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Charity and Caritas

Res Publica

August 2012

by Jake Ewing

Almost all of the charities that I support are trendy. For instance, “To Write Love on Her Arms” became prevalent after the lead singers of various rock bands started wearing their T-shirts on stage. Invisible Children used a similar model, working with musicians, but has also used social-networking websites like Facebook and Twitter to advance its message. In March, Invisible Children’s most recent video was shared on YouTube over 70 million times. You’d almost have to be a hermit not to have heard someone discussing “Kony 2012.” It is impossible to walk around an American college campus at this point without seeing several pairs of TOMS shoes. Even the LiveStrong bracelet that I wear on my right wrist is a trend. I may be a little behind the fad, but there was a time in the mid-2000s when it seemed like every person in America had their wrist adorned with a bright yellow bracelet that proved they were against cancer.

I’m not criticizing these charities for using style and trends as a means by which to raise awareness for their cause – far from it. It certainly makes sense from a business standpoint. Why wouldn’t these companies want their products to become trendy? The money they raise is genuinely helping those in need. I’m not arguing against that. What I would say, however, is that this is not how charity has always been done.

The English word “charity” comes from the Latin word caritas, meaning love. One might argue that American consumers spending their money on trendy products sold by charities is an example of love – people are being helped, after all. But the type of love that was inherent in the term caritas was altogether different; it was personal, intimate, tangible. In the ancient tradition of charity, a rich man did not simply donate money in order to help the hungry – he sought them out. He established a relationship with a person in need and provided for him not out of charity but out of caritas. Out of love.

This ancient idea of charity is decidedly less convenient and incredibly hard to achieve. As all of my trendy T-shirts and bracelets and shoes prove, I’ve always been more of a fan of the modern conception of charity – donating money to an organization and assuming that it will, at some point, help someone in need. But this is a far cry from the effort necessitated by caritas. It is faceless and almost effortless. All I have to do in order to feel comfortable about all of the suffering present in the world is donate enough money to take my mind off of it, to put those T-shirts on and remind myself how good of a person I am. For a long time, I’ve been comfortable with this type of charity. But over this past spring break, I experienced something different.

Along with 39 other Ashland University students, I traveled to Columbus, Georgia to participate in the Habitat for Humanity Collegiate Challenge. I’d heard of Habitat for Humanity, but had never participated in this week-long event. I don’t know what I expected to gain from the trip, but I do know that this was an entirely different experience than purchasing a rubber bracelet. The group awoke every morning around 6:00 AM and spent the workday moving dirt, or sawing wood, or pounding nails, always working toward our goal of completing a house that would one day shelter a family. It was uncomfortable and hot and exhausting. By 5:00 PM every day, the entire group was tired and sore, covered in dirt and sweat.

I say this not to illustrate how rough we had it during the trip: by most standards, the week wasn’t that bad at all. I say this instead as a means by which to contrast the trendy, modern version of charity. The Habitat trip was different than just sending my money to some faraway philanthropists and assuming they would do some good with it. It was different than buying a fashionable T-shirt or pair of shoes. It was different than posting a Facebook status about one of the world’s many injustices.

It was caritas. It was love sent directly from the 40 or so volunteers to the family who would one day live in the house we had built. It was tangible and undeniable and certain. The results were right in front of our eyes. When we arrived, there was no house. When we left, there was. We didn’t need to wonder whether some good was being done with what we had donated because we could touch it. We could even stand inside it. It was an entirely new sensation, a different way of creating good in the world.

I wonder now how much good I could’ve done if I had gone on a trip like this sooner, how much more concerned I’d have been with caritas rather than more convenient charity. How many houses might I have built by now? How many families might be benefiting from my effort each day, literally living in my charity? These are the types of questions that the current generation needs to ask.

Sending money to a non-profit organization is certainly a good thing. But there is something much more profound about using your own labor to make life a little easier for another human being. My generation has mastered charity but has completely failed at caritas. If every internet user who ever took up a cause by forwarding an e-mail or changing their Facebook status understood this, then the world would have more full houses and fewer full inboxes.

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