L’Affaire Komen: Lessons Learned on Giving Charity

Like many of my fellow Pro-Life supporters, I was caught up in the Susan Komen Fund – Planned Parenthood mess last week.  I donated for the first time to Komen as a result of their initial decision, but when they changed their mind I asked for my donation back; I received my refund yesterday.  The experience should serve as a valuable lesson for all of us who care about a particular issue or cause, for most of us are not in a position to give charitable contributions to all who need it, and we need to engage in some self-enforced restrictions about whom we do help.

A detached observer might note that the debacle was fascinating from a sociological-technological perspective, because the whole thing caught fire via social media.  For example, it was interesting to see how the initial de-funding news began to spread like wildfire on Twitter long before the mainstream media picked it up.  And when Komen subsequently back-pedaled, my sister ran to tell me about it when she saw the news reports on CNN, but I had read about it on Twitter around 20 minutes earlier and had already contacted Komen requesting a refund.

When the news initially broke, it seemed to be very good news, indeed.  After it appeared as though Komen would not only stop funding abortion and contraception, but also embryonic stem-cell research, I contacted a good friend who is well-connected in Pro-Life circles and asked whether he thought we now had a green light to donate and support the steps the organization had taken.  He thought that we did have the green light, and so I went ahead and donated, encouraging my followers on Twitter and Facebook to do the same.

You can imagine that when Komen reversed itself, I felt as though I had egg on my face.  This is, of course, no fault of my friend, since he himself felt duped, and I probably should have waited to make sure that Komen was going to stick with its decision.  Nevertheless, it was a great disappointment to many of us who believe that the Komen Fund does great work, but is unfortunately too closely tied to a fundamentally evil organization, and which prevents us from donating.

I both emailed and telephoned Komen and, without screaming and raving about it, explained that I would like my donation reversed due to the change of circumstances; the email response with the refund came five days later.  I was willing to be patient, to a point, since I imagined that they would be overwhelmed with such requests.  Others, however, told me they took a different approach: they contacted their credit card companies and alleged fraud, thereby obtaining a reversal of their donation through their bank, rather than through the Komen Fund itself.

While I appreciate why some people were so angered as to take that step, I was not willing to do so.  From a legal perspective, I do not believe one could make out a prima facie case that Komen engaged in an intentionally fraudulent inducement or scheme to bilk people out of their money.  Whereas from a human perspective, I believe Komen has made a mistake in reversing itself, but it did not set out to try to play mind games with those of us who are Pro-Life.

Over the years I have become very selective about whom I donate money to.  There is no reasonable way that anyone, no matter how well-off they might be, could make individual donations to all of the organizations that could use help.  Even the great philanthropists have always had to pick and choose which causes and institutions they are going to support.  This is perhaps a good lesson in itself: none of us, no matter how wealthy and powerful we might be, is omnipotent, and capable of meeting all needs for all people.

When it comes time to donate, I have five solid, Catholic institutions whom I choose to support because of the good work which I know from first-hand observation that they do.  That number in fact increased by one earlier this year, which is the first time that has happened in some time.  As a Catholic, it is no accident that I find myself drawn more to supporting these religiously-affiliated organizations, than I am to other, secular groups.

It is admittedly difficult to have to turn down those whom I believe do good things, but one has to be practical in one’s charity, as painful as that might be.  If I was to expand my support list to include all sorts of other institutions, secular and otherwise, I would have to expand my income, first, since I simply cannot afford to do more than I already am doing without running into difficulties on my end.  As bourgeois as it may be to state, I have practical responsibilities to others which I must meet before I do anything else.  If I fail to meet them, then my ability to donate to charities outside of my parish or the beggar on the street would become severely limited.

Coming away from the Komen Fund experience, I have learned my lesson that I should stick with the organizations I know and trust, who have had a long and solid history of doing work in areas which are both in line with my faith and beliefs.  I have also learned that social media is good for many things, but it does tend to whip everyone up into a frenzied whirlwind of statements and actions which, upon further consideration, may not always be wise.  It is regrettable that so many of us have had to learn this lesson in such a bizarre fashion, but better that we learn it now, rather than be caught up in it again the next time.

Detail of “St. Lawrence Distributing Alms” by Fra Angelico (c. 1447-1450)
Cappella Niccolina, Vatican

Ignored, But Not Silenced

As my regular readers know, most of the time I write about what we might call sit back and relax matters – art, architecture, film, cultural history, and so on.  This is not a political blog, even though if you follow me on Twitter or can read between the lines on this site, you will have no doubt as to where my sympathies lie.  However one has to make exceptions from time to time, and around January 22nd each year, I have the opportunity to make one of those exceptions.

Today is the 39th annual March for Life here in Washington, D.C., when those of us opposed to legalized abortion on demand rally to peacefully protest the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in Roe v. Wade back in 1973.  As is regrettably too often the case I will not be able to make it down this year to the rally on The Mall across from The White House before the March begins, nor will I be able to participate in the March itself as it makes its way up Capitol Hill to the Supreme Court, though I have participated many times in the past.  I am, however, following the lead of the bishops in marking today with fasting and with prayer, in atonement for the millions of people who have been legally murdered in this country as a result of the worst high court decision in U.S. legal history since Dred Scott v. Sanford.

It can be disheartening at times to be Pro Life in this country, given that the so-called mainstream media is heavily populated by those who prefer legalized infanticide to the protection of the unborn.  There will be passing references on the evening news tonight to the hundreds of thousands who will be in attendance at the Rally and March for Life here in DC today, with more time given to those who favor abortion to react to the events of the day, but virtually no live coverage apart from one or two of the religious cable networks such as EWTN or CatholicTV, and perhaps an occasional check-in from Fox News.  And that is all we can expect.

If the topic was anything other than opposition to abortion – the environment, immigration, taxation, and so on – and so many tens of thousands of people showed up in the Capital to peaceably protest, the media would be falling all over themselves to be a part of it.  All of the morning news shows on both broadcast and cable news would be sending in pieces from their reporters in the field throughout the day in order to properly cover the story.  Today at least that will not, and probably never will, come to pass.

Imagine a protest against the war in Afghanistan, for example, attracting a quarter of a million people or more to Capitol Hill, and the major news outlets failing to cover it live.  They would (rightly) be accused of failing in their duty to report on a significant event.  Yet the fact remains that this is what happens, inevitably, for those involved in the Pro Life movement.  It is easily the single largest under-reported story of the year, every year.

Of course, this ignoring of the voices of so many people is completely out of proportion to reality, as occurred during the recent, ridiculously disproportional World Youth Day coverage in Madrid, or as is going on now, and for far too long already, with respect to the various “Occupy” movements.  The couple of hundred Occupy Wall Street protesters camping out on Federal property here in the Nation’s Capital for example have received, and will continue to receive, an infinitely larger proportion of coverage from media outlets.  This is in part because of the sympathy of reporters for the scatterbrained, nonsensical views of those participating in what the National Park Service laughably refers to as an ongoing, 24-hour “vigil”, and in part because protesters who break the law and behave violently are simply more interesting to cover than are well-behaved people peaceably exercising their freedoms of speech and assembly.

In such an environment, speaking up for those who cannot speak up for themselves can feel like trying to shout into a storm.  You may feel as though the world is drowning out your voice, no matter what you say or how you say it.  And there is no question that this situation can lead to feelings of discouragement.  However, during the homily at mass yesterday, our pastor Monsignor Langsfeld made a very good point about our always seeking to move forward in doing God’s Will, even when the odds seem impossible, and we worry that no one will bother to listen to us.

The first reading yesterday came from the Book of Jonah, and described how Jonah was told to go through the giant city of Nineveh, warning the people there to repent of the evil they had done.  Jonah thought that this was pointless, that no one would listen to him, or that he would be killed for calling the people to repent of their evil ways. Yet much to his surprise, the people did repent, and changed their ways as a result of God’s Grace working through him.  Jonah did not want to undertake this task, and as we all know he attempted to run away from it.

As Monsignor pointed out, Jonah was understandably intimidated by the inherent paganism of the people whom he was sent to preach to, as a group who did not recognize the one true God of Israel, as well as by the sheer size of the city, which we are told took three whole days to walk though because it was so spread out.  When Jonah finally gave in after trying to run away from what he had been called to do however, and accepted the role that God wanted him to play, there was a result that no one could have anticipated.

Will the hundreds of thousands of people down on The Mall today who are following a call to witness to the importance of protecting human life have a similar impact on the lawmakers of this country? Will there be an unexpected change of heart, at the highest levels of authority? We do not know, and with the media and other forces stacked against those who speak up for life, we can be forgiven for doubting that they will make any difference.

Yet that does not mean that those of us who view abortion on demand as the greatest evil to affect this country in decades should abandon or ignore what we feel called to do, when the time comes for us to stand up for what is right.  It took centuries and a horrifically bloody civil war to abolish the evil of slavery in this country, after all, and we are still dealing with the fallout from that institutionalized evil.  We have already lost too many American citizens in bloody, horrific fashion to the scourge of abortion, so let us hope that the example of these peaceful but convinced witnesses to life will, in fact, make an impact as great as Jonah’s delayed but ultimately successful witness did on the pagan minds and hearts of his own day.

Detail of “Jonah Preaching to the Ninevites” engraving by Gustave Doré (1883)