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Stories of Giving and Transformation

Friday, March 28, 2008

I found this article really interesting. It's kind of long, and if you want to download it as a Microsoft Word document you can click here. Some of it doesn't really apply to our project, but much of it does. I am hoping you find it as thought provoking and interesting as I did. I'd very much like to hear your thoughts on it!

Stories of Giving and Transformation

(Keynote address given to approximately 80 leaders, directors and volunteers of food distribution programs from across Western North Carolina.)


Craig White,
Center for Participatory Change

What I’m going to talk about today is giving. How we do it, and how we think about it, and the stories we tell about it.

But first, I’ve got a couple questions for you. I’d like to know—who here has been involved in any way in a food distribution project—the Manna Food Bank, or food pantries, or soup kitchens, anything like that, raise your hand? Okay, good, I’m in the right place. Next question—who here has, at some point in their life, been on the receiving end of that relationship—getting a food box, going to a soup kitchen, whatever? Raise your hands? I’m raising mine on this one too.

Thank you. First let me say, those people that raised their hands both times, those are your experts, they’re worth listening to.

Second, I invite you to reflect on how that felt—if you raised your hand for the first question, publicly acknowledging your contribution to feeding hungry people, how did that feel? If you raised your hand for the second question—publicly acknowledging, in this room full of strangers, that you have received some sort of food assistance at some point in your life—how did that feel? And if that second question was true for you but you chose not to raise your hand—how did that feel?

Two simple questions, but it brings up a lot of stuff, doesn’t it? That’s why I want to talk about giving.

Your giving

I also want to call your attention to how you are feeling physically: satisfied, full. Many, many people in North Carolina take that feeling for granted. You don’t.

You know that there are people in our region—there are people within just a few miles of us, here, today—that will go to bed hungry tonight. Some of you, at one time or another, have been hungry yourselves. Well, okay, we all know there are hungry people in the world, it’s too bad, right?

No. It’s worse than too bad. Whether you are looking at one of our counties…or our nation…or our world as a whole, you know this truth: There is enough. There are enough resources on this planet that no person needs to go to bed hungry. The fact that people are hungry—that millions of people are hungry, in this day—is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong. There is no excuse, no policy, no political system, no economic structure, that makes hunger okay.

Y’all do something about it. You can’t feed every hungry child in the world, none of us can, but many, many people look at the fact that they can’t do everything and let that keep them from doing anything. Not you. You do something. In your organizations, in your food pantries, in your community centers, in your churches, in this food bank, you do everything you can to see that nobody that you can help will go hungry.

I want to honor you for that. Deeply. Your giving of your time, your energy, your money, your wisdom to food distribution programs. You have also given your time, your energy, your wisdom, your learning, to this series of trainings, some of you as trainers, some of you as participants. You have made yourselves more effective…more resourceful…more experienced…better advocates…better fundraisers…better at giving.

Your giving makes a difference…the difference between being hungry and being fed…between being sick and being well…sometimes the difference between life and death. Your giving is important, and I honor you for it.

What are the stories we tell about giving?

I learned two different stories about giving while I was growing up. Stories are important, you know? Stories are the way we understand ourselves and the way we understand the world around us. Personal stories. Family stories. Stories of place. You could even say that everything we do, from birth to death, is the story that we are telling the world about who we are and how we fit into Creation. Stories have power.

So I learned two different stories about giving. Giving was a big part of my life, growing up. Not that we ever called it that. It was just the way things were between the families that lived on our long dirt road.

We got eggs from Geneva, she was an elderly woman who lived alone with her chickens. When the car wouldn’t start, we didn’t call AAA, we called Old Man Wentzell. My brother and sister and I wore hand-me-down clothes from families with older kids.

In return, the neighbors enjoyed corn and beans and raspberries from our garden. When our car finally died, we gave it to the Wentzells for spare parts. My mom looked after other families’ children. And she would make custard to give to Geneva on the way home from church, staying to chat while we kids chased the chickens.

All of that was giving. Lesson number one is, tangible forms of giving count for a lot when you’re poor—clothes, food, firewood, childcare, car repair.

Lesson number two is, the intangible forms of giving count just as much. For example…Geneva was old and she lived by herself. Spending time with my mom every Sunday, watching three children laughing and falling over each other chasing chickens, was a tremendous gift to her. In fact, even though we are talking about families where meeting basic needs of food and clothing and shelter was an issue, I still might say that those intangible things we gave each other were the more important: dignity, friendship, belonging, knowing somebody cares how you’re doing, being needed by somebody else. The intangible forms of giving are important!

Now, I don’t want to give the impression we were living in some dirt road utopia. In fact, a lot of our families didn’t even like each other. But for people without a lot of money, this system of giving and giving back was essential in getting ahead, and sometimes just in getting by.

Is this sounding familiar to anybody? Raise your hands?

If this doesn’t sound real familiar to you, let me explain: It wasn’t a straightforward economic exchange—you give me the eggs, I give you the firewood. It was just we helped out other people when we could, we shared when we had extra, and we knew they’d help us out when they could.

So that’s the first story I learned about giving. When I talk about it now, I use the word reciprocity, which means giving and receiving at the same time, giving and getting back are the same action. But I want to be clear we didn’t talk about it that way then, we didn’t talk about it at all, we just did it, because it was what people do.

Second story of giving

The other story I learned about giving was more explicit; people talked about giving, and it had the name of charity, and where we mostly talked about that was in church.

Now, as an adult, I have studied religion, and I have found that giving is part of the ideals of most spiritual traditions. Usually there’s an emphasis on selflessness, or self-sacrifice. There’s the Christian ideal of charity—giving out of plenty; “I was hungry, and you gave me food.”—and the central example of giving is the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In the Jewish tradition, there’s the concept of mitzvah—which means giving to others in such a way that you receive no human recognition or acknowledgement—if somebody knows you did it, it’s not a true mitzvah. The Muslim ideas, in the Quran, about generosity and selfless giving, even to the point of giving up everything for others, as a way of emphasizing that nothing is ours but what is given to us by God, by Allah. In many nature religions, the model for giving is the Earth, who meets all of our needs with her generous bounty, and we are called to treat other living creatures with the same generosity.

Very different religions, right? But this common ideal of selfless giving.

I point out those ideals to make the point that in my experience, in my church, there was a gap between those ideals and the reality. Talking about charity, the text was the Bible, which says a great deal about our relationship with the poor… the subtext, however, was ‘Praise God that we aren’t poor.’ There was a lot of talk about helping the less fortunate, and a lot of pride and self congratulation that we were not among the less fortunate.

The way they told the story, it was clear that charity was only one-way giving. It was not selfless; it was tainted with self-aggrandizement, with paternalism, and with pride. It was rooted in what I would call today the dynamics of class privilege and oppression. To be a giver was to be superior, a benefactor, a good Christian. To be on the receiving end meant that you were inferior, lesser, the humble beneficiary of Christian charity.

There was a big gap between the ideal and the reality. Is this story sounding at all familiar to anyone?

Of course as a child I had no problem with this! I proudly gave pennies of my allowance to the church and its missionary efforts, and I knew that helping those less fortunate people meant I was a good person.

And then, one Thanksgiving… a group of ladies from the church came to our house with a big basket of food for my family.

A group of ladies from the church came to our house with a basket of food for my family. And with that simple—well intended, and generous—act… because of the way they defined giving… they redefined my family. Now we were the less fortunate.

Well. My mother told them, “No thank you, go on and take that basket to somebody who needs it.” I think she even added in a couple of cans of food. Because Mom understood that kind of giving. Remember: the intangibles are important. To take that basket, in the context of the way they were telling the story, would be to confirm their belief in their own superiority… and the righteousness of their very public charity. My mother was being asked to take a basket of food in exchange for her family’s dignity. We just weren’t that hungry.

It’s not that we were too proud to take a gift. That’s often how that dynamic gets described, when poor people won’t take charity, oh, they’re too proud. It’s not that—it’s that my mother knew a bad deal when she saw one, and to exchange her family’s dignity for a lousy box of food was no deal!

The issue is the lack of reciprocity. We were already part of a network of giving, right?…neighbors helping neighbors, giving and giving back, giving that upholds and strengthens the dignity, the generosity, the resourcefulness of everyone involved. But that one way giving, the type of charity I saw from those church ladies—that ignored our network, denied our resourcefulness, eliminated our opportunity to be generous, and stole our dignity.

Foundations and nonprofits

This came up for me again very recently, when I attended a foundation luncheon where the speakers, one after another, talked about helping the ‘less fortunate.’

Less fortunate. Less fortunate. At the time, I was mostly annoyed at the implication that wealth and poverty are simply a matter of good or bad luck—with no recognition of the systems of privilege and oppression that have shaped our history.

And later, thinking about it, I realized that euphemism for poverty—the less fortunate—also obscures the kind of reciprocal giving I grew up with, just like those church ladies did.

The way they’re telling the story of giving, charity requires a belief that the recipient is less fortunate than the giver. It cannot be an exchange between equals. So to maintain that fiction, the giver needs to make invisible the creativity, generosity, and resourcefulness of the people they wish to ‘help.’

It shouldn’t be surprising, actually—we know that the whole system of foundations and nonprofits was developed at a certain point in our history, and by a certain segment of our population, who were not a bunch of country folk on an old dirt road. So the story of giving that got built into those systems is not the story of reciprocity, but the story of charity.

I want to be as clear as I can about what I am saying. As somebody who grew up poor, and who has worked with foundations and nonprofits for all my adult life: I fear that often our institutionalized forms of charitable giving are making invisible an entire system of poor people’s reciprocal giving. For my family, that system of giving had far more direct impact on alleviating the conditions of poverty—meeting basic needs like food, clothing, shelter, heat, dignity—than any foundation or nonprofit ever did—and it troubles me deeply to see it ignored, dismissed, or made invisible.

From the looks I’m getting, there are some folks here who know exactly where I’m coming from…and other folks who I am making uncomfortable…thank you for not throwing anything…yet…

Again, I want to be clear: I am not speaking to simply criticize foundations and nonprofits—those institutions are my life! I am speaking in an attempt to heal them.

I’ve got three concerns with this story of one-way charity, whether we’re talking about the church ladies or the attitudes about giving that have been built into the foundation sector.
One-way giving that is oriented around pride, self-congratulation, self-satisfaction, feelings of superiority…is exactly the opposite of what our spiritual traditions call us to practice. I’ve already talked about that.

One way giving is bad for the recipients, because it ignores or denies various kinds of reciprocal giving. I’ve already talked about that.

But one way giving is also bad for the givers. I haven’t talked about that.

It is bad because it reinforces…it does not challenge…it reinforces the privileged status of privileged people. And I count myself here. Me playing Lady Bountiful reinforces the status and the privilege that I get from being white, from being a man, from being middle class (now), from being educated, from being a professional. My every act of charitable giving reinforces my belief—and everyone’s belief—that I am among the more fortunate.

The high cost of privilege

So why is that bad? Well… remember the intangibles. In this case, it’s what a friend of mine calls ‘the high cost of privilege.’ The high cost of privilege.

I deeply believe that there is a moral and spiritual cost to having too much money, when so many are in poverty. There is a spiritual cost for having too much power, when so many are forced to be powerless. There is a spiritual cost to having more opportunities and advantages than I can ever use, when so many are denied opportunity.

Most of the time I would rather turn my back on that, and deny it. Oppression and privilege are deeply, historically rooted in our society, they aren’t things I can change! But there is a still, small voice inside of me that knows the truth. That knows this isn’t okay…and yet I benefit from it…and so do I pay a cost.

The high cost of privilege. That is a hard thing to name. The high cost of privilege. That is a profoundly uncomfortable thing to name. The high cost of privilege. That is a transformative thing to name.

Transformative because it strips away the illusion of one way giving, of charity. Because at the heart of it, I believe that is what I find at the heart of my urge to give. My giving is not about a thank you note or a tax deduction or getting my name in the annual report. It is not, truly, about puffing myself up with pride.

At the core, my spirit calls me to unity, not superiority; my spirit calls me to equality, not privilege; my spirit calls me to be one among the many, not one above the rest. My urge to give is, at heart, a desperate urge to deny the lines of privilege and oppression that divide us, a desperate urge to touch my brother and my sister, a desperate attempt to connect with the other spirits making this journey around me. That is the heart of giving.

Talk about reciprocity! I give you a box of food…and you give me the chance to take one more small step toward spiritual wholeness. Tell me, who has received the greater gift?

All giving is reciprocal

I think this is the true story: that all giving is reciprocal. Not just country folk exchanging eggs for hand-me-downs and car repair. But all giving is reciprocal.

If those church ladies had been able to acknowledge that their scorn for the less fortunate was rooted in their fear of one day finding themselves poor…if those church ladies had been willing to act out of true humility, instead of false pride…if those church ladies had been trying to connect with my mother, instead of just ‘help’ her…then their gift of food could have been a transformative one. Not for us, the recipients, because we were already part of a network of reciprocal giving…but it could have been transformative for them.

All giving is reciprocal. I don’t know…Perhaps it is a stretch to believe that the families, individuals and corporations that endow foundations…or give to nonprofits…or give through nonprofits…are also seeking, in some way, that they may not even recognize… to heal the spiritual damage caused by having too much. Perhaps that’s a stretch. But… perhaps it is not.

I told you that your giving is important. And now I am telling you that the story of your giving is also important—the story you tell yourselves, the story you tell each other, the story you tell to… and about… the people who receive your food.

I give you a basket of food…while I am telling a story that lifts me up, and puts you down…and I am doing harm, to you, and to myself.

I give you a basket of food… while I am telling the story of reciprocity, and recognizing the great gift you give to me in receiving it… and I am transformed.

The same action. It is the story that makes the difference.

I think I’m supposed to leave you with some advice. Well, I don’t have any advice. All I can offer you is my struggle: my struggle to be honest with myself about my experience of privilege…my struggle to recognize the cost of that privilege…my struggle to remember that all giving is reciprocal…my struggle to recognize what I give and what I receive, in every act of giving… and my commitment to honor the urge for connection, the urge to wholeness, that I find at the heart of giving.

You have given me your time, and I have given you my story. Thank you.


Shirley Twofeathers said...

I really liked the story about the neighborhood, and how everyone shared with each other. My oldest daughter lives a similar scenario, although if church ladies brought her "charity" she'd take it and be grateful and happy about it.

When I was growing up, we lived on charitable donations. That's how missionaries are supported. In return, my parents provided spiritual support to the people who supported them. They sent out so much mail, taking time to answer each letter sent to them, it's really kind of amazing when I think back on it. All those letters written by hand... wow!

So the reciprocity was definitely there!

And I loved it when we got the "missionary barrel" filled with donations from people at the churches that supported us. It was like Christmas.

When I think about how it all worked, it had such a wonderful flow to it. My parents did what they felt guided to do. Then they found people who wanted to support what it was they felt guided to do. Those people gave what they could and my parents gave all they had - not just to their work but also to those who supported the work... it was a symbiosis of sorts.

Ok... this is getting long... and wordy... and I'm late for work. There's so much here for me to talk about - I wonder if I shouldn't just write it as a post.

Anonymous said...

I see the speaker's point in the superior vs inferior mindset and perhaps on some level that's true for many people, even if they don't realize it. I don't know that everyone really labels what they do when they give. Don't you just look to your heart and do what you are guided to do to help others? That may be acts of charity if that is what you have learned or raised to do with every good intention. Maybe some people believe that giving is really self-gratification but that just puts such a negative spin on it. Perhaps there is a nobler giving in providing a "hand up" rather than a "hand out", but again, one could say, "My giving is better than your giving because I'm not making someone feel like they're less fortunate." So instead of making the less fortunate feel like crap, lets make the people who have been donating and cooking food for the poor and sending clothes to missionary projects feel like crap. What's the difference? Often we do what we feel is good in our hearts with no ulterior motives. Period.
OOH, that didn't sound like I enjoyed the message, and I did! Surely it's wise to be reciprocal and to feel that lovely symbiotic support form. Reading this story was a very good reminder of that and I'm grateful for the lesson.

I think the kindness experienced on that dirt road had do with giving, but also about manners and accepting people for who they are, too. Something those things are lacking in many places today. That part of the story makes me want to talk more to my neighbors!!
Thank you for posting this thought-provoking piece!! I never realized how many facets there really are to being giving.
Love and Hugs!

Shirley Twofeathers said...

"So instead of making the less fortunate feel like crap, lets make the people who have been donating and cooking food for the poor and sending clothes to missionary projects feel like crap. What's the difference?"

Thats a really good point, Karla. And I think you're right! Also I agree that people do mostly tend to give from their hearts without too much thought about "less than" and "better than".

When I read the article, it occured to me that possibly my issues about receiving and giving might stem from this idea that being on the receiving end means I've somehow failed... and that since I'm not "doing God's work" I'm not worthy... and my issues on the giving end come from a lack of confidence in my source...

Would I give someone my only good coat? On a cold winter day? Hmmm.... good question. And I'm not sure I like the answer very much.

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