How Should We Approach Charity?


America sure loves a good food drive, especially in the winter. The same is true of clothing drives, or coat drives: you name it, I’m sure my K-12 school had it. It’s fun for little kids to go shopping and pick out things to donate, like little mittens and hats, or go through their pantry with their parents and maybe get a gold star when they hand the canned vegetables to their teacher. Charity, when enacted through schools, is often more a game for the students than a gift for the community. The truth is that people are hungry every day of the year, not just when the cold exacerbates that hunger. Charity is the Band-Aid that covers the wounds created by forms of oppression, including (but not limited to) poverty-induced hunger. Service and justice are the things that actually heal the wounds.

(Isabel Frias/The Observer)
(Isabel Frias/The Observer)

This is not to say that charity is useless, but it removes the autonomy from the receiver, especially during clothing drives, when instead of getting something new, they’re forced by their circumstances to take a stranger’s old things. I wouldn’t be comfortable with that myself. Some may say that they should be happy just to have any clothes on their backs; but shouldn’t that be a basic right as a person? Charity also dehumanizes those going through poverty-based oppression: somehow, they are not worthy of the same gifts at Christmastime that we would give our own families. This is especially depressing because it seems the holiday season is the “important” time to be a good Christian, whatever that means. For many that translates into charity, for that three month period.

To be fair, I don’t think that we can end systemic oppression in one day—and I don’t think that everyone wants to or is capable of doing the work that would require. It’s a practically insurmountable task, but it’s a much more worthy one than doing self-congratulatory charity work that only serves the giver. As Catholics, the University might refer to those individuals as Pharisees; funny how many Pharisees the University ends up unintentionally producing.


For those at Fordham who seek opportunities to explore social justice in a more in-depth way, the programs offered at Fordham through the Dorothy Day Center and Campus and Ministry, such as the Social Justice Leader program and Global Outreach (GO), give students a way to give back to the community in a way that is explicitly not paternalistic. For instance, GO groups discuss at length in their prep meetings for their trips the systematic forms of injustices that will be at work in the communities they go to work with, and are intentional with their language to stay aware that the work they do when going on these trips will not change the lives, in an instant, of the community members; instead, GO trips work as an experience where students are invited to question what justice means, and to become more conscious of the difference between charity and justice. These groups also pride themselves on offering tight-knit experiences for those interested in social justice to explore with a small group of peers how to contribute to a community without taking on a paternalistic role, which at Fordham seems to be a conversation we have difficulty having.

The question is, when it’s such a focus of Jesuit teachings, why is it so hard for us for us to focus on what matters?

I find the parts of Catholicism that end up factoring into students’ day-to-day lives here at Fordham, especially as a relative outsider, interesting. I’m certainly familiar with Catholic teachings, as a lot of the important people in my life are Catholic, but they don’t apply to me in my personal life—unless I’m at school. Despite Pope Francis’ willingness to allow those who have had children out of wedlock or who’ve had previous marriages to marry, for example, we have yet to budge on our guest pass policies, and as Fordham is the only school I’m aware of that implements these policies. I assume it has something to do with Fordham’s Catholic identity, which generally has somewhat antiquated views on gender and sexuality. Another example of religious influence on school policy is in the treatment of LGBTQ identifying students within the dorms. And despite the religious diversity represented in the theology department, Fordham’s implementation of theology into the core curriculum is somewhat unusual in comparison to the average college (though obviously not among other non-secular universities). As a Jesuit school, Fordham is well within its bounds to intersperse the Catholic belief system throughout a student’s undergraduate experience.

However, as a Jesuit institution, why isn’t service mandatory? Not charity, but service. Yes, we’re all strapped for cash and time, but living in Manhattan surrounds us with opportunities for service. If students were given the whole four years to personally explore a service experience, maybe even earning credits, it would influence our surrounding community even more significantly. We offer service learning, but each semester associate coordinator Kathy Crawford ends up having about 22 students in the class. Much of the social justice programming focuses on a personalized experience; however, I believe that if we expanded the program, we could still have small class sizes. Why not make service learning a more enforced course?

Not everyone feels compelled to serve; I know and understand this. Though I personally believe that we all have some sort of responsibility for our surroundings, I don’t believe in forcing my beliefs onto others. Those who don’t want to serve a community shouldn’t necessarily have to, but the hypocrisy on the part of our school policies is striking to me: if we are expected to curtail our personal lives based on Catholic teachings, I don’t see why we shouldn’t be expected to adhere to one of the most important Jesuit tenants: to serve our communities. If Fordham, as a Jesuit institution, feels compelled to police students’ personal lives because of their Catholic belief system, why wouldn’t they equally feel compelled to ensure that students were living up to that commitment to “set the world on fire?”