Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Good Samaritan

The photo above is of appeals from three different UK charities for clothes that they can sell to raise cash for their work. They were all popped through my front door over the last few days. In a month I might get ten of these appeals. But I never respond, and they end up in my bin.

It's not as if I don't think these three charities worthwhile. The NSPCC (The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) - see - is the leading charity that campaigns against cruelty and abuse directed aganst children in this country. It's obviously a good cause. The British Heart Foundation - see - is the leading charity devoted to research into heart diseases and disorders. It's obviously a medical charity that does vital work that could affect every single British person alive. And The Samaritans - see - who are the people to turn to if you are down and desperate, and need to talk to someone who will listen. A service that must have saved many from suicide or murder.

Don't get me wrong. I do, several times a year, give cash to these and other national charities - most frequently the RNLI (the Royal National Lifeboat Institution). I see collectors at the supermarket and elsewhere, and if I feel like it drop a £2 coin into their container, exchanging a pleasant word or two as I do so. I have also bought many things at charity shops. I haven't donated anything in the way of goods and clothing to the three particular charities mentioned at the beginning of this post, but if they had a convenient shop, and I was so minded, then I would.

But they really want an income from me, a regular monthly subscription.

That's the trouble. I can easily see why they'd want to secure dependable sources of income, but doing it by direct debit completely takes away the spontaneity of the charitable impulse. It makes giving routine and forgettable, uninvolving, removing all the emotion one might feel from a personal intervention, when faced with a real-life situation on one's very doorstep. It's all soothingly easy and anodyne: the regular contribution has been made: the abused person or animal, or the research, will go on for a little longer. That's good, but is it true charity?

I can't help feeling that direct debits and casual supermarket-entrance handouts do not get to the real heart of charity. There ought surely to be a personal confrontation with someone in distress; a personal decision to do something about it with one's own hands, one's own time and energy; a bond created between giver and receiver; aftercare; and a chance for the receiver to repay in some way. No doubt if I were a starving refugee, I'd be so consumed with relief at having food and shelter that at first I wouldn't care who had provided it. But afterwards, when saved, when on my feet again, I'd want to know who to thank, how to make my thanks personally known to that person, and to have an opportunity to close the circle, to give something of equal value back to them. The current commercialised charity setup in this country does not allow this. Of course not: if you are going to assist faceless millions, in distant and dangerous places far from one's home, then personal intervention is impractical. And closing that circle is impossible.

It's a pity, though, because in a different world people would give much more if the need were close to home and staring them in the face. They couldn't switch off. And the meeting of eyes in that moment of relief would bond individuals as nothing else.

I remember an old advertisement that the Salvation Army used, captioned 'For God's Sake, Care', many years back. That was surely their standard slogan, but it was a good one: it reproached you for walking on, for turning the page. It was however the picture that I remember. It seemed very British, and therefore very close to home. It was a grainy, black-and-white shot of an old Salvation Army officer in a cap, a man with a worn, thin, but stalwart face and a grim unsmiling expression, holding a small, dirty and ill-dressed child tightly, as if saving that child from hell itself. That got to me.

Finally, the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible, related in the New Testament book of Luke. A man who was supposed to despise all Jews finding it in his heart to give first aid to a traveller who had been set upon and robbed, who may have been a Jew; and then taking him to an inn, staying there with him, and then leaving money for his ongoing recovery. And making arrangements to return, to top up any overspend on his care. Personal intervention from a stranger from whom no help could have been expected. Personal intervention from a stranger, when two of the traveller's own kind had left him to die. Now that's what I call compassion.

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Lucy Melford