Being a first generation immigrant, I watched my parents make a life for our family, living paycheck to paycheck. My dad held numerous hardworking, blue collar jobs working in warehouses, making and delivering lunchboxes, and tending other people’s yards. We were recipients of the good will of others in the forms of hand-me-downs and occasional financial support. My sisters and I worked within a five dollar budget when in need of a new shirt for school, and sharing one drink between the five of us at fast food restaurants was how we rolled. I’m no stranger to being in want and living frugally, though I never knew what it felt like to go hungry, or not having a roof over my head.
In the past few years as I find myself encountering the marginalized of our society, more specifically the financially disadvantaged due to mental or physical disabilities, family crisis, or lack of legal status, I’ve learned some valuable lessons on charity and kinship that I’d like to share with you.
When we participate in charitable giving, do we prioritize what is convenient to us and what we think is needed rather than what is truly needed? Not long ago, a friend came to me and shared that he was visiting his nephew and nieces for the holidays, but had ran out of money to buy presents for them. Not wanting him to show up empty-handed, I gave him the Target gift card I had on hand and was fully expecting to be thanked for my spontaneous act of generosity. Instead, he said: “What am I supposed to do with this gift card? There are no bus routes to Target.” The Target gift card is as good as monopoly money without the transportation he needed to get to the store. I have learned that when we give, we must give thoughtfully; to give thoughtfully, we must put ourselves in proximity to the challenges people face daily.
Fear of being made the fool. When I encounter people asking for money on the streets, my primal response is suspicion and fear of being taken advantage of. I’d like to think that some of it is good common sense, but more likely than not there is an unhealthy dosage of cynicism and self-righteousness. In Greg Boyle’s book, “Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship”, he writes of the value of tenderness, of holding our own wounds close. When we are able to wear our past hurts, pain, and helplessness on our sleeves, we see the needy as kin, not someone to be despised and suspected. “How can someone take my advantage when I’m giving it?” Boyle asks. Give generously, not as a response to someone’s deservedness, but as an outpouring of gratefulness for all the advantages afforded to us, which of many we did not deserve.
Give without judgement or expectation. When we give charitably, do we give with strings attached? Do you find yourself frowning upon the subject of your giving when he or she doesn’t use your gift in the way that you expect them to? I’m not advocating for fiscal irresponsibility or knocking the very real need of financial education, but unless we have the privilege of a solid relationship and the invitation to do so, it is not our job to be the bookkeeper of the poor. One faulty thinking that I often observe is that we judge the financially disadvantaged when they spend money on things that we would consider “frivolous”—phones, new clothes, cable, eating out, or going to the movies. We don’t understand why they would be so reckless with their money when they don’t know where next month’s rent is coming from. The truth is, our desire for relaxation and the search for comfort do not magically go away when living paycheck to paycheck. In the same way that we do not put birthday moneys toward mortgage payments, we should not judge when our brothers and sisters of lesser privilege seek out temporary escapes from their daily stresses.
Don’t romanticize the poor or their human condition. Struggling to make ends meet do not make people more grateful, more appreciative of material wealth, or more spiritual. Human nature in all its glory and ugliness is the same whether you are in want or in plenty. Actively reject the notion of a “grateful recipient” and the facade of “when you have less, you appreciate more”. We are called to bear with one another in love (Colossians 3:13), and people are people, no matter the size of their bank account.
Donations of money, goods, and participating in service projects meet real, pressing needs in our communities. It gives us an opportunity to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves and temporarily takes us out of self-absorption. However, these charitable experiences fit neatly into a specific framework, and allow us to reenter our lives without disrupting our status quo. Building relationships with the marginalized, however, takes intentionality, time, and discomfort. The length it takes to nurture these relationships afford us the time to root out the pride, self-righteousness, and judgement that accompany our best intentions. In other words, relationship leads to kinship, and kinship changes lives—starting with our own.