Where are your acts of charity? Where are your righteous deeds?
— Tobit 2.14
Every year St. Mary's University in Calgary puts together a volunteer contingent to support the Our Lady Queen of Peace Ranch, which organizes a massive Christmas charity event for underprivileged children. The Ranch makes everything from face painting to crafts, meals, presents, and winter clothing available to the children and their families free of charge.
As longtime volunteers for this event, my kids and I have always been uplifted and humbled by this initiative, and as a university president I am equally moved by the tremendous response our students make in volunteering. In some years close to one-fifth of the university student population has turned out to help for this one event alone!
Volunteering is an odd thing. In some ways it is deeply selfish. There's no question that we do good for ourselves in the process of doing good for others. In other ways volunteering is deeply sad. In the context of social justice, volunteering is a necessary evil - something that has to be done because our societies are deeply unequal, and deeply flawed. Shelters, food banks, clothing bins: all of these exist because our society fails to deliver equity to all, and thus volunteers are needed to meet a profound failure by our community.
Yet of course, volunteering is ultimately good, even with all of these qualifications, because its existence recognizes that there are many who care deeply for others, who recognize the failure of social structures to provide what should be a basic right, and they work to address it to some degree.
More than ever, educational institutions recognize this important fact and find ways to encourage a community of giving and sharing. It is yet another way for us to create what Pope Francis has called a “culture of encounter.” For this to work, however, it is critical that we allow ourselves to be disempowered, overwhelmed and even at times humbled by the process of encounter. I once had a friend angrily complain that the homeless people he was reluctantly assisting didn't seem sufficiently grateful for his help. I asked if he was doing this for gratitude and he seemed puzzled by the question. “No,” he finally responded, “but it's the least they can do.”
At another workshop, held in a homeless shelter, one of our students asked a resident, “What's the most difficult part of being homeless?” I think we were all expecting a comment about the cold, the hunger or the loneliness. Instead, one gentleman replied: “Being invisible. No one looks you in the eye.” It was a humbling reminder that all of us, rich or poor, homeless or otherwise, need the dignity of encounter, of human connectedness.
It has become a cliché for people to remind us that the Holy Family were themselves homeless, and that their humble shelter was only begrudgingly afforded to them. But it is no less true. The Christmas miracle needs to be relived through story but also through action. And we need to use this time to create a space for everyone to belong: even when it's uncomfortable to do so.
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.