Thursday, August 23, 2007

Charity Begins at Home

I planned to write today about conservation and personal finance. But instead I will go off on a tangent.

I don't claim to be a Biblical scholar, but I do believe that charity begins at home. Some people believe that active commitment to abstract ideals is the most important; they strive to be leaders of thought and action. I tend to believe that being a good person in your limited sphere is most important. Hear me out. Let's say you volunteer in a soup kitchen, or as a big sister to a troubled child. But meanwhile, you don't spend time with your spouse, your kids, or your extended family. Inattention from family is part of what gets people in the situations that you are trying to ameliorate with your volunteer work. So you would be better off listening to your sister, offering your nephew a place to stay.

I recently (okay yesterday) had a very trying experience. My husband and I are going through bureaucratic perdition, otherwise known as immigration to the US. He has applied for residency, and we have spent large sums of money and uncountable hours filling out paperwork, making phone calls to various agencies, trolling forums for advice, talking to lawyers, obtaining documents and translations. If you hate foreigners, you will be glad to hear that they suffer while trying to immigrate to the US.

We have reached the final stages. Yesterday I went to the library to make copies of my husband's documents (birth certificate with certified translation, police report, marriage certificate to give you a sense). I walked over with the documents and with the equivalent of $2.50 in my pocket (a 10 shekel coin, which I had received for change at lunch). I made the copies, and the total came to $.40 (2 shekels). I handed the money to the cashier. She told me, "This is counterfeit. I can't accept it. We're closing now. Come back tomorrow with the money for your documents." And she took my husband's documents from me, and the copies, and the coin.

I tried to argue with her, asking how she could know the money was counterfeit, and begging to have the documents. She went to security. I started to cry. While this may sound petty to the reader, I felt totally desperate. These documents represent hours of work. My husband's father picked up the birth certificate when he traveled to Argentina. We don't know anyone with plans to travel there anytime soon if this were to get lost. We also paid more than $100 for a certified translation, which took three weeks. My husband had to take a half day holiday to obtain his police certificate, and had to ask his father to pick it up from the consulate a week later. If these documents went missing, it might mean a month's delay in his green card application process, which we can't afford. My husband has a job offer in California starting in November, and we have to move out of our apartment here in mid October. Just like that, for $.40, the cashier was willing to put this in jeopardy for me.

The story has a happy ending. The security guard agreed to wait five minutes for me to get more money, and we were able to pay and receive the documents. My behavior was far from perfect, as was my husband's. I was still crying and he was irate. We did apologize afterwards. While I could have had faith in the library staff, that they would keep the documents, I live 45 minutes away, so it is an ordeal to come back just to pay them. In addition, I have bad experiences with the "come back and get it" setup. Sometimes, "it" is there. Sometimes, the person who said they would have "it" for you doesn't work that day, and no one who is working knows anything about your situation.

Call me an idealist, but the cashier and the other library staff had the opportunity to do a service yesterday. By trusting that I would bring them the two shekels, and giving me my original documents, they could have given me an invaluable gift. They could have avoided the scene that did ensue.

Sometimes it is easy to feel supportive of an abstract cause, like disaster relief. But it is harder to give to the person next door, in everyday circumstances. We like the excitement of a major tragedy somewhere far away, but we don't care to avert the major inconvenience of a friend or acquaintance. As a society, we give people awards if their work leads to a "major advance." We name buildings after people who give large sums of money. But it is just as important to recognize people who give bus fare to the woman who realizes she left it at home, or lend a cell phone to the man who needs to call his wife, who support family members at critical times, and who understand when a friend needs a little extra time to pay them back.

1 comment:

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