Sunday, March 23, 2014
Should we help those unwilling to help themselves?
A few years ago, a reader from California joined a local church's singles group. The group's leader planned for the members to help cook, serve and clean up after one Saturday evening meal per month at a local homeless shelter.
On their first visit, members of the group were told that because a cookout had been planned for the shelter residents and some graduates would be manning the grills, the singles weren't needed for cooking. Instead, he handed the 10 singles trash bags and disposable gloves, and asked if they'd help pick up litter from the fenced-in yard outside the shelter.
When they went outside, there were about 200 men sitting on chairs, picnic tables and blankets on the ground. Cigarette butts, cans, bottles and candy wrappers were strewn around the yard.
"Something in my mind just immediately said, 'no' in a loud voice," the reader says.
She told her leader she had to work at midnight, which was true, and that she had a headache, which was not true, and she went home.
"All the way home, I questioned myself, and I still do," she writes. She wonders why she was willing to cook, serve and clean up for the program, but not to pick up litter.
"If (the homeless at the shelter) have it together enough to manage to get themselves to this dining room at the appointed times for meals," she writes, "they could be expected to contribute some effort."
The reader works in a hospital emergency room, so she interacts regularly with the homeless. "I contribute clothing, have found meals when they are with us, and have helped soak feet and cut toenails." She also does lots of community service, but picking up litter, "I could not do."
She never went back to the homeless shelter.
"Am I way off the beam thinking that people who are there expecting to be fed could be expected to pitch in and do what they can?" she asks. "I guess I have a dose of that old saying, 'He who will not work shall not eat.'"
That 'saying' the reader cites is an admonition from Paul to the Thessalonians in the New Testament portion of the Bible. The Thessalonians, expecting the imminent return of Jesus, exhausted their own resources and then began mooching off of others. Not cool, Paul pointed out.
It's fair for the reader to expect that the residents of the homeless shelter would be asked to help clean up the yard. What's not clear, however, is that they refused to do so. Since the job for which the singles group originally volunteered was covered, the organizer may simply have been trying to find an alternative.
The reader had every right to choose whether or not to participate. Lying about a headache to get out of the task was not the right thing to do, however. It would have been the right thing to tell the organizer the truth: that she was comfortable cooking and serving a meal, but not cleaning up a yard while those who presumably littered it sat around.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin