A Neighbor’s Helping Hand
At this moment our nation and its 300 million people, in virtually every part of our country, confront a crisis of unparalleled proportion.
Our standard of living is falling and people at the low end of the scale are suffering as never before.
And it is going to get worse.
The simple truth is that unless these destructive trends are reversed, we will see a society far different from what we have enjoyed during most of our lifetime.
We will see a society where one element is pitted against another, where families disintegrate, and where the basic elements of social life start to crumble.
To make matters worse, as we look at possible solutions and the institutions that can recover our situation, we see a non-profit sector that is reeling from a lack of support and a precipitous decrease in contributions.
We need to do something about this. And we need to do it now.
Let me tell you just how bad this is:
• In Detroit and Chicago, young people are shivering because they don’t have enough clothing to keep warm.
• Right here in Fairfield County, one of the richest places in the world, the soup kitchens are being taxed as never before with people in desperate need of a square meal.
• Throughout the country, counseling sessions have tripled because people want advice on how to find their next job.
• The suicide hotlines in the country are being taxed as never before.
• Just this week Microsoft cut 5,000 jobs, Intel 5,000 jobs, Hertz 4,000 jobs, U.S. Steel shuttered three major plants….claims for unemployment are at a near record…. Experts are predicting a dramatic increase in crime as people desperate to survive take extreme measures.
Do we have it bad in the U.S.A.?
But know that it is worse in the rest of the world, much worse.
People are starving in Russia, Europe is moving into a deep recession, entire factories are being closed in China, leaving workers with no place to go. And throughout much of Africa and Latin America a bad situation is now only getting worse.
Are we at a loss about what to do in America?
This is the most innovative country in history. This is a nation filled with imagination and with millions of people ready to step forward.
We must find ways to motivate these people, to stimulate their imagination, and to unlock the talent, energy and drive that will make a difference in America and move us ahead.
All of us know that there was no single cause of this crisis. There were many. But it is undeniable that one major contributing factor was greed. A desire to transfer risk – and to profit from its transfer – has been a singular characteristic of this crisis. Although many argue they didn’t know how bad things would get, people – in a variety of industries, from banking to investment – clearly understood enough not to want to be left holding the bag.
If greed – one of the worst aspects of human nature – helped push us into this crisis, then one of the best aspects of our nature – generosity – will be necessary to help pull us out of it.
Generosity is a fundamental part of the culture of the United States. Indeed, this country is the most generous nation in the world. In 2007, Americans gave more than $306 billion to charity. That represented 1.7 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. The next most charitable country, England, gave less than half this percentage, donating only .73 percent of its GDP to charity. Most other countries gave far less.
Certainly charity extends beyond our borders too. The Saint Vincent de Paul Society was founded in France and Mother Teresa’s work took root in India. And of course, we – at the Knights of Columbus with members in countries such as Canada, Mexico, the Philippines and Poland – have found that when given the opportunity, people everywhere are willing and eager to give of themselves.
But at exactly the time when charities see a profound need to do more, many are reporting a dramatic downturn in contributions. In fact, the Philanthropic Giving Index “is down 22 percent in the past six months” to its lowest point in a decade.
I doubt there is anyone here who doesn’t know at least one victim of the current financial meltdown. Many Americans – who last year were doing well – are suddenly finding themselves forced to choose between food and rent payments, between warm clothing and car payments. This isn’t the America anyone dreams of.
And if the experts are correct, these painful circumstances will be around for years as we work to find a way out of a deepening global recession.
With less money coming in, charitable organizations must find new ways to contribute to their community. And we must help Americans find new ways to express the generosity we are famous for. As America’s charitable organizations face a serious new challenge to fundraising, Volunteerism will be especially important.
At the Knights of Columbus, we list two important statistics each year. One is money donated to charitable causes. But that is only half of the story. The other statistic we release each year is the number of hours volunteered by our members working on charitable causes. We take justifiable pride in both numbers – in our latest year there were $145 million in contributions and 68 million hours of volunteer service. If calculated on a financial basis, the second number is greater than the first. If we assign the dollar value of $19.51, set by the group Independent Sector, to each hour of volunteer service, the value of 68 million hours is approximately $1.33 billion.
The remarkable strength of the Knights of Columbus – and similar organizations nationwide – lies not only in our ability to give money, but also in our ability to match our members’ time and talent with people in need through an effective grassroots structure of thousands of active councils motivated by the Christian principle of charity.
Mother Teresa, for instance, did not lead by financial donation, but by personal example. She didn’t write a check for those in need. She went out into the streets where the poorest people on earth lived. She met them where they were, and what the poor of Calcutta remembered was not only the food and shelter that she provided, but the love and respect she showed them: love and respect that people in dire circumstances usually see too little of. This is the power of the human touch.
This ethic of volunteerism is what helps Americans pull together to help our neighbors when times are tough. We have recently seen an outpouring of such help by our fellow citizens, at home and abroad: to the victims of hurricane Katrina in the United States, and to those whose lives were shattered by a tsunami in Indonesia, just to name two recent examples.
American generosity, and our willingness to pull together to help a neighbor in need – through the giving of time and money ¬– are something as old and venerable as America itself. Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on life in America almost 175 years ago, observed: “There is nothing, according to me, that deserves more to attract our regard than the intellectual and moral associations of America. We easily perceive the political and industrial associations of the Americans, but the others escape us...One ought to recognize that they are as necessary as the first to the American people, and perhaps more so.”
Nor has time diminished the importance of the sort of associations mentioned by de Tocqueville. Such groups continue to offer much needed support to our communities today. From the YMCA to the Salvation Army and from the Knights of Columbus to the Red Cross, charitable organizations form the backbone of our communities and their response to problems – great and small.
The government too has done much to promote volunteer programs, and it seems that it will do more still. We think back to a defining effort in this area, the Peace Corps, which was the result of the vision and commitment to charity of Sargent Shriver and President John F. Kennedy. Both men were steeped in the tradition of American volunteerism. In fact, both men were Knights of Columbus, and they knew well that providing Americans the opportunity to volunteer would bring out the best in our citizens, and prove a model for the rest of the world.
The fact is, Americans know what it means to give of themselves, and both government and charitable organizations need to turn to our most important resource – our people – during these tough times.
Our new president called on Americans to participate in a National Day of Service on January 19th, and has promoted the importance of volunteerism. The website usaservice.org listed more than 6,000 volunteer opportunities, most of them on or around January 19th.
6,000 is a huge number of volunteer opportunities, and I am sure we were all heartened by the outpouring of support for this project. But there are even more opportunities for Americans to volunteer and to help their neighbors. It is our responsibility to connect people to those opportunities.
At the Knights of Columbus alone, we have more than 9,000 councils actively engaged in charitable work. And we are not the only organization with such opportunities.
Quite simply, the American people are not only generous with their money, but they are generous with their time as well. In fact, while wealthy Americans tend to be more likely to give money to charity, research shows that income level has little impact on volunteerism. People of every economic demographic give generously of their time, just as people of every economic demographic attend churches and synagogues throughout our many communities.
Because the situation we face today is different from many before it, we have to rethink our geographic as well as economic models of charity.
Many charitable organizations are used to providing massive amounts of disaster aid to a great many people, and mobilizing volunteers, in one geographic area. But this disaster is different. Those in need are not in one place, they are in many places. They are in New York and Connecticut, and they are in New Mexico and California. They are our neighbors, our friends, our family members, and they need our help.
The challenge we must meet, is to effectively connect new volunteers to the local community projects, and there is no better place to start looking for new volunteers than in our churches.
Let me give you just one example. On January 19th, Knights of Columbus in Washington DC participated in our “Coats for Kids” initiative. Members from every neighborhood in the city came together to give nearly 1,200 poor children the gift of warmth on one of the coldest days of the year. The group distributing the coats – at and with the support of local churches – didn’t identify by their economic demographics. They were simply neighbors volunteering to help children in need.
As a man with a background in community organizing, President Obama, who worked out of an office at a Catholic parish for years in Chicago, knows just how important such work is. During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama outlined a plan that included a promise to “create new opportunities for Americans to serve,” and also stated that faith can be “the foundation of a new project of American renewal. [Because] change comes not from the top down, but from the bottom up, and few are closer to the people than our churches, synagogues and temples…”
So a new partnership between our places of worship and our volunteer initiatives must be forged.
Specifically, volunteer groups with religious ties – including the Knights of Columbus – need to partner with their local churches and synagogues to reach those in the pews with the news about opportunities to volunteer. In any given week, the one place where the most members of a community will come together as a group, is in local churches, and no audience should be more receptive to this message than one which believes that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts, 20:35)
Imagine – just as a starting point – if each Sunday, in 9,000 different Catholic churches, parishioners were made aware of upcoming Knights of Columbus service projects in their area. The opportunities to give of time and talent could be brought directly to our communities in this way. It is my hope that in the days ahead, we will be able to multiply this effect by exploring similar possibilities with leaders of volunteer organizations and government officials at every level.
Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical on charity, Deus Caritas Est, “My deep personal sharing in the needs and sufferings of others becomes a sharing of my very self with them. … I must give to others not only something that is my own, but my very self; I must be personally present in my gift.”
This is really the “secret” of the charitable work of the Knights of Columbus – and countless other volunteer organizations worldwide.
It is this giving of ourselves that is especially important now. Although this may not be a time in which many of us can make dramatic increases in financial contributions to charity, we can all afford to give something extra of our time – which is to say, we can all give something more of ourselves.
During the Great Depression, people would often hear a passerby ask, “Buddy, can you spare a dime?” Today, my question to the millions of Americans who want to help, but may feel financially unable to do is, “Can you spare 10 minutes?”
Taking just the Knights of Columbus as an example, if every member of the Knights would contribute just one additional hour of volunteer service each week, the dollar value of that effort alone – at $19.51 an hour – would be more than $1.7 billion this year alone.
One hour a week is less than 10 minutes each day. Even if many of our members could only spare five minutes a day, the value would still exceed $1 billion in 2009.
Money isn’t the only way for people to contribute. And it is up to charitable organizations to say to the American people: “We value your time as much as your money.” We need to say “Volunteer with us,” and give the American people that opportunity to do so in new ways, in new places. We need to rethink our programs so that we are providing the charity that those in need right now need the most, for the hungry, the cold, those without adequate clothing or shelter.
Because we, and the many other volunteer organizations in this country face new and unique challenges, the Knights of Columbus is calling on volunteer organizations and charities throughout the United States to come together to find new ways to help more people in need by promoting volunteerism. To this end, we have invited the nation’s top volunteer organizations to a summit organized by the Knights of Columbus and Fairfield University on February 27 in New York City.
There, we will discuss ways in which we can work together to be of service to our fellow Americans, and where more of us can offer a neighbor’s helping hand to those in need.
Every charitable organization has its own niche, but I have seen first-hand the power of diverse groups pulling together to meet a common need. Following the devastation of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, I joined our Texas volunteers at the AstroDome in Houston. There, I was privileged to see not only the fine work that the Knights were doing, but the way in which many groups of volunteers and organizations had come together to meet the challenges of this crisis. One such group, working alongside the Knights, was a Muslim women’s group from New Jersey. Our common cause at that moment overcame any cultural, religious, or organizational differences. For in the AstroDome we were not representatives of different groups, we were neighbors volunteering to help those of our community who were most in need.
The truth is that if generosity is one of the deepest human values, then volunteerism can build the deepest human ties, making neighbors out of strangers, and unshakeable communities out of shaken individuals.
Throughout our long history as a nation, Amerians have faced many unexpected challenges and we have always responded with determination and creativity. I have every confidence that we will do so this time as well.
For Christians, this call to service has a special significance. We know well the many calls to charitable service in the gospels, in the Acts of the Apostles and in the letters of St. Paul.
Throughout our country, we cannot help seeing the legacy of the Gospel’s call to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
We see this legacy of love in our parochial schools, high schools, and in our religious hospitals and universities and orphanages. In places the government couldn’t or wouldn’t go, it was people of faith who built the great infrastructure of charitable institutions serving our community that we see today. It is hard to imagine what most of this country would be like without the services provided by organizations like Catholic Charities that help our communities at so many different levels.
And now is the time we must again put those principles into practice. If history will diagnose a major cause of this crisis to have been caused by greed, let us work so that history will judge the prescription to have been charity.
We are blessed in many ways that our society at every level learned much from the tragedy of the Great Depression.
We have seen swift government action taken to support the economy. And while there may be debate over the details, the fact remains that we can all agree that government must play an important role in getting the economy moving again.
Government has an important role to play in encouraging Americans to volunteer, whether through programs like the Peace Corps or through President Obama’s call for Americans to contribute their time to volunteer efforts this past Monday – as the nation celebrated the contributions to the American dream of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Such calls to help our neighbor are very important. But we cannot let our efforts to foster volunteerism consist of only one Monday in January. That day needs to be replicated throughout our country, over weeks and months, so that we will have made 2009 the year of the volunteer.
As occurred this Monday, broad-based and effective volunteering will require new cooperation between government organizations and charities. Our country works best when these sectors work together. Looking at any major natural disaster, we see this sort of public and private sector cooperation. We see in such relief efforts both FEMA and the Red Cross, both the National Guard and the Knights of Columbus. In this cooperation we see the kind of teamwork that makes America great.
In his first encyclical, when talking about charity, Pope Benedict pointed out the need for cooperation and personal involvement in charity, even when government does an excellent job: “Love—caritas—will always prove necessary, even in the most just society. There is no ordering of the State so just that it can eliminate the need for a service of love. […] There will always be suffering which cries out for consolation and help.
There will always be loneliness. There will always be situations of material need where help in the form of concrete love of neighbor is indispensable.”
Volunteer and charitable organizations must work with government at every level – federal, state and local – to best serve the needs of our communities. Charitable groups with a strong commitment to volunteerism, like the Knights of Columbus, have the ability to help in national campaigns, but a major strength of such organizations is their local network. Our local churches and synagogues can help us find additional volunteers. Volunteers working in their own communities can add critical knowledge to any government or charitable program, and, of course, there is no substitute for person to person assistance.
While government engages in the lengthy process of developing and then implementing a comprehensive response to the present economic crisis, volunteers can reach out today to change the lives of those in need. And for those who are already struggling and hard pressed, who see little way to make it through to some future economic recovery, our volunteer efforts can be a beacon of hope which can lift the spirit and help carry them through.
On Wall Street, personal decisions motivated by greed and the desire for unfettered individual advantage will long be remembered as a hallmark of this economic crisis. It is now up to us on Main Street to make personal decisions motivated by our concern for our neighbor. Let us work to make that spirit of volunteerism the hallmark of our nation’s recovery. Let us truly become a nation of neighbors helping neighbors. If we do that, we will have accomplished much more than an economic recovery, we will have set a new and powerful moral compass for the future of our country.