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 the waters recede, donations pour in and church groups drive 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 in 1992, I worked with a mission group in a little community in Miami. When we built a 20×20-foot 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. And I do mean a feast.
The generosity that poured out of that family’s poverty was humbling.
My wife, 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 a time we juggled five part-time jobs and two full-time course loads.
Our neighbors were all in the same boat. We were in Louisville, Kentucky, living in “Seminary Village,” an off-campus housing complex that was the closest thing to a slum we’ve ever known – and we’ve never been happier! Several nights a week during those years we shared dinner with friends who would show up with either “potluck” or at least with their own selection of meat for our grill. They also brought their own dishes so we neither had to spend our own water and detergent nor our own time and energy cleaning up after them.
Many nights when we went to bed we left the door unlocked, and after midnight we would hear a friend from the next apartment slip quietly in. We had a computer. He was just happy to get to use it from midnight to sunrise! “What’s mine is yours,” was very nearly a reality. Need begets generosity.
That is, until you become self-sufficient.
“It’s not that we don’t have enough to share; rather it seems we have too much to be willing to share.”
Sadly and ironically, as studies show, the more comfortable we become and the more we attain, rather than opening our hands wider, self-sufficiency tends to foster selfishness; affluence begets anxiety. It’s not that we don’t have enough to share; rather 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. Our nation does provide assistance in many ways, and we can take some measure of pride in the assistance we offer. True generosity, however, is never measured in terms of raw numbers (how many dollars). Jesus said generosity is measured by what our giving actually costs us. He made this clear in his vivid parable about the rich folks in the temple who gave out of their abundance contrasted with that poor widow who gave one small coin, which probably amounted to her next (and only guaranteed) meal.
I have listened with astonishment, dismay and great sadness to recent news reports about our government’s relentless efforts to restrict even further the number of refugees admitted to this country. 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.
According to an Associated Press report, we welcomed 85,000 refugees in 2016, 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 Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, we are “prioritizing the safety and well-being of the American people.”
It sounds to me like the studies on generosity are still right: we’ve got too much – affluence and/or fear – to be willing to share.
I wonder how much affluence and fear we’ll have to lose to get our humanity back.