A few months ago, I heard a man say that if someone asks you for financial or material help, you have been placed on their path for a reason and need to render assistance. I can remember thinking to myself that he obviously had not spend a lot of time in poverty-stricken areas (like a eyes rolling emoji you know…gosh, how judgemental and self-righteous of me).
As you may know, our God has a sense of humour and quickly made me aware of my self-righteousness…I started recounting how often I rationalised not giving money to people. I have been “programmed” by people around me and the media I have consumed, “Don’t give money to beggars, they will just spend it on drugs or cigarettes.” Or “Don’t give something to a child on the street, it will just enable them to stay on the street for longer.” There may be some truth to this, but how in the world did I get to the point of thinking that I am actually the expert of people’s lives, being able to judge their character, their history and their story? (Shame on me emoji)
So I felt challenged to, for a period of time, give whatever is asked of me. I gave what I had regardless of when, where or who asked or the merit of what was being asked. I gave food, take-away foods, coins, a somewhat bigger amount to a single mom in need, taxi money, shelter money. I realised that the “experiment” was helping me become more patient and open to the humanity of people – in other words, my openness to give, has enabled me to see the humanity of the person asking something of me. (I think that when we give rather than withhold we experience the divine “flow” of God through us. Life flows when we give rather than withhold.)
One day I was having a conversation with a woman on the street, let’s call her Jo. She often asked me for coins, but I neglected spending time with her, so that time I stopped and talked to her. As we were talking and I was scratching in my wallet for coins, a man, let’s call him Bruce, came up and interrupted us. I have chatted to Bruce before. I knew that he sometimes acted a bit obnoxiously. So I asked him to hang on a second while I finish my conversation with Jo. He seemed a bit impatient and after I gave Jo some coins, he could not contain himself any longer and blurted, “I want to ask you something that is going to sound impossible, but with Jesus all things are possible!”. I said, “Yes Bruce, what do you want to ask me?” and he said, “I want your belt”. I laughed and asked why in the world he wanted my belt. He lifted up his shirt and showed us that his pants were falling down because he had lost so much weight and said that with the recent rains it got really wet and started sagging down even further (Jo’s eyes were as big as dinner plates at this point). So I said, “Of course you can have my belt Bruce!”. I took off my belt and gave it to him. This did not seem to have surprised him (maybe it was his faith!?) and he proceeded to put the belt on. Jo, on the other hand, could not believe what had happened. As I left the interaction, I chuckled thinking that our God certainly has a sense of humour.
In my thinking and praying about giving and generosity, I became aware of how often I considered myself “generous” without my giving actually reaching the point of being sacrificial. I realised (after a conversation with my clever friend Kayley) how many of us hardly ever give in a way that really costs us something. We live in a world that seats on the “heroes stage of generosity” the rich and famous who give enormous amounts of money without having to adjust their lifestyle or sacrifice anything of significance (or be transparent about the means in which they have acquired their wealth). We live in a world that has forgotten about the gogo who spend her whole pension on sustaining her grandkids or the daughter who lives in the city and sends money home every month, while her friends get to shop for clothes and buy cars. I know many people who give all the time – to their families, and people in their communities – not millions or even thousands, but relative to their income, hugely sacrificial amounts of money. Yet, the spotlight of honour for generosity never shines upon them. We live in a world where we expect others to be “as generous as we are” without realising that many of the people we are talking about are in fact way more generous than we have ever thought of being.
So, what is generosity? Despite the narratives of the world we live in, I am not convinced that generosity has much to do with the amount we are giving. Generosity is defined by the heart and the sacrifice involved in our giving.
Last week, a young boy living on the streets was standing outside a shop asking people to buy him items of food. I walked past him and stopped to make conversation. He asked me to buy him bread, milk and peanut butter. At that very moment a man handed him milk and bread without saying anything. So as per my “experiment”, I went into the store with the idea to get him a jar of peanut butter. Someone came into the shop telling me that the boy just told him that nobody has given him anything yet the whole day (even though he watched from the car as he was given the bread and milk).
I got the boy the peanut butter even though I knew he was lying and deceiving people. This was not the first time it had happened since I started the “experiment”. Giving with a cheerful heart when you know you are being deceived has been the most challenging giving I have had to do. Giving to the “undeserving” felt like a such an unwise thing to do. I was mocked and even scolded number of times for doing this during my “experiment”. How foolish I felt…
But it was this foolishness that defined Jesus’ giving, wasn’t it? He died for the sake of the world with no guarantees that we would be grateful, responsible stewards of what we received from him. Still he gave himself. Dorothy Day said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” And that is the foolish beauty of giving.