One of the truths I have seen borne out time and again in my life, is that when people are in real need, those around them reach out to help. When the hurricane comes, strangers show up in a boat. When its waters recede, donations pour in and church groups drive in from miles around. You can see the basic goodness of humanity, our inherent sense of community. Need calls for response, and when we are at our best, our most human best, we respond.
In communities where poverty is a shared experience, generosity flows even more. Studies show that the more self-sufficient we become, the more affluent, the less generous we also become. Almost counterintuitively, our own need seems to beget our greater generosity to others in need.
After hurricane Andrew I worked with a mission group in a little community in Miami. When we built a 20’ x 20’ utility shed, that a migrant family was thrilled to call their new home, the mother invited us for lunch. Excitedly she showed us her new “house.” One room, one bed, one chair, a hot plate for cooking, and then she spread a feast. I do mean a feast.
The generosity that poured out of their poverty was humbling.
Amy and I have never been poor. Thank God. The poorest we have ever been, however, marked one of the best periods of our lives. When we were both seminary students, there was at time we juggled five part-time jobs and two full-time course loads.
Our neighbors were all in the same boat. We lived in Seminary Village, an off-campus housing complex that was the closest thing to a slum we’ve ever known. Several nights a week during those years, we shared dinner with friends who would show up with either “potluck” or with their own selection of meat for our grill. They also brought their own dishes so we neither had to spend our own water nor our own time cleaning.
Many nights when we went to bed we left the door unlocked, and after midnight we would hear a friend open the door and slip in. We had a computer, he was just glad to get to use ours from midnight to sunrise! “What's mine is yours,” was very nearly a reality. Need begets generosity.
That is, until you become self-sufficient.
Sadly and ironically, as studies show, the more we get, rather than opening our hands even wider, self-sufficiency tends to foster selfishness. Affluence begets anxiety – rather than having too little to share, it seems we have too much to be willing to share. Abundance often turns in on itself, sometimes even to the point of greed.
I live in the most affluent nation in the world has ever seen. I wish I could say we were an exception to the rule, measured in those studies of generosity. We do provide assistance in many ways, in which we can take some measure of pride.
True generosity, however, is never measured in terms of raw numbers (how many dollars), but, in what our giving actually costs us. Jesus made this clear in his vivid parable about the rich folks in the temple who gave out of their abundance, and the poor widow who gave what probably amounted to her next, and only guaranteed meal.
I have a listened today to several stories, listened with astonishment and dismay and great sadness, that at a time in our world’s history when the number of people seeking asylum and refugee status is at an all-time high, as masses of people are fleeing dangerous, even life-threatening situations, our country is slamming the doors shut.
In 2016 we welcomed 85,000 refugees, according to an Associated Press article published this week, but so far in 2018 we have received less than 21,000. And we just lowered the number for next year to the lowest cap of admissions since the program began in 1980.
According to the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, we are “prioritizing the safety and well-being of the American people.” Sounds like the studies are still right: we’ve got too much (affluence or fear) to be willing to share.
I wonder how much of it we’ll have to lose, to get our humanity back.
Photo by Larm Rmah