St. Nick inspires us still
Old Saint Nicholas was famous for giving presents. The 4th-century bishop of Myra is said to have left coins in the shoes of poor children, delivered wheat to families in times of famine, and even brought innocent dead back to life through his prayers. In one of the most enduring accounts of his life, the white-bearded saint dropped a bag of gold down a poor man’s chimney to pay for his daughter’s dowry and spare her from servitude. The precious gift landed in the young woman’s stocking, hung by the fireplace to dry.
His deeds inspired more than just our modern-day Santa Claus and his bag of toys. In medieval Western Europe, "boy bishops" would beg for alms for needy people while nuns would deliver food and clothing to their doorsteps in secret to celebrate the Saint Nicholas Feast on December 6. In Russia and Eastern Europe, the bishop who forfeited his inheritance and was imprisoned for his faith is still revered as the patron saint of children and orphans, sailors and laborers, pilgrims and paupers, judges and captives, and even criminals and the wrongly accused, among others. In short: anyone in trouble or in need could turn for protection to Saint Nick.
I am no modern-day Saint Nick. Much as I would like to think myself generous, the bulk of my time and resources go toward meeting my own and my family’s needs. Unlike the sacrificial saint, I balk at the words of the one we worship in common, Jesus Christ, to "sell everything you have and give to the poor… Then come follow me." (Luke 18:22)
Still, like many of you, I have gradually come to know the joy of giving and the good that may be accomplished when we share a portion of what we have with others. As Christmas gives way to New Year’s and appeals for year-end giving pile up, I would like to present a few of my favorite charities for your consideration, in honor of old Saint Nick.
Starting close to home, the Nashua Soup Kitchen & Shelter and the Southern NH Rescue Mission work day and night (literally) to deliver food and shelter to neighbors in need. Whatever you may think about the causes of hunger and homelessness, we all agree that no child should grow up food-insecure and no addicted or unemployed person should risk death by sleeping outdoors in winter. In addition to food and shelter, these organizations bring dignity and self-sufficiency through a range of services like rent and fuel assistance, transitional housing and employment, and advocacy to address the systemic sources of poverty.
At the state level, the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund and New Hampshire Women’s Foundation work for lasting improvements in the lives of low-income homeowners, small business-builders, and women and girls on the losing end of America’s opportunity gap. Through innovative loan partnerships, matched savings accounts, nonprofit financing, and more, the Community Loan Fund goes where for-profit banks refuse to venture and gives low-income people a start up the economic ladder to success. Meanwhile, the Women’s Foundation continues the vital work of promoting gender equality through research, education, advocacy, and philanthropy in areas like early childhood development, family-friendly workplaces, and preventing domestic and sexual violence.
Finally, as the international refugee crisis continues with 60 million people displaced by war and conflict – the worst since World War II – we all can play our part by supporting the heroic work of aid organizations like the International Rescue Committee and by investing in long-term poverty- and violence-remediation through World Vision and the International Justice Mission.
Do not support these charities because I do; get to know them for yourself. Search out others that inspire you. And keep supporting the ones you already know and trust. Whatever you do, give as much as you are able in time and treasure. You might even find yourself richer in the process, in ways that matter more than money.
Finally, a note on charity itself. A friend of mine ends his emails with the challenging words: "What is owed in justice should never be given in charity." As a devoted Christian, Saint Nicholas understood that justice had more to do with fairness and equity than punishment and retribution. According to the contemporary theologian Timothy Keller, Biblical justice or mishpat meant taking up the care and cause of the most vulnerable members of society, especially widows, orphans, immigrants, and the poor.
Citing more than 200 references to mishpat in the Old Testament, Keller concludes that the justness of a society is measured not by how many people it imprisons but by how it treats the most vulnerable in its midst. "Any neglect shown to [their] needs…is not merely a lack of mercy or charity but a violation of justice, of mishpat. God loves and defends those with the least economic and social power, and so should we."
Giving charity, with humility, is good. Promoting justice is even better. This Christmas season and in the year ahead, let’s all try our best to behave a little more like the original white-bearded gift-bearer, Saint Nick.
Daniel Weeks is executive director of Open Democracy, a NH-based nonprofit that works for equal representation in politics.