I was sitting in Quaker Meeting yesterday praying harder than I’ve prayed before. Praying hard is a paradox. I’ve learned in the last 30 years, since I decided to be a follower of The Seed, how to pray. The first step is calming my body. Then to center my thoughts, which are often like a newborn’s flailing arms. Now, I’m not sure you’d agree, but isn’t it impossible to listen to the Creator’s whisperings when I’m willfully determined to pray perfectly? My ego can obfuscate my soul.

 

I came into meeting agitated. I sat in a corner of the sanctuary, amidst friends who were centering down. Sun was streaming in the windows, the walls were recently painted, no icons or altar to distract me. Some images in church evoke more idolatry than worship. Over the course of quiet waiting I felt focused; as the hour progressed I felt loved; and by the time the group of 200 shook hands a sense of blessing arose in me.

 

I sat with Creation wrestling with whether my good work in the Boston area was helpful. I work at some local hospitals accompanying battered women as they wiggle out of the violence at home. Other volunteer activities command my attention: I help arrange Quaker marriages with couples gay or straight. I teach nonviolence at the local prisons in Concord and Shirley MA. Last week I drove a friend to radiation treatment. I serve meals at a soup kitchen with my teenage son. I put up beams in a house with Habitat for Humanity and took inventory of 40 + bathtubs. Does this volunteering help bring what MLK calls ‘the blessed community?’

 

The way English scholars in 1600s thought of charity was a manifestation of love. King James’ Bible says that charity is greater than faith and hope. Obama and hope; quakers and faith; and my work in the community has got me struggling. My question to you, readers, and to that of Spirit on earth is: when are good works charity and when are good works justice?

 

“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.”

 

Charity is a one way street. It’s unidirectional giving. It is

  • putting coins in the can of haggard woman huddled up in front of the CVS store.
  • giving a dollar to a man with a disabled vet sign who stands at the bus stop.
  • food pantries where rich people give food boxes to the poor.

Nothing is wrong with any of these actions. I don’t want to pooh-pooh charity. We have to start somewhere. But my agitation in worship is because charity keeps the rich with all the resources. It’s not a redistribution of resources. Charity needs to be both giving and taking for it to transform into justice.

 

Here’s an instance of charity. A woman, her name is Prudence, was driving out to work into Lexington. She came to a stoplight at a mall and gave some small change to a woman at the corner. The woman was middle-aged with layers of bright sweaters over a patchwork peasant skirt snapping in the breeze. After working long at her secretarial job, Prudence returned home. She drove her second-hand car again 12 suburbian miles to get back to Boston. She pulled over at the same intersection, this time to stop at the 7-eleven to buy eggs, diet coke and batteries. There was the same woman with her sweaters coming out of the cold at the end of the day. She was in front of Prudence at the cash register. She paid for her bread, bananas, soda and deli items. She pulled out quarters and dimes rummaging in a few pockets for some dollar bills. Before carrying her grocery bag she hesitated. She pulled out another bill, and Prudence, in fascination, noticed it was a 5 dollar bill. Without a pause she stuffed it into the slot of a March of Dimes bottle, whose bottom barely had a layer of nickels and pennies with one dollar bill in it. Prudence didn’t know what to think as she got in the car. Should she be pleased that she had given the woman some quarters earlier that day and paid for a banana or two? Wasn’t it more dignified for the woman to choose the food she preferred with the $15 that she got that day than to take left-over food that someone hands her? Did Prudence give her coins automatically or meaningfully? Prudence had a lot to ponder: the woman giving $5 taught her a lesson about charity not to forget. 

Dorothy Day with AJ Muste photo: Marquette U Library
Dorothy Day with AJ Muste. photo: Marquette U Library

As Paul Baker, the singer, says, “charity is a withered ghost of love.” Charity and justice come from two different sources inside you. Another Catholic, Dorothy Day says, ‘I felt that charity was a word to choke over. Who wanted charity? And it was not just human pride but a strong sense of man’s dignity and worth, and what was due to him in justice, that made me resent, rather than feel proud of Catholic institutions.” 

 

I want to ask Dorothy in worship, when can charity be just? I didn’t get the answers, but I did feel  love at work in me. Spirit, like a lover, bathed me in warmth.  Stay plugged in for more insights. And keep singing into infinity–Allelujah.