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Herb Rothschild Jr: Failing at charity

One day I was leaving the Shop ’n’ Kart parking lot and a young man — perhaps 25 — was standing near the street holding a hand-lettered cardboard sign that said, “FAILING AT LIFE.” I gave him $5 and drove off feeling a pleasure largely devoid of self-congratulation.

St. Francis of Assisi stands high in most people’s esteem. Yet, Francis was a panhandler. Even after his community became reasonably well-supported, he required that its members go out with their begging bowls and ask for their supper. For him, begging was an essential spiritual practice.

For us, that is well-nigh incomprehensible. Occasionally I ask people what they think and feel when they encounter panhandlers. Almost invariably, they tell me that what goes through their minds are whether their money will benefit the panhandler or be wasted. They ask themselves, is the panhandler really in need? Could he get gainful employment? Will he spend it on food or gas, or will it be alcohol or drugs? In sum, we want our donations to benefit the recipients, and that requires making judgments about them.

To understand Francis, we need to radically alter our thinking. For him, the beneficiary of the encounter was the donor. The beggar was affording the donor an opportunity to imitate Jesus, whose love Francis understood as a non-judgmental love that pours itself out indiscriminately upon humans, all of whom are in desperate need of it.

The Franciscans were the first of what are called the mendicant orders. Shortly after their foundation early in the 13th century others followed, most notably the Dominicans, the Carmelites, the Servites, and the Augustinians. In the 16th century, states that went Protestant suppressed those orders, partly because they regarded mendicacy as one of the many abuses they associated with the Roman Catholic Church, but partly as an effort to rationalize poor relief — that is, making sure the money given produced real benefits for the poor and thus strengthened society in general.

That shift eventually occurred across Europe, part of a more encompassing cultural change from the medieval to the modern world. It trended away from direct person-to-person giving, and its logical conclusion was charitable foundations and beyond them, social welfare programs.

John D. Rockefeller gave memorable expression to this altered way of understanding charity in a speech to the wealthy men who gathered in 1910 to observe the 10th anniversary of the University of Chicago. “Let us erect a foundation, a trust, and engage directors who will make it a life work to manage, with our personal cooperation, this business of benevolence properly and effectively.”

As I mentioned last week, I engage in the “business of benevolence,” both as a donor and a fundraiser. I rarely give to panhandlers. Like Rockefeller, I want my money, and money I solicit, to be used properly and effectively. And yet, doesn’t his phrasing give us pause?

It’s only in person-to-person giving, mostly to those we know, that we get in touch with that deep humanity that endears St. Francis to us. And his humility was a major component of his humanity.

What struck me so about the sign that young man was holding was its humanity and its universal truth. Or if not universal, certainly a truth that includes me. The bar may have been set higher for me than for him, but I’m certain I had a much bigger leg up than he did, and I didn’t reach it either.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.