Almsgiving: The Wolfsburg Method David Keran, Diocese of Alexandria

By: David Keran

In a former life, I drove a 1962 Karmann Ghia to work almost every day, having rescued its rusting shell out of a Missouri pasture from a transplanted California preacher who was running a homeless shelter/Volkswagen business – I think it had something to do with taxes. In any event, after a few years of elbow grease, band aids, and a $60 engine, I sometimes forgot that a fifty year-old car the size of a twin bed tootling around town was not a sight that most people are used to beholding, and it started many a conversation. Perhaps more odd, though – would you believe that an antique Volkswagen could be an effective tool for almsgiving?

I have always gotten a twinge of anxiety hearing the numerous exhortations about almsgiving that are appropriately preached during the season of Lent. Prayer? I’ll schedule it right in for two o’clock this Thursday. Fasting? Well…I needed to cut back on deserts anyway. But almsgiving? How do I schedule meeting a homeless person on the street who needs some food or spare cash, or how do I schedule running into someone who will ask me for a favor that requires giving up my time? I know – I’ll just write a check to a worthy cause and be done with it…

There was that twinge again – just writing a check seemed a little too clinical. Sitting in the pew on Ash Wednesday I realized that I was living in a city full of people who stand on the side of the road asking for money – problem solved. Perfect! Perfect, that is, until that time came. You know the scenario: You’re sitting in a car with three other people, driving down the street, and you roll up to a stop light, first in line, and three feet from your window is someone with a cardboard sign asking for a few dollars for their next meal. Either an awkward silence descends over the car, or everyone keeps talking in an effort to mask the unspoken sentiment of being an awful person for not giving some spare cash to someone in need.

I’ve tried both methods – and the few times I’ve managed to roll down the window and give something, it has always been an awkward experience; do I say something? Would this person prefer I not say anything? Am I really doing this for them, or just because it will make me feel better about myself? Why won’t this light turn green!

On the first Sunday of Lent, I was driving back to the Seminary after Mass at St. Patrick’s when I saw an elderly man standing at an intersection under I10, cardboard sign and all, and the light turned yellow. As I got on the brakes, I had my usual panicked feeling: Do I get some cash out of my pocket now or later? Do I reach over and pretend that I’m doing something else to avoid his gaze? How long will this light last? Then I noticed something odd: He was smiling with a curious look on his face. He lowered the cardboard sign to his side in disbelief and walked back and forth as if to get a better view of something. I thought perplexedly, What is he looking at? Then I remembered what I was driving. My window was already partway down, and I proceeded to have a traffic light-length conversation with the man, both of us chatting away like old acquaintances, and when I drove off I felt as though the few dollars I had just given him were really a few dollars lent to a friend who needed some help.

What just happened, I wondered. The awkward barrier of interacting with the homeless had just been shattered in a way I had not expected. Is it just the car, I wondered. Surely all this will change if I switch cars.

“Pepino” the Volkswagen at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., before making the trek to New Orleans.)

It definitely wasn’t the first time I’d been stopped and asked: “Just what is that thing?” Back home in Maryland, a Carmelite friar I knew had invited me to a Mass, and, being a sunny spring day in the mountains, I drove the VW and parked across the street in downtown Frederick. I was early, and was looking forward to spending some extra time in prayer before Mass when I was abruptly mobbed by a large family sitting in the courtyard, who had to tell me about every relative they knew who had owned a Volkswagen, and how excited they were to see one on the road. The conversation must have lasted twenty minutes, during which time I was not only pressed into recounting my own story, but also into hearing everyone else’s, disjointedly interspersed with technical questions about the car. So much for my extra time in prayer, I thought.

Hearing these stories, one of my co-workers once told me that he would never drive such an unusual car, simply because he didn’t want to be constantly answering to people for it, and some days, I could relate. Most days I love talking to people about it, showing restoration pictures as though it were my first-born child. Some days, though, I do think of how nice it would be to drive everywhere in modern anonymity, to slip in and out of gas stations, churches, and grocery stores in the Toyota opiate of the driving masses.

In answer to my complaints, the same coworker told me “If you’re going to drive a car like that, you have to be willing to talk to people about it whether you like it or not.” He spoke well. If we’re going to make the commute to Heaven in a Faith like that of Jesus Christ, we also have to be willing to tell people about it, whether we want to or not, whether easy or hard. The Catholic Faith is something bigger than the individual that practices it; the communal aspect of the Church is written into her very nature. Just as the only way to have a Karmann Ghia and not have to talk to people about it is to leave it in the garage, the only way to not talk to people about a properly-lived faith is to leave it at home, to leave it in church, to “light a lamp and put it under a bushel,” and that according to Scripture isn’t really faith at all.

Sometimes faith is an easy car to drive, waving to people, making them smile and making their day. Other days it isn’t. It would be easy to live a strictly personal faith, to slip in and out of church, to pray quietly, and enjoy a spiritual anonymity that is never bothered because it is never involved. Monetary almsgiving is a wonderful thing, in that so many people and ministries depend in part on financial gifts, yet without careful discernment of intention, they can become a way to ‘check the box’ without getting one’s hands dirty – to focus on the ‘alms’ to the exclusion of the ‘giving’. To say grace before meals in a public place can be uncomfortable, yet is itself a gift of faith to those in the room, made at the expense of personal comfort. Is a gift still a gift if the motivation behind it is based more on the comfort of the giver than the needs of the recipient? Encounters with Christ are rarely comfortable – even the most joyous ones. There are ways to be humble, hidden, and childlike in faith, but these ways would be misused as ways to simply avoid being bothered.

So what happened back at that first traffic light? Why was it easy to give alms in a Karmann Ghia? I think the short answer is that the car served as a way to snap me out of thinking about my own anxieties and insecurities, taking my attention away from myself and redirecting it towards this man that needed help; of finding Christ in the encounter. As I reflect on the episode, I think of how, indeed, Lenten observances should be such that they focus, through the discipline of fasting, not just on the gift of alms, but of self: To God, in the conversation of prayer, and to others in almsgiving. That is the secret that I learned under I10 that morning.

As it turned out, I soon had the opportunity to practice this newfound discovery. Driving away and being unable to get enough power out of the forty horsepower engine fast enough to merge onto the interstate, I ended up by default on Earhart Boulevard, where I promptly met another homeless person. Seeing the car, he only wanted to talk, which was just as well seeing as my pockets were now empty and my pride deflated after the embarrassing failure to make the leap to highway speed. Who knows; maybe with some practice I can transfer the knack of selfless almsgiving to a car that can accelerate from zero to sixty without extending the process into aeviternity.     

About the Author: David Keran

David is in his first year of Pre-Theology at Notre Dame Seminary, studying for the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana. He was homeschooled through High School, and graduated from Longwood University in 2012 with a degree in Criminology. David enjoys using hobbies such as classic cars, airplanes, and juggling as conversation-starting tools for evangelization.


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