I want to think that most people will do the right thing most of the time, but I don’t necessarily trust that they will. I want to think that people I give money to will use it for food or shelter, but I wonder if they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol.
For years, I believed in conditional charity—charity given through The Salvation Army or Deseret Industries. If I bought presents for a child in the “Angel Tree” program, I trusted that the presents would actually reach the child. If I gave to the “Christmas for Families” program at work, I saw real people getting the gifts.
Then five or six years ago I began to believe that charity doesn’t need to be conditional. I was out for a drive with a good friend and his parents when we stopped at one of the more scenic rest stops. When I came back from the restroom, I saw a beat-up car with its hood up. The family had a cardboard sign: their car had broken down and they were trying to get to Olympia. I dug out five dollars—the smallest bill I had—and gave it to them. They thanked me, and I got back in the car to go home. Both my friend and his parents commented that I’d probably thrown the money away. That may be true, but that was when I realized I spend at least five dollars a week on books. If the family lied to me, I was out the price of a book. If they were telling me the truth, maybe my five dollars made it easier for them to get home.
When I look at it that way—that my intentions are good, and that it isn’t my responsibility how someone chooses to use the money I give them—it’s easy to be charitable without conditions.
Now, I’ve got a favorite beggar. According to his sign, he’s a Vietnam veteran. He’s probably in his late fifties or early sixties. Maybe I like him because—in more desperate circumstances—he might have been my brother. Sometimes I give him money, and sometimes I give him groceries. Every time I give him something, he smiles at me, thanks me, and tells me “God bless.”
Maybe I’m a fool to trust him, but thinking that I might be helping him makes me feel better about myself.