Whither are we traveling - Part Seven
by Midnight Freemasons Contributor
WB Darin A. Lahners
As we continue to explore Dwight L. Smith's seminal work, "Whither are We Traveling?", we begin to explore his answers to the ten questions he posed for self-examination of the state of Ancient Craft Freemasonry in 1963. The questions he asked are as important and relevant now as they were then. This week we look at:
Question 6: Has the American passion for bigness and efficiency dulled the spirit of Masonic charity?
WMB Smith begins this section by giving an example of how in asking an average Mason (in his case of being from Indiana, he says Hoosier Mason) about Masonic Charity you'll receive the list of the organized, institutional Charities that each Grand Lodge and Masonic appendant bodies have created. He then goes on to state that when pushed to describe it at the lodge level. When asked about what he is doing personally he might give various examples, and will even produce all the receipts from his own donations throughout the year that he will write off as tax deductions. But when asked directly the question: "How long has it been since you went on foot and out of your way to aid and succor a needy Brother?" the Mason might look astonished, but then pity the question asker for being insane.
He then asks the question: "What has happened to Masonic charity?", and recalls a time when it was "one of the sweetest by-products of the teachings of the Craft." He recalls a time when while reading the minutes of his mother lodge, he read about the brethren getting together and building a modest home for one of their Masonic widows, and another when they donated a cord of wood to a widow of a mons who was not a Mason. He states that there was a time when such acts were common.
He laments that they now are rare, but that when they do happen, the impact upon the recipient of the charity is tremendous. He gives two reasons as to why he feels they are now rare.
1. The American need for acknowledgement of charitable efforts. Instead of being content with quiet selfless acts of charity, we instead want to advertise our giving and be acknowledged for it. We want plaques to hang up on our walls telling us how great we are for giving to those who are less fortunate.
2. Freemasonry does things the hard way when it's working properly, however we no longer want to undertake the charitable efforts of our ancestors. Instead of pitching in to build a widow a home, we'd rather just write her a check.
He then goes on to say that he is not attacking Masonic charities, but rather the "laziness, the complacency, the lack of vision with which we pour great sums of money into organized benevolences, and then, with self-righteous congratulations to ourselves, let it go at that."
He then asks the following:
"Wherein do we fall short? Let’s look in the mirror:
1. Is it worth mentioning? – How often do we hear the Master call for reports of
sickness at a meeting of the Lodge? In how many Masonic halls is the Box of
Fraternal Assistance passed? In how many halls could such a box be found?
2. Do we remember? – How often are the members of a Lodge called upon to
assist in person, in some act of true Masonic charity? Are they ever asked to
visit the sick, or is that assignment turned over to a retired Brother who has
nothing else to do? How many years can go by without a Master Mason giving
of himself in an act of benevolence, or charity, or brotherhood?
3. Are we interested? – In far too many Lodges the payment of the annual per
capita tax to the Grand Lodge is looked upon as the full discharge of all
obligations pertaining to charity – an act which relieves every individual
member of further concern for the year ending December 31. When I say that,
unfortunately, I am not merely engaging in rhetoric; I am speaking of an actual
4. First things last? – In far too many Lodges even the easy expedient of
soliciting voluntary contributions for the Masonic Home is pushed aside as
something of minor importance if there is a new Temple to build or pay for. Selfindulgence comes at the head of the list.
5. Crumbs from the table? – Each Lodge in Indiana is required to have a relief
fund. But how much? I am ashamed to have the minimum figure seen in print.
It is such a paltry sum that it could hardly do more than buy an occasional cup
of coffee for a street beggar. The minimum should be twenty times its present
Instead of addressing each question, I will just say this. While I agree with MWB Smith's questioning of our individual efforts of charity as Freemasons, I do want to state that I do not agree that the Masonic Charities of my Grand Lodge are being done just to give self-righteous congratulations to itself. I do believe they do amazing work to help the Brethren and their families as well as the Widows and Masonic Orphans in my Grand Jurisdiction of Illinois.
His main point is, I believe, is that we as individual Masons have neglected our duty to look after each other. In the current world, where we are surrounded by distractions at every turn and being bombarded by information, I will be the first to admit that I often do not practice this form of Masonic charity as much as I should. As a lodge, we are often discussing brethren that are suffering from hardship, and we are doing what we can to relieve them. However, am I doing enough individually to reach out to them? I have not. I have no excuse for this other than I am one of the Masons that MWB Smith is right to point his finger at. I acknowledge I have to do a better job of this, as do many other brothers.
Maybe you're one of these brothers like me or maybe not. However, in the amount of time that we spend on frivolous pursuits like social media, could we not be checking in our brothers? Think about how much time you spend mindlessly scrolling each week, and then think about what else you could have done with that time. Are we using our 24-inch gauge wisely? I personally can say that I make a concerted effort to try to stay off social media, but it still probably accounts for more than a couple hours of my week. This is time that I could be using to practice the Charity that MWB Smith speaks of.
He goes on to say:
"But there is another side to the coin. Let’s look at that side for a moment:
1. Given the challenge to practice Masonic charity in its intimate and personal form, almost any Lodge and almost any individual Mason will respond with enthusiasm. More important, Freemasonry will then come to have a new meaning for them. A few years ago the Grand Master of Missouri, distressed by the perfunctory manner in which the charity obligation is discharged, set out on
a campaign to encourage Lodges to perform their own acts of charity –
voluntary acts, impulsive acts, without organization, without advance planning
and ballyhoo. He asked each Lodge to send him a written report of what it had
done. I read many of those reports, but not without a lump in my throat.
And not only in Missouri can it happen. Right here in Indiana I have seen
glorious examples of Masonic charity. For example, the story of one small
Lodge which came face to face with a staggering obligation, and of how the
Brethren responded to their everlasting credit.
2. Any Lodge, large or small, which experiences the joy of giving of itself in a
truly personal act of charity discovers that it literally has been born again.
Once I heard the Senior Warden of a large Lodge describe the distress in the
home of the widow of a deceased Brother who was making a brave struggle to
hold her family together. “It is not often we have calls for relief,” he said. “Now
this is our opportunity.” Significantly, that Lodge is not losing in
membership and has no attendance problems.
A Past Master of a small Lodge which levied an assessment to meet a relief
emergency sat in my office and declared, “That incident was the best thing that
has happened to our Lodge in the 40 years I have been a Mason, for, until then,
most of us had no clear idea of the true meaning of Masonry.”
What does it all add up to?
Well, for me, it adds up to this: We are missing a golden opportunity for a great
Masonic renaissance when we continue to let our American passion for bigness and efficiency dull the spirit of true Masonic charity. There simply is no substitute for the personal touch on the local level where it counts.
Don’t tell me how many hundreds of thousands of dollars Freemasons contribute annually to organized benevolent projects. That is not the question at stake. And don’t give me the old excuse that Lodges are prohibited from using their funds for purposes not Masonic. That, too, is avoiding the issue. Freemasonry, if it operates as such, is a relationship with individuals, and I insist on talking about the personal efforts of Lodges and individual Master Masons. I want to know what individual Masons are doing to relieve distress – in their own communities, by their own effort.
Whenever Lodge is opened and whenever it is closed, the Senior Warden tells the
Master why he was induced to become a Master Mason. One of the reasons he offers is that he might “contribute to the relief of poor distressed Master Masons, their widows, and orphans.”
Lip service? Sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal?
Not unless we make it so. The Brethren are here; they are as generous and kindly and thoughtful as they ever were. It is up to us to give them the occasion to do what they have obligated themselves to do. Given that opportunity, Master Masons will respond in such a manner that the revival of Freemasonry will no longer be a fond hope – it will be here and now."
What Dwight is stating is that when lodges or Masons are given the opportunity to do their own acts of charity, not only do they respond in kind, it often energizes the lodge. I feel that he believes that what complicates these efforts is that we have a wonderful and benevolent Charity organization at the Grand Lodge, which is fulfilling this role. However, he believes that if given the opportunity to practice relief that the individual lodges and brethren would rise to the challenge.
While I do agree that when given the opportunity, individual lodges would rise to the challenge, I don't believe that it's an either-or scenario. What needs to be happening is a partnership between individual lodges and the charities to contribute to this relief. Maybe the programs that were available in MWB Smith's time were not as robust as the ones that we currently have, this I do not know.
However, I do know that at least here in Illinois, I am extremely proud to extoll the great work that they do to help our brethren, widows, and orphans; as well as children in our communities. Many of the programs that IMOS, IMCAP, and IMSAP (Illinois Masonic Outreach Program, Illinois Masonic Children's Assitance Program, and Illinois Masonic Student Assistance Program) provide often are programs that are too expensive or difficult for individual lodges to undertake by themselves. So while I do believe that we should absolutely do more at the local lodge level to assist our brethren, widows, and orphans that are distressed, I also think that without the Grand Lodge programs, there would be more of our brethren going without as individual lodges would not be able to shoulder this burden of relief on their own.
In my next article, I will explore the next question MWB Smith poses, which is: Question 7: Do we pay enough attention to the Festive Board?
WB Darin A. Lahners is our Co-Managing Editor. He is a host and producer of the "Meet, Act and Part" podcast. He is currently serving the Grand Lodge of Illinois Ancient Free and Accepted Masons as the Area Education Officer for the Eastern Masonic Area. He is a Past Master of St. Joseph Lodge No.970 in St. Joseph. He is also a plural member of Homer Lodge No. 199 (IL), where he is also a Past Master. He’s a member of the Scottish Rite Valley of Danville, a charter member of Illinois Royal Arch Chapter, Admiration Chapter No. 282, and a member of the Salt Fork Shrine Club under the Ansar Shrine. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.