Rain is falling in sheets from the North Sea today. It’s a cold rain. So cold that hail periodically bursts down from the heavens in a slushy mix sending ice pellets bouncing across the cobblestones. Shoppers are walking with heads down and umbrellas collapsed inward by the wind. They are all moving with a purpose. They walk the straight-line of a coyote across a snowy Iowa farm field — no meandering dog path of window shopping for them today.
Sitting with a cup of hot wine in a warm cafe is how to best appreciate this day. My wife and I are drinking gluhwein. It is a traditional mulled wine in Holland that warms your hands and your cold insides and casts life in a rosy glow. The streets outside the cafe window are dark and wet and puddled.
A group is gathering on the other side of the street. They are tucked under a shop awning to get out of the cold rain. It is hard to see through the small smattering of umbrellas what is happening on the other side.
As we approach, there is singing. It’s a chorus. A beautiful chorus lead by a fur-hatted conductor. They are singing us all home on this cold blustery evening with English Christmas carols. A small scene out of a Charles Dickens story perhaps.
Suddenly, I feel a nudge. I’m bumped by a young boy standing no taller than my waist with his father in tow. The father looks kindly at me and begins an entire spiel in Dutch. At the end of the speech, the boy holds out a gold ball ornament.
I have not a clue as to what is expected of me and don’t understand a word the father said. My go-to response in Holland is to smile stupidly and mumble in pidgin Dutch that I only speak English. Of course I might actually be asking how to find turnips. Unclear.
Without even a tired sigh, the young father begins all over again in English. “We are collecting for the Gouden Kerst.” He goes on to explain that this is a local group that tries to fulfill the wishes of folks that need help. Out of thousands of requests, they are able to address a few needs. He points to a Dutch bike with the long wooden basket in front. “We were able to convert one of those last year so that a young woman with bad legs could pedal with her hands. That is an example.” This guy, his son, the chorus and its director, are all volunteers. I look at them as the rain drips off their cold faces. The father looks back with the same kind smile.
“Would you like to buy an ornament?” he says.
Okay, let’s just pause here for a moment. Charitable giving is complicated. Sure, we all want to do it. Who doesn’t’? A chance to help someone less fortunate, someone in need. To bring good cheer to those whose lives are just a little bleak, a little dreary. And, truly, the bang for the buck seems absurdly disproportionate — if you only save enough soup-can labels, you can pull some poor family from debtors prison. Really, how can you possibly refuse?
But then there’s the rub. Why are these people in debtor’s prison? Maybe they defrauded someone? Maybe they were foolish? Maybe they didn’t work as hard as you? Heaven knows you’ve earned your way! What’s their problem? And on top of it all, how can the pittance that you provide possibly make any difference? The need is so great. So many people, so many organizations, and even your lame brother is asking you to give. They will take your last nickel. And then where will you be? Yup, in debtor’s prison. Nobody wants that. See? Complicated.
Carla Dawson, now a teacher at North High School, worked many years for the Catholic Worker House over on 7th Street. She cleaned, cooked, and mothered all who dropped in for help. A loud, aggressive, kind, huge-hearted woman, she had (and has) everyone’s number. Including mine.
As she was handing out vegetables to a long line of people one Saturday morning several years ago, I talked to her of my confusion about charity and good deeds and giving money to street people. I presented a brilliant argument about how any amounts given just go to drugs and booze, that we were just funding more of the problem, and that maybe people need to hit rock bottom to change. “Clearly,” I summed up with a flourish, “giving money to folks on the street is a bad idea.”
Carla looked at me with her typical half-smile that said she might be looking at the biggest dope she had ever seen.
“Weeg, just give them a dollar. You can do a dollar. Don’t be stupid.” And she handed out another handful of red peppers to the tired young mother coming through the line. End of discussion.
So, a gold ball ornament from this little boy and his father waiting in the rain on this wet street in Holland?