You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, goes the old saying.
Sometimes I think that’s exactly what we are trying to do. Many of us look at charity work to somehow make us progress and grow membership, but it’s not clear that this is how charity works. Charity is admirable, to be sure, and we should all practice it, but does it help us gain members? Many will quote the Shriners and their children’s hospitals, or other fraternal groups which do acts similarly inspiring, but if you delve into the numbers in all fraternities, you will see that all groups are losing members.
Why is this? A mix of reasons, of course, but neither the rise in membership nor the decline are influenced much by charity work, unless it is, wait for it, of a directed poignancy. Why is this? Several reasons, of course, but this may be easiest borne out by looking at our history, or, in fact, almost all fraternal histories. Our order was at its biggest when it had its most direct relevance upon its own members. The problem with most modern groups, not just our fraternity, but almost all groups, is that they fail to retain relevancy. Over time, many lodges have, essentially, become groups of one socio-economic level. The lodges that retain relevance have a clear amount of influence on their members lives and are capable of growth. Lodges that fail have lost any relevance to their own members. If you the reader have never been to a failing lodge, I implore you to visit one and see for yourself. Lodges that are failing, are skeletal, full of artifacts, perhaps, but lacking in any trend in modernity. In fact, often failing lodges are a window on our past; they show photos of eras long gone and tell of groupings much larger than their composition today. Successful lodges, such as Davis, Yerba Buena, and others are practicing events modeled around today’s world. The Davis Lodge, for example, does community and charitable work based upon today, such as environmental cleaning of roadways and helping foster children who have “aged out” of the foster care system. Yerba Buena Odd Fellows Lodge, along with several other Bay Area Odd Fellows Lodges, such as Alameda and Berkeley sponsored appearances in the largest parades in the Bay Area, including, to the horror of some regressive members, the Gay Pride Parade, never mind the fact that hundreds of veterans traditionally march in the Gay Pride Parade. Many successful lodges have experienced at least a leveling of their membership by practicing diversity, not charity directly, of course, but practice of a charitable spirit.
We see that we can sustain growth by having some influence with our members. If a member among us is tired, hungry, homeless, depressed, we should feel compelled to help in some way. If we do not, how are we practicing our own mandates? Almost out of a work by Dickens, we can’t house all the homeless, feed all the hungry, lighten the load of all those depressed but those among us who are in need, physically or spiritually, should be the recipient of something relevant from our own lodge. Isn’t it tiresome to hear that another failing lodge closed without even a sign of relevance? To grow, requirement one should be to assist one’s own members in their times of need. Show a sign that we care. To me, lodges close, because first, they have made the conscious decision to fail to care. Lastly, some members look at their lodges as a profit center. This was never the point of the Odd Fellows. We must maintain our lodges, but we are also compelled by no less than the IRS code to assist our members. We are all brothers and sisters, theoretically, at least that is the pronouncement we make at every occasion.
Do any of us go home hungry, or lonely, or embittered? Then we have failed at a basic lodge level. This is not just a gesture to be extended at Christmas time, but every day within every year. Either we practice what we preach or what we preach is a lie. Membership growth is fostered by an exhibition of the human heart, nothing less. Lodges fail, and we all fail, when we fail to care about our own members. I remember when I was still new in the order and riding with another member to visit a distant lodge passing a member who had broken down in her car. We didn’t stop and help her and that has haunted me to this very day. I have no recollection why we didn’t stop, but if we fail to help a member in their moment of need, what does that say about all of us and our precepts? We are all mortal, and particularly those who profess deep religious beliefs are truly fooling themselves if they are looking for a spot in heaven while denying a crust of bread to someone we encounter on this earth.
In F., L., & T., Rick Boyles