d my boss who immediately emailed me what I was thinking:
“Can you imagine the mess that would make? See if she’ll spend some time sorting through donations or helping with diaper handouts instead. That’s our immediate need.”
I emailed the woman again thanking her profusely for thinking of us while explaining that we simply didn’t have the room to do arts and crafts. However, I would be thrilled if she took that time to sort through donations as that was (always) my immediate need or come in and hand out diapers. I wrote that maybe when we got a bigger place, we could revisit arts and crafts time with the children.
I never heard back from her. Not a response email. Not a “thanks but no thanks.” Nothing. I often thought about her while working late trying to make a dent in the beast. I wondered why she was so willing to do arts and crafts but not sort through donations or pass out diapers. Why would someone volunteer time to a nonprofit they believed in yet put parameters on that time? It wasn’t like I was asking her to do something immoral, illegal, or hazardous. I desperately needed the help. But because my alternative suggestion wasn’t as “fun” as arts and crafts, I got nothing.
It broke my heart because I really needed the help and to have it taken away so easily was demoralizing. It wasn’t, “I could never do your job.” It was, “I would never do your job.”
My calling in life as I know it is to bring light to the plight of the marginalized in our society. The problem is that the wealthy often actively ignore or indignantly demand reparations instead of simply showing some compassion. All it takes is a moment of asking the question, “How can I help?”
But instead, so many decrees, “Do what I want and maybe I’ll give what you need.”
Donna Caito has a B.S. in Management and a M.A. in Theology. She’s a Catholic revert who didn’t want to be a Catholic but couldn’t come up with a good argument otherwise. She lives in the middle of nowhere with her children, her black cat named Midnight, and her white dog named Jack Frost. In her spare time, she enjoys writing about her unique place in the Catholic Church as a single mother and giving good reviews on Google.