Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Guidelines for Charitable Giving

Many people, including many who regularly read this blog, have investment portfolios which they seek to optimize regularly. But what about our charitable giving portfolio? How often do we consider if we are making contributions to the most efficient and effective organizations related to the causes about which we are most concerned?

Most of us perhaps give our tithes and offerings to (or through) our local church, but then we respond to other appeals for financial help. And especially at this time of the year we are  swamped with requests for charitable gifts. Through the requests found often in our mailboxes, by the appeals we receive in our e-mail inboxes, and from personal petitions made by religious or civic organizations, we are regularly asked to be generous in helping other people.
So, how should we decide which charities or causes to support? Do we respond primarily with our emotions, giving to those groups who best stir our feelings of compassion, concern, or guilt? Or do we have a planned charitable giving “portfolio”?
Let me suggest the following guidelines when considering a charitable gift:
(1) Does this gift help eliminate the root causes of problems more than just helping victims of those problems? For example, giving to help feed the hungry is good and important; giving to help eliminate the causes of hunger is better.
(2) Does this gift help solve problems in the future rather than merely meeting current needs? In spite of the needs of many Native Americans now, this is one main reason in my previous posting for suggesting giving to the Native American College Fund.

(3) Does this gift go to (through) an organization that is highly effective and efficient? Perhaps Charity Navigator, the leading independent charity evaluator in the country, is the best way to check the strength and integrity of charities. In their words, Charity Navigator “works to advance a more efficient and responsive philanthropic marketplace by evaluating the financial health of over 5,500 of America’s largest charities.”

(4) Does this gift go to a group that meets the previous criteria but has relatively few supporters as opposed to those groups that have a great deal of support? Some of the charities or causes I support are not on Charity Navigator because they are too small or specialized, but partly for that reason I choose to contribute to them. For example, I recently sent a donation to Associated Baptist Press.

(5) For those of us who are Christians, the first question we should ask is: Does this gift reflect commitment to Jesus’ words, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s righteousness”? Even though I recognize that there are many “secular” groups that are consistent with seeking God’s Kingdom and God’s righteousness, mainly I want the charities to which I donate to be Christian in both how they operate and in the charitable work they do.
What other guidelines or charitable giving suggestions should be added?

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The “Illegal Aliens” of 1620

Thanksgiving Day means different things to different people. But in addition to school and work holidays it often involves family gatherings around big meals, watching football games by some, and maybe even thinking a little about the first English-American Thanksgiving Day.

After a perilous voyage on the Mayflower in the autumn of 1620, an extremely difficult winter, and then a fruitful harvest in the fall of 1621, the Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth Colony held a harvest festival and gave thanks for God’s blessings that made possible their survival.

Giving thanks for blessings received is certainly a good thing, and I hope all of us will use this Thanksgiving season to reflect upon our many blessings and to give thanks for what we have received, just as those first English immigrants did.

At the same time, it might be good to reflect on how the Pilgrims of 1620 could certainly be considered “illegal aliens.” They definitely were not invited by the Native Americans, and they clearly encroached upon land occupied by others.

True, the “Indians” had no laws prohibiting others from coming to Massachusetts, and they did not own titles to the land on which they lived. (To them the idea of owning land seemed as preposterous as owning the sky.) Still, the English “aliens” were invaders of their territory.

There have been several recent works portraying the Pilgrims’ journey to “New England” and their struggles in their new habitat. “Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower” is a TV movie produced by the History Channel in 2006. One of the commentators in that movie is Nathaniel Philbrick, author of Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War (2006).

Earlier this year Nick Bunker’s lengthy book, Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World, was published. While much of this book is about the background of the Pilgrims, it does, of course, tell their story from the time they first set foot in the “new world” on November 11, 1620—and, it should be noted, that was on Cape Cod, not on Plymouth Rock.

That first month was a hard one, and it was during that time that the Pilgrims stole seed corn that the “Indians” had buried for use the following year, and they also dug up a grave, confiscating some of the jewelry and other articles in it. It is no wonder, then, that the English “aliens” found those first Native Americans they encountered to be quite hostile.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this year, let’s remember that those who first celebrated it were the same as illegal aliens in the land occupied by the American Indians. Perhaps we can use this occasion to do something for the sake of present day Native Americans, such as donating to the American Indian College Fund. (The address is 8333 Greenwood Blvd. Denver, CO 80221, and information about the AICF, rated four stars, out of four, by Charity Navigator, is easily found on the Internet). Or maybe your church, like mine, has a ministry to Native Americans to which you could contribute.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

"The Grapes of Wrath" Seventy Years Later

One of the best films of 1940 was The Grapes of Wrath, based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name. The book was published in 1939, and because of it Steinbeck (1902-68) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1940.

June and I recently watched The Grapes of Wrath again, and we were deeply moved by it as we were years ago when we first saw it. It is a great movie in many ways, as attested by the fact that is was nominated for seven Oscars, and at the 13th Academy Awards in February 1941 it won two. (The Oscar for best film was given that year to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca rather than to The Grapes of Wrath.)

As most of you know, The Grapes of Wrath depicts the terrible conditions of the “Okies” who left the “Dust Bowl” in Oklahoma during the mid-1930s and sought better things in California. While writing the book, John Steinbeck visited Bakersfield, California, and based part of his book on Arvin Federal Government Camp which he portrayed as “Weedpatch Camp.” (Here is a link to an interesting website about that camp.)

Many critics of the Obama administration are saying that health care reform should not have been undertaken in the midst of the “Great Recession.” But consider this fact: Social Security was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1935 when the unemployment rate was more than twice what it has been this year. The unemployment rate was a staggering 24.9% in 1933, 21.7% in 1934, and still at 20.1% in 1935.

In addition to seeking to create more jobs, the Roosevelt administration realized how important it was right away to help people in need. Social security soon provided much needed assistance for many people, and has continued to do so through all the years since.

And now millions of people need health care insurance as well as jobs, although the latter will be the major push of the new U.S. Republican Congresspersons. The number of people without health care benefits, however, has risen alarmingly in just the past year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of uninsured rose by 4,334,000 since 2008 and in 2009 stood at more than 50,670,000, or one out of every six persons in the country!

The Associated Farmers of California were highly displeased with how The Grapes of Wrath depicted the California farmer’s attitudes and conduct toward the migrants. They denounced the book as a “pack of lies” and labeled it “communist propaganda.” Similarly, President Roosevelt was also often called a communist or a socialist. And now we are seeing that same phenomena again: President Obama is often called a socialist by his detractors and even a communist by some, most notably by Alan Keyes.

If you haven’t (recently) read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or seen John Ford’s film version of the novel, it would well be worth your time to read the book or at least to watch the movie, even though it was made seventy years ago. The situation today may not be as dire as it was then, but there are still a lot of suffering people who badly need help. And that needed help is more than families, churches, or even local communities are able to give.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Things Change

Things change, and in order to live successfully we generally have to accept even unwelcome changes and move on.
Sometimes things change because of tragic fires. The three-story school building where I was a student from 1945-55 was destroyed by fire in 1956. The farmhouse in which I lived during those same ten years was struck by lightning and burned down in the early 1960s. Last month a large portion of the west side of the square in my home town, Grant City, Missouri, completely burned down. (The picture of the latter fire is from the files of the St. Joseph News-Press.)
Things change, and we have to accept new realities and move on. A fine new school building was constructed in Grant City after fire destroyed the old one; the community moved on and was better off after the fire. My folks built a comfortable new house up the road from where the old house had been, so they, too, recovered from the shock of forced change and moved on to better things. And now those who owned the buildings and operated the businesses on the west side of the square in Grant City have to deal with unwelcome change and move on.
Things change in other ways. For example, the United States of America is much different now than it was when it was formed nearly 235 years ago. While this country was founded largely by Protestant Christians (although some of the “founding fathers” were not at all “orthodox” Protestants), gradually more and more Catholics and Jews came to this country.
There was considerable animosity toward the Catholic immigrants for decades, but fifty years ago this month, despite considerable (prejudicial) opposition by Protestants, a Catholic was elected President. Since then, for that reason and because of the impact of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there have been increasingly cordial relationships between Protestants and Catholics.
There have also been pockets of prejudice against Jews in the U.S., but as the percentage of Jews has not been nearly as large as that of Catholics there has not been as much animosity toward them for the most part. Now there are sizeable numbers of Jews in most large U.S. cities—so much so that along with Christmas and Christian holidays, Hanukkah (which begins on Dec. 1 this year) and other Jewish holidays are commemorated even by some public schools.
Things change, and now there are large numbers of American citizens who are Muslims, Buddhists, and people of other religious faiths, a larger number of such persons than could have been imagined when I was a boy. As citizens, their religious freedom must be recognized and protected.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Remembering 11/11

At 11:11 on 11/11 each year, the siren mounted on the water tower in my home town (Grant City, MO) would go off for one minute. The school I attended from 1945-55 was just a couple of blocks away, so we students could hear it well from our classroom. I’m afraid it didn’t mean as much to me then as it should have, but the blaring of the siren commemorated the end of World War I at that very time in 1918.

My father was the youngest grandchild of William and Rachel Seat, although William died long before my father was born. “Grandma” Seat’s oldest grandchild, Leslie, was born in 1890, the son of Jacob and Isabelle Williams. (The Isabelle Church in Worth County, which is long gone, and the Isabelle Cemetery, which is still used, were named for Isabelle (Seat) Williams, who died a couple of weeks after Leslie’s birth.)

Leslie Williams served as a soldier in World War I. Several times I heard my father tell the story about Leslie. On the very first morning he was deployed to the battlefield, Leslie was shot in the leg. The wound was so bad his leg had to be amputated at the knee. Later, probably more than once, when someone exclaimed at how unfortunate he was to be injured so quickly after going to battle, Leslie’s quick reply was, “No, I was lucky; those who were not wounded in the morning were killed that afternoon.”

Although I never knew my father’s cousin Leslie, I have often thought about him when reflecting on the tragedy known as World War I. Indeed, he was one of the fortunate ones, for there were at least 8,500,000 military deaths in that war, including around 120,000 from the U.S. About twice that many who were wounded, like Leslie Williams and other young men from all over the nation.

Prolific British author H. G. Wells’ book The War that Will End War was published in 1914, the beginning year of the Great War, as it was called at the time. President Woodrow Wilson emerged as a skilled wartime leader in the U.S. by molding public opinion with such optimistic phrases as “a war to make the world safe for democracy” and “a war to end all wars,” paraphrasing Wells.

But here it is, over ninety years later, and our country and many others are still entangled in war. On August 31 of this year, the President announced that the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) is over—but there are still close to 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. And there are nearly twice that number deployed to the War in Afghanistan, which is now in its tenth year.

Tomorrow, on the 92nd anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, let’s join in prayer that all of the troops will soon come home, and arrive walking on two good legs.

Friday, November 5, 2010

What about Separation of Church and State?

Robin Carnahan, whom I supported in my previous blog posting, unfortunately lost her bid for the U.S. Senate. But, fortunately, so did Christine O’Donnell.

Although not unexpected, I am greatly disappointed that Roy Blunt will soon be seated as the junior Senator from Missouri. In the previous posting I said I was voting for Carnahan partly because of her position on universal health care in contrast to Blunt, who voted against it and has indicated his desire to repeal the new health care laws. While repeal probably won’t happen, I can’t support a Senator who wants to do that.

In addition, in last Sunday’s Kansas City Star, the editorial supporting Carnahan ended by warning, “Blunt would protect the wealthiest at the expense of all others.” From his record, this, sadly, is true, I’m afraid, and that is another reason I voted for Carnahan. And just yesterday I read that Blunt has said, “There isn’t any real science to say we are altering the climate path of the earth” (posted by the Union of Concerned Scientists).

But what about Christine O’Donnell (b. 1969)? She was much in the news in the weeks before the election. There was a lot about her admitting that she “dabbled into witchcraft” while in high school, but I didn’t find that a matter of great concern. What bothered me and a lot of other people were her statements about the important issue of the separation of church and state.

In a debate with now Senator-elect Chris Coons on October 19, O’Donnell challenged her Democratic rival Tuesday to show where the Constitution requires separation of church and state. Of course, she is correct to the extent that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the constitution. But she is quite wrong if she thinks that the concept is not firmly there.

It is a historical fact that Baptists played a significant role in promoting the idea of separation of church and state and in securing the passage of the first amendment to the Constitution. Roger Williams (1603-84) was one of the first and most ardent proponents of religious liberty in what became the United States, and he wrote about “the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” This phrase was picked up later by Thomas Jefferson.

Writing to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jefferson used the expression “wall of separation between church and state,” and this is usually understood as his interpretation of the establishment clause of the first amendment.

But even though O’Donnell was not elected yesterday, others with questionable views about the separation of church and state were. As Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said Wednesday, “Church-state separation is going to be under sustained fire for the next two years in Congress and in many state legislatures.” For example, John Boehner, the likely new Speaker of the House, has been rated 0% by Americans United, indicating his lack of support for the separation of church and state.

Note: Last month there was a six part series on “God in America” aired on PBS. The second sixty-minute segment was titled “A New Eden,” and it was largely about Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists who were the leaders in establishing the separation of church and state. This is available for viewing online at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/view/.