Giving Alms: La Jolla churches step up aid to poor


By Pat Sherman

Local churches and faith-based organizations are working diligently to answer requests from those in need this holiday season, in the midst of an economic downturn that shows few signs of recovery.

At St. James by-the-Sea Episcopal Church on Prospect Street, requests for financial aid or other assistance are rolling in on a daily basis.

“We get everything from, ‘Do you have any shoes?’ to requests for bus passes and tokens,” said Sue Adams, the church’s minister of communications and programs. “Our most recent person wanted $100 for travel to be with her daughter, who I guess was dying.”

St. James belongs to a coalition of La Jolla churches that meets on a quarterly basis to discuss the resources each congregation has at its disposal. St. James has charitable and medical funds that its parishioners can contribute to, which helps fulfill requests on a case-by-case basis.

A person seeking assistance from St. James typically meets with a pastor, who assesses the need and decides whether to offer assistance or refer the person to a nonprofit organization or city-run program that is better equipped to deal with their situation. A person does not have to be a parishioner or member to receive assistance.

“We don’t really question them too much,” Adams said. “We just try to answer the need.”

The first Sunday of the month, St. James parishioners make bags of nonperishable food for the homeless that they keep in their cars and distribute throughout the month.

Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church on Girard Avenue does most of its charitable work through the nonprofit, So Others May Eat, Inc. Parishioners help the agency organize a free hot meal the second Tuesday of the month, which feeds between 200 and 250 people. The organization also runs a food pantry at Mary, Star of the Sea, and provides necessities such as clothing and sleeping bags.

“Father Jim (Rafferty) has just been amazing by allowing us to use the space,” said Tresha Souza, the founder of So Others May Eat.

On Dec. 16, Souza’s agency hosted its second annual Christmas dinner at Mary, Star of the Sea, in which more than 175 attendees — from the itinerant to the recently unemployed — were granted one item on their holiday wish list, from comforters to electric toothbrushes.

When it comes to financial requests, Mary, Star of the Sea is discerning, as con artists have been known to take advantage of a church’s spiritual calling to help the poor.

Father Rafferty took a call twice from a person claiming to be the single father of two sons, who said he was recently evicted from his La Jolla apartment. After giving the man almost $200, however, Rafferty said there were no signs of him having any dependents.

“I try not to be jaded,” Rafferty said, “but I’m 39 years ordained and I’ve heard a lot of the stories. Some are kind of players. Each time I let (the person) know that I recognize them from before. I’m very careful.”

At La Jolla Lutheran on La Jolla Boulevard, Pastor Mark Dahle is also wary of people seeking a quick buck.

“If somebody shows up at the door hungry, we have cans of food for them, but if somebody’s asking for money, we want to know the person,” said Dahle, whose church is getting an average of two requests per day for assistance.

“Sometimes cash is what they say they want, but it’s usually not what they need.”

Though Torrey Pines Christian Church on La Jolla Scenic Drive doesn’t receive many walk-in requests, the church ramps up its charitable efforts during the holidays, raising money for the Veterans Village winter shelter in San Diego and organizing a party for homeless teens and young adults.

Adams said the focus at St. James by-the-Sea is on long-term solutions.

“I would say that we’re working toward not just the temporary fix, but trying to make sure there’s an agency that’s helping them for the long-term,” she said.

At La Jolla’s Chabad Jewish Center, Rabbi Baruch Ezagui said he has seen “people of great affluence” who are now living a “bare bones” existence.

“Even in La Jolla there are people who need bare necessities,” he said. “The people who can give are reluctant to help because of the uncertainty of tomorrow, and the people who need help most are ashamed to ask.”

In honor of Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, Ezagui referenced a saying from the Torah, which means even a little light can illuminate a great darkness. He hopes this message will strengthen the Chabad Center’s local and international outreach.

“When we have the attitude that tomorrow will be better, it allows people to rise above their imminent needs and see how they can help others,” he said.

A Gap in Giving

According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, 75 percent of charitable giving in the U.S. comes from individuals (about $227.41 billion in 2009). The total amount of charitable giving in American decreased by 3.6 percent during the 2008 recession, the agency found.

Empty Tomb, Inc., a Christian-based research organization that analyzes data from more than 100,000 protestant churches in the United States, found that donations to churches are declining, along with churches’ tradition of giving back to the community.

“Churches have been receiving a smaller portion of member income,” executive vice-president Sylvia Ronsvalle said. “Of the money that’s going to the churches, the churches are keeping more for themselves. Benevolence has shrunk consistently.”

Ronsvalle said Empty Tomb’s analysis found no clear correlation between the recent recession and the decline in faith-based philanthropy.

“When the economy was up and donations were up, churches were spending this money internally” on programs and facility maintenance, Ronsvalle said. “That’s all very nice. What it isn’t teaching is the traditional philanthropic value of love your neighbor as you love yourself.”