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Transactions of Conscience

by Lucinda Trew

November 29, 2011

The signs of Christmas have gained a gloss of sophistication. Beyond the commercialization we so often complain about, the holiday is glazed with expectation and reward. A new, cool edginess. A re-gifting of giving, if you will.

When I hear the Salvation Army bell, I am heartened. The clang is heavy, steady. There’s nothing decked out or dulcet about the bell – or the bucket. They are there, on the narrow curb in front of Wal-Mart, the rings only an octave higher than the metallic clash of nearby shopping carts.

No marketing Svengali has rebranded this annual rite. No one has added background music or the magic spiced scent of shopping malls designed to make you give more. Nobody’s polished the kettle, or figured out a way for you to scan your bank card. They simply stand. And ring. And we simply give.

Or not.

Over the years we have become more discerning, more guarded in our giving. We subscribe to “no-solicitation” lists. Screen our calls. Check to make sure there’s no shady scheme listed on Snopes.com. Now, when we give, we demand tax receipts, calendars or trinkets, and our names displayed in non-profit programs.

We’ve come to expect material incentives to give - strokes of gratitude, preferably well publicized.

Our suburban middle school had its annual drive to buy toys for those less fortunate. The children gave generously, emptying their banks and Vera Bradley bags. And then, for their good deeds, each class was treated to celebratory donuts – glazed, of course.

So the forthright appeal of the bell seems a throwback, out of touch with the pace and polish of this busy season. How can this low-budget, low-key campaign work? How can it hope to compete without a celebrity spokesperson? It’s 2011, for crying out loud – where is the sizzle, the buzz, the shout-out?

Yet the symbols are unabashedly humble. The bucket makes me think of cupped hands, the kindness of a soup kitchen pot, and the begging bowls of ancient monks. The bell is a herald, a call to arms or gentle prayer, a sound that, for whatever reason, makes us look skyward.

But make no mistake. The curbside bells of Christmas don’t give off the jingly, remixed sound of commerce or FM radio carols. These aren’t silver bells. Their sound is stainless steel utility.

I can’t recall ever hearing one of the good Army’s soldiers speak up. I’ve never been asked for contribution – or put in the position of saying no. They are silent, but for the bell.

We don’t need words, or rewards, or a charity makeover to know what that plain ringing signals. We know in an instant, which means it’s branded quite well enough, thank you very much!

We know, too, what our response will be – whether we’ll reach into a bag to find a dollar amid the chaos of shopping lists and coupons, or look away. We know – and no one else does.

There’s no reward or penalty, no status or brownie points. There’s no one in the next pew watching the collection plate; no one at the office keeping tabs. This is a quiet transaction of conscience. It is giving at its most fundamental: a bottomless bucket of need, the faith that it will be filled, and a bell calling us to give.

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Tags: salvation army, holiday, christmas, giving, charlotte

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