I can only pass along what I’ve heard from others, and seen others do. But we have an obligation to share the good things we learn, so when we need to remember them, the words and images will be safely stored in the hearts of our friends for us to draw upon in our times of need. What follows, then, is an ecclectic group of solutions others have found, answers to the question “How can we best give alms?”
We have to start by looking at the spirit of almsgiving. During a bleak spell I asked a hieromonk once, “How can I give alms….”
“When you’re broke?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“You give alms from your necessity, not from your surplus. You give alms from what you need most. So when you’re tired and grouchy and someone needs a kind word and you dig deep and provide one, that’s almsgiving. When you’re exhausted and Father or the children ask you to do something and you don’t want to get up and do it and you do anyway, that’s alms. If you can’t give a lot of money, give what you can, but give a kind word with it. Everyone needs kindness.”
(He also said, of giving clothes to charities, “Remember that there is clothing and there are rags. If something needs mending or is worn out, don’t give it to charity. Put it in the trash.”)
Almsgiving can be healing. I have seen people use almsgiving to turn their temptations into virtues. For example, one man who used to smoke marijuana before converting makes sure to give at least $10 to the Church no matter how broke he is, “because I was always able to scare up that much every week for pot,” he says. Another man, a widower, is himself quite poor, but one standard he holds is that he uses only good quality paper towels. He was upset when he saw that the Sisterhood in his parish had stalked the church with “that cheap stuff.” But instead of blasting them for it he, as a donation to the parish, very quietly purchases “the good stuff” as he can afford it. This is something one can coordinate with the Sisterhood president — if you don’t like the coffee, or wish that there were herbal tea as well as the “real” thing, or wish that the parish served the kind of soda you like instead of the “cheap stuff,” why not arrange with the Sisterhood for you to provide it?
Moving to bigger items, does your church need a dishwasher? A water heater? Or even just new sponges or dish rags, a better quality broom or dustpan. As you see a need, think if you can provide it. Then go with an offer rather than with a complaint, a solution rather than a problem.
If you can’t provide something expensive, provide something inexpensive but necessary, faithfully. One man who works for a grocery store was asked by his parish to provide the ice for trapeza every week. It only cost him a dollar or two, but because he was faithful, the Sisterhood knew this need would be provided. If he knew he was going to be gone the following weekend, he would buy an extra bag or two in case nobody else was able to fill in for him.
When you see something that drives you crazy, think what you can do about it. That monk (or priest) has a torn, faded rasson. Can you make him a new one? Can you buy him a new one? Can you pay for fabric for a new one? Can you mend the old one? One woman who lives near a monastery, as a secret act of charity, lets the brothers know when her sewing machine is set up with black thread, and they bring her their clothes that need mending. Could you do the same for the set of vestments that your parish isn’t using at this time?
What about the cleaning of the church? If you’re upset about the state of the candle stands, don’t just find out WHO cleans them, find out WHEN they clean them, and show up with rags and lemon oil. If you see that someone is using the wrong cleaner, buy the right cleaner and show them how you use it while helping them. And if it costs more than what they were using, keep track of how much there is and replace it when it’s running low.
If you cannot make vestments, can you clean them? If you cannot buy an icon frame, can you dust one? If you cannot purchase a font for baptisms, can you be there to fill and drain what the parish has now? This, too, is a gift to the church.
You don’t like a fundraiser? Then prevent the need for one. One priest was approached by the Sisterhood asking if they could charge money for the decorated Palm Sunday branches that they make. He said no, because they are blessed, and you cannot sell things that have been blessed. The women were upset, and said that they NEEDED to restore to the Sisterhood Fund the money spent on the decorations. He sighed and prayed and asked them exactly how much they were hoping to earn by charging money. They told him the amount, and he said, “Okay, here’s what you may do. You may put out a basket for voluntary donations to defray the cost. If you make more than you’ve projected, fine, it’s a blessing for doing what’s right. If you make less, I’LL make up the difference.” They protested, but he insisted. He didn’t have to make up any difference — they made significantly more by voluntary donations than they projected they would have by charging a fee.
If we contribute before a need exists, there will be no need for fundraisers of any sort. There are lots of small ways that we can make sacrifices to come up with money for charity. Do you buy your lunch? If you eat cheaply, that’s still close to $25 per week. If you brown-bag it or even go without for a spell, that could give you close to $200 to give as a donation by the end of Lent. Think how many books of raffle tickets that would mean they DON’T need to sell! …
As for raffles,… there are two kinds, the kind that are born of love and the kind that the bishops allow because of our hard-heartedness. I heard a good example of the first kind from a Serbian priest whose bishop’s mother? sister? was a parishioner and recently reposed. “Whenever the church needed something,” he said, “she would crochet afghans.” These could be raffled off, so that the men in the parish could match her act of love though their donations, even trying to top each other with the amount that they pledged, like steel sharpening steel, one’s desire to help the parish whetting the other’s. Then there’s the kind that it would seem are held to shake down the people who come to functions but not services, or even who don’t come to functions. It isn’t lovely, but it helps the parish by bringing in funds and helps those who contribute to the parish in whatever form they can be enticed to do so. Remember in the lives of the saints, the man whose only act of “charity” was to hurl a loaf of bread at a beggar, hitting the man in the head, and yet in his dream the angels tried to present the bloody loaf as an offering the man had made to the poor? He repented, and became known for his charity. So can we, if God so grants.
With Lent fast upon us (sorry, didn’t mean to make a bad pun), we have many opportunities to increase our efforts to “bear one another’s burdens.” You can augment your fasting with almsgiving by saving, say, the money you would have spent on donuts that aren’t fasting and sending that to a monastery or convent. If you go to the movies generally, but don’t during the fast, that money could go to the benevolent fund. God sees our sacrifices made in secret, and one day will reward us openly. It is treasure laid up for us in Heaven. So spread the wealth! Involve your children. Involve your parish. One parish had the children make a spaghetti dinner during Lent, and donated the proceeds to the orphanage in Chile. We cannot start making our children mindful of the poor early enough.
And when you go shopping, remember the Church. Can you buy a can of olive oil for the lampadas? Teabags or coffee for the trapeza? Are you buying some of the really good Greek egg dye? Could your parish use some? You could mail some to a monastery or convent, as well, with an encouraging note and maybe even a check. When you’re at the office supply store, pick up a ream of paper for your parish newsletter instead of another set of Dilbert post-ems. If you’re at the hardware store anyway, buy carpet tacks for the place where the carpet on the stairs to the choir loft is loose. This keeps us mindful of the Church and keeps us from spending selfishly.
What can you do for the Feast? Can you dye the eggs for your parish (check with the priest!)? Can you buy eggs for others to dye? And if you can’t buy anything, can you pray for the people who do, for those who need it, for those in need that we don’t know about?
God loves us most abundantly and knows us in our weaknesses and strengths, and therefore has provided us with a myriad of opportunities that “fit” our situations and personalities to reflect that love by showing love, in turn, to our neighbor and to His Church. May we sieze upon these opportunities while we still can, and so grow together in love for each other, for the Church, and for Him.