I take three-and-a-half mile walks late at night. They bring me past a local elementary school. Last week, the school’s big glowing marquee sign proclaimed: “HELP US WIN BIG!! US CELL CONTEST.”
Ah, yes, I thought. Been there. Done that.
One Saturday evening, about three winters ago, I was arriving for Mass. One of the moms from the parish school accosted me with a clipboard. She needed thousands of signatures and email addresses, and she needed them now. We were competing against a bunch of other schools to get the most signatures and email addresses, so that U.S. Cellular could give us a hundred thousand dollars.
I hesitated. How they would use my email address? What feelings, if any, did I have about U.S. Cellular? But the school mom, emphasizing the many thousands of signatures she had yet to acquire, shoved the clipboard closer to my face. I glanced down to find her daughter had magically materialized: an eight-year-old copy of the mom, bedecked in a Girl Scout uniform, with giant brown puppy-dog eyes pleading from behind equally giant glasses.
I pursed my lips and signed the form, largely in obedience to the puppy-dog eyes. I reluctantly parted with my email address, whose function I never did find out. At least, no one has ever accosted me online and implored me to change my phone plan.
We won. We beat everybody else. A big blue plastic banner flapped in the wind in front of the parish school, certifying our victory. Company representatives arrived to present us with a large cardboard check, to congratulate us on our enthusiasm and competitiveness, to acclaim our many signatures and email addresses.
I should have been happy. We needed the money. We needed computers. Teacher health insurance costs were spiking. One of our buildings was a hundred years old and made creaking noises to match. We were running a huge deficit that kept the pastor up nights. Our school had a century of worthy tradition to uphold, a mission inherited from the School Sisters of St. Francis. It was all for the kids.
But I wasn’t comfortable signing. I wasn’t comfortable winning. I’m not comfortable now. I don’t know a thing about U.S. Cellular, good or bad or indifferent, so I cast no particular aspersions. What worries me is something more general: the smell, the underlying mentality, of corporate generosity.
Donations from your local mom-and-pop pizza parlor or real estate agency are one thing. Such businesses are rooted and invested in the organic life of the community, while corporate cash and gifts-in-kind more purely promote commercial interests. At their worst, they fulfill the agendas Eric Schlosser wrote about in Fast Food Nation:
The spiraling cost of textbooks has led thousands of American school districts to use corporate-sponsored teaching materials. A 1998 study of these teaching materials by the Consumers Union found that 80 percent were biased, providing students with incomplete or slanted information that favored the sponsor’s products and views. Procter & Gamble’s Decision Earth program taught that clear-cut logging was actually good for the environment; teaching aids distributed by the Exxon Education Foundation said that fossil fuels created few environmental problems and that alternative sources of energy were too expensive; a study guide sponsored by the American Coal Foundation dismissed fears of a greenhouse effect, claiming that “the earth could benefit rather than be harmed from increased carbon dioxide.” (55)
Meanwhile, the act of competing or angling for impressive gifts has a peculiar effect. It becomes difficult to criticize the contributors. It gets hard to honestly examine the economic system in which these contributors are succeeding. That can be bad for any school, which should be teaching kids how to ask questions. It can be particularly bad for a Catholic school.
The bit about a rich man not entering the Kingdom of God as easily as a camel would stroll through the eye of a needle (hint: not easy) seems less essential. The warning that God’s house ought never to be associated with a marketplace is not as urgent. The mood is somehow never right for talking seriously about those who “diminish the ephah” and “add to the shekel,” who “buy the lowly man for silver, and the poor man for a pair of sandals” (Amos 8:5-6). One can’t pursue the full implications, for us as Christians, of a Lord who hears the cry of the poor.
The French novelist Georges Bernanos had his country priest note that “on sacks of money our Lord has written in his own hand, ‘Danger of death.’” Our parishes and schools are surely in deep need. But the warning still applies.