The Terrible Lure of Collection Plates
Yes, I will give you all of my money.
I wasn’t raised with religion. When I was seven, my class went on a school trip to the church down the street. It was my first time in any place of worship.
Our teacher had prepped us beforehand about what was going to happen: the vicar would give a short service and then the collection plate would be passed around and we could (the “should” was implied) add some money.
Unfortunately, that was as much information as I was given. I didn’t know how much to bring, or anything else about the etiquette of going to church—when to kneel, when to pray, even what to wear. (I didn’t know that being too flashy is generally looked down on.)
The morning of the trip, my mum handed me a small plastic bag filled with change and then, just before 10 a.m., my class marched double-file out of the school gates, down the street, and into the church.
After the vicar droned on for much longer than promised, I finally saw the collection plate headed toward me from the end of the row. This was the bit I’d been waiting for. When the girl next to me held out the plate toward me, I emptied out my bag of change.
Too late, I realized there was too much. One pence and two pence coins (plus the occasional five) clattered onto the metal plate and echoed off the walls for what felt like hours. Other people’s contributions had made only a quiet “click.” I heard muffled giggles. People turned to look. At the front of the church, my teacher shook her head.
When I got home, I asked my mum why she’d given me so much money. She said she thought I’d use my initiative and pick out just the right amount. I didn’t, and I’d love to believe it was because I was a child.
Twenty-one years later, in the late ’00s, I was at a psychological-healing workshop in Florida. It was an emotional weekend. Lots of crying, lots of intimate conversations, lots of revelations I thought would dramatically change my life but turned out not to. Then, on the final night, there was a fundraising auction for a children’s charity.
The organizers hadn’t told us about the auction beforehand, because they didn’t want us to withdraw money specifically—they only wanted us to give what we could afford. I did a quick survey of my wallet. Three notes: one $20, one $20 that a cashier at the souvenir store across the street had told me was fake, and one $50 that I needed to save for a taxi to the airport the next day. (My taxi on the way in had only cost $18, but I wanted to be on the safe side—and maybe buy a snack and a magazine before my flight.)
The other surprise about the auction was we were both the bidders and the lots: we were invited to create auctionable items out of whatever we had on us. So people offered a song, a performance, or something they’d bought that day, and other people bid. While this was happening, a collection plate was passed around for those of us who would rather just donate. I took out my legit $20, placed it on the plate and passed it to the man on my left. Easy.
Like the vicar’s speech, the auction went on for a while. I started to feel twitchy. Seeing people spring up and yell, “thirty dollars!” or “forty dollars!” was contagious. I needed to do more, give more.
Toward the end, after bids for her performance topped $200, a retired opera singer belted out “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls, a comedic song about a woman worried her boyfriend will never propose. She imbued it with such pain and poignancy that tears came to my eyes, despite my ambivalence about marriage as an institution. As I clapped, I saw the collection plate being passed around again. It traveled the row in front of me. Then it was on my row. I reached into my wallet, pulled out the $50, and threw it on. The woman to my right raised her eyebrows and nodded in approval and I tried to look humble, yet heroic.
As the plate made its way to the front of the room, piled high with green paper, it dawned on me what I’d done. I had no usable money left. I needed to get some cash or I’d be stranded four thousand miles from home. I got up early the next morning and walked to the small strip mall across the street, but their only ATM spat my card out. Back at my hotel, I checked out and asked the front desk clerk if there were any other machines nearby. She said there weren’t.
In retrospect, I should have asked the clerk if she could give me cash against my credit card, or if I could call one of the conference organizers’ rooms to ask for a lift. Instead, I tried to phone my mum from a payphone in the lobby, but screwed up the international codes and couldn’t get through. Then I sat on a couch near the front desk and cried, in the hope that someone would see and offer to help. When that failed, I’m not proud of what I did next.
I did have something left in my wallet: the $20 I’d been told was fake. I’d never had a cab driver check whether bank notes were real. With hope in my heart and guilt in my stomach, I dragged my bags outside, hailed a cab, and paid the driver $17 (plus tip) with my dubious twenty. I felt terrible but also relieved that I’d found a way out of the ridiculous mess I’d made.
I’d like to think that if I ever come within reach of a collection plate again, I’ll finally get it right: hand over an amount appropriate to the situation that doesn’t cause a scene or leave me penniless. But I can’t guarantee it. There’s clearly something about collection plates and the public, performative donations they inspire that obliterates my ability to think rationally. I see one headed my way, and I’m powerless to resist.
Diane Shipley is a freelance writer based in the U.K. She enjoys U.S. television, photos of miniature dachshunds, and Twitter.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Financial Fails series.
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