I GOT to the Waterville mall a few minutes early. My shift began at 11, and snow was falling from a pewter sky onto the parking lot. I’d been having a hard time. This was about four Christmases ago, a few years after I’d come out as transgender. In the aftermath of that unveiling, I’d lost a couple of important friendships. Getting into the spirit of the season had been a struggle.
Then, one day, I saw someone ringing a Salvation Army bell outside a Walmart. I thought, hey, I could do that. And so I signed up, hoping it might help dispel the blues. I wasn’t sure how the charity would react to the fact that one of their volunteers was a 6-foot-tall trans woman, though. This was before stories of the organization’s antigay discrimination really started emerging, or at least before they’d reached my ears. Still, I knew that it was a traditional religious charity, and I could picture the scene — the head of the Red Kettle corps taking one look at me, knocking the Santa hat off my head, contemptuously snapping all my candy canes in half.
Instead, as I drew near, the woman standing at the entrance to the mall said, “Oh, thank God you’re here. My arm is about to fall off.” And with that, she placed the bell in my hand.
“Wait,” I said. “What am I supposed to do?”
She looked at me as if it were the simplest thing in the world. “Just keep shaking,” she said.
I held the bell in one hand. It was a small thing, considering how much noise it made. The clapper had worn away a circle of brass where it met the skirt of the bell. I took off one of my mittens so I could hold it better.
And then I started ringing.
I’d always loved bells. At Wesleyan in the late ’70s, I’d been one of the college carillonneurs. I loved the brain-piercing sound of being up in the bell tower, loved the sheer physicality of punching out the music with my balled-up fists upon the rosewood clavier. The bells in the cupola were engraved with mysterious incantations; the largest, heaviest and lowest in pitch bore the legend, “For him, who in any station seeks not to be ministered unto, but to minister, I ring.”
Whether I was ministering, as a Salvation Army volunteer, or whether I was being ministered unto, however, remained to be seen.
An hour or so in, a small girl approached me, full of what seemed like equal measures of fear and wonder. She walked toward the kettle, and slipped a dollar inside.
“Merry Christmas,” I said.
“Bless you,” said the girl’s mother.
Later, around the time my arm started to ache, a friend of mine — another Maine writer — approached me with a look of uncertainty. “Jenny,” he said, “What on earth are you doing?”
“Ringing my bell,” I said to him. “Helping the needy?”
“Yeah, O.K.,” he said. “But don’t you know about these people? Don’t you know how awful they are to gay men and lesbians?”
Embarrassingly, I didn’t, although I learned soon enough. That knowledge put an end to my days as one of their volunteers. The organization advocated celibacy for homosexuals and resisted offering benefits to employees’ same-sex partners. Then, shockingly, a major in an Australian branch of the Salvation Army appeared to suggest in an interview that putting gay people to death was “part of our belief system.”
In the wake of that scandal, other officials have backpedaled. A November statement noted that the Army “does not consider homosexual orientation a sin.”
Which is nice, of course. But the unpleasant history of the organization’s views on L.G.B.T. issues is still a moral quandary for people wishing to do good in the world. Does that history outweigh the millions of dollars the volunteers raise each year for the needy, for food and shelter, foster care and H.I.V. programs? When a hand reaches out to help us in our hour of desperation, should we stop to question the beliefs of the person to whom that hand belongs?
It’s an awkward question, right up there alongside my friend’s reaction when he saw me raising money for an organization that questioned my right to exist: “Jenny, what on earth are you doing?”
In the end, I solve the dilemma this way: I’ll occasionally slip a buck into the kettle, but I won’t be the one ringing the bell. Instead, I contribute to other nonprofit organizations, not least of which is Glaad, the gay-rights advocacy group on whose board of directors I serve.
Still, when I’m walking through the mall and I hear those ringing bells, I don’t think of politics, but of something simpler: the ways in which acts of charity help to get us outside ourselves. I had volunteered in hopes of helping the needy. Looking back, I realize I was also helping myself.
The woman who was scheduled to relieve me arrived at 3. The snow was coming down pretty hard at that point.
“Hi,” she said. Her eyes were red, and I wondered what her story was.
I handed her the bell.
“My turn,” she said, and started to ring.
Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Colby College and the author of “Stuck in the Middle With You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders.”