By Dan Beirne
I am not sure at what point it was that I was overtaken by her, but I think it was sometime around when I saw her little, tapping foot.
When I first saw her, she was sitting on the ground, sharing a song she knew in English with her new English-speaking friends.
She sang like an angel, and pigtails were her halo. Later, she led a musical group of eight other young people, all older than she, and despite her 7 years, she sang with a boldness and grace that captivated me. Confidence beamed from every aspect of her posture. Her back was soldier-straight; her left arm hung still at her side, and her right hand held the microphone with the steadiness of Liberty herself.
Then, I noticed her foot. It was tapping to the beat. No more than a size 4 and it drove the rhythm of this entire experience. I was taken aback, and much to my surprise, no more than 10 minutes after setting foot in this place, tears rose to my eyes.
They were not tears of sadness.
In nearly an instant, this little angel, Rosa, reminded me of something that I had learned in Namibia. She reminded me that poverty is merely a word. It is a word that describes a financial situation, a condition of living, but it does nothing to describe the people found there within.
Poverty is what you see in statistics and uncomfortable commercials showing you images of starvation. It is something that people live, something that people suffer, but it is not something that people are.
It is a sight to which our initial response can only be, “How terrible.” But when in and among the life and company of those who suffer from poverty and when the physical conditions are no longer allowed to define their state of being, poverty is the last thing that is felt. Life abounds. Hope, faith and spirit radiate, and it is all a spectacle to which one’s initial response can only be, “How wonderful. How truly wonderful.”
For when you meet a poor individual in their home and eat the food they have to offer and sip drink they have to provide, when you see the resilience and faith with which they and their family survive and you look into their eyes and see a smile, you will think twice the next time you refer to them as “poor.”
That is why I cried when I saw Rosa’s little, tapping foot. She sang like an angel and smiled afterward, as if the whole world were not saying that her situation was terrible. She is poor, without a home and possibly without parents, but she is in no way whatsoever without hope. I was so happy for her, so proud of her for tapping her foot and singing, because in doing so she was not letting the noise of the world get to her. She had no idea how wonderfully strong she was being. Each little pat of her untied shoe drowned out a world of noise and overbearing clamor. She was bold, and afterward, she sat on my lap without even asking. I love that girl.
Love is better than charity for the same reason that breathing is better than life support; charity and life support can get the job done, but in the end there is no substitute for true love and a deep breath. I say this because charity as we see it today has been deprived of its roots.
In the true nature of the word, charity is a beautiful concept, no different from that of love, but in our modern practice she is too often limited to a dollar amount and passing gestures of good will. Sometimes we are even charitable just because we feel bad about another person’s situation. We do it to feel better. That does no justice to Charity’s true character.
When truly allowed to take root in one’s heart and yield its fruit, it becomes very evident that charity has nothing to do with feeling bad. Rather it has everything to do with feeling the goodness of life and finding love to be the most natural and satisfying response.
The truth is no one ever said that charity or compassion meant feeling bad for someone. I would, in fact, argue the opposite. I think that real charity comes about when we feel good for someone. The Hebrew word for compassion, for example, means to “have a womb” for someone.
We feel for one another as if all have been born of our own bodies. We merely need to open ourselves up to the possibility of feeling so deeply. That is when charity really comes into play.
When you laugh with someone, play with their child, or eat from the same plate, there is a connection established that implies emotion and investment. These are the fodder of love, and when established, one has opened themselves up to truly feeling good for another. And once this goodness is inside, one cannot help but do something charitable in response. It is in this drive, this charitable inertia, that Charity is done justice, and her true character is revealed. This is the charity that brings life.
This is not to say that monthly donations, a quarter in a beggar’s cup, or random acts of kindness are to be frowned upon, but rather that there can be so much more life behind these actions. That is what Rosa reminded me of. I’ve done many things just because I would have felt bad if I didn’t, but in her boldness, Rosa showed me that that is not what it is all about. It is about feeling good. It is about feeling love.
As I played with Rosa later that day, I spun her on the swing in back, and we made jokes about throwing up after spinning too much. We laughed and played and enjoyed the moment. Never once did I feel bad. Never once did I look at her and say to myself, “How terrible.” On the contrary, in that short bit of time that I spent with her, she seemed to brighten up a bit, and so did I. It felt great, and I plan on going back for more.
That is how I believe charity is meant to work. We take a chance at loving one another, come to see how wonderful it is, and from that point on, neither of us can keep from doing it all over again. Like a catchy melody with a rhythmic beat, it sticks with you. And if you give yourself to it enough, you might not be able to keep your foot from tapping.
It’s a beautiful thing, really. “Truly wonderful,” I’d even say.