It’s that time of year again. Bells are ringing and large, red kettles fill up with loose change outside of major retail store entrances across the country. The Salvation Army probably has the greatest foothold on our Christmas alms giving habits simply by being omnipresent during our shopping duties.
There is an irony in this tradition. During the holidays, we are more than willing to empty our pocket change into the hands of someone wearing a red vest. Yet, we rarely do so during the rest of the year when panhandlers or veterans experiencing homelessness ask us for spare change at red lights. So what is it about the red vest and kettle that suddenly allows us to let our guard down and give more openly and charitably?
I would argue our generosity (or the lack of) is built on trust. Having the name “Salvation Army” attached to the act of panhandling seems to make all the difference. We trust them with our money and feel confident that we know where it is going. Yet, I wonder if people know that some of the bell-ringers are themselves the homeless men and women whom our giving is meant to benefit. Would we still give our loose change to the very same person if they approached us at a red light, not with a red kettle and vest, but with a cardboard sign and outstretched hand? Usually we do not. Why? What if they buy booze with the money? Or drugs? This line of thinking gives us an easy out.
Yet, it was Christ who lived among these same poor. He never judged those living on the margins of society for any improper ways and deeds. As Dorothy Day once said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
Something greater is asked of us, whether we are Catholics or not. Keep dropping spare change into the red kettle. But don’t ignore the fact that that outside of the Advent season, those same folks will be begging for our loose change at red lights. Give generously. Don’t let these folks remain nameless. Christ exists in all people; we must start acting as if this were true.