Generosity in uncertain times

An older gentleman shuffled his shopping cart to where our church was collecting food for the local food pantry. Very deliberately he placed two cans on the table. Then he paused, and took a full grocery bag out of the cart and left that on the table.

"I might as well be generous," he said to me as he guided the cart toward the parking lot. "I may need the food pantry myself before too long."

"The pantry is there for you if you need it," I told him.

He stopped to explain how he's struggling to manage food, heat, and medicine costs on $900 a month in Social Security. "I may need you before long," he said again.

With a plummeting stock market and governments' increasingly aggressive bailouts of bankers and financiers grabbing the headlines, its easy to forget that there are so many, like the food pantry's unlikely benefactor, for whom the struggle has been going on, and will continue no matter what the Dow does.

A couple of days later, an NPR story featured a couple who had bought a business, financing it on credit cards, not long before the real estate bubble burst. Now struggling to buy inventory, they were making do with an on-the-fritz washing machine and borrowing a car to replace one they couldn't afford to repair. Among the items on their "used-to-do" list: giving to charity.

It's interesting how many of us who never thought poverty was a possibility for us -- at least until now -- have to learn what people who live near that margin take for granted: That we need to make sure there is a safety net, because we might need it ourselves.

The food pantries and feeding programs in my area, a relatively wealthy suburb of Philadelphia, are all experiencing a spike in demand and, if our current tumble into recession continues, the need will only get worse. Already, pantry volunteers report a surge of newly homeless clients and many, including working moms and the elderly, who never thought they would need to rely on such a program.

At the same time, donations are drying up and managers worry about "donor fatigue." Rather than picking up extra items for the pantry, people seem to be cleaning out the old and unneeded from their cupboards. On a recent pantry shift, I was overjoyed to receive a huge box of donated pasta and rice. But as I went to stock the shelves, I found that nearly every package in the box was three to five years out of date.

As people of faith we are called to share our first fruits, not our leftovers, with God's work -- which includes feeding and clothing the poor, caring for the sick and prisoners, as well as the institutional church. Yet as the economy worsens many charities find that assistance to groups that serve the poor and marginalized are among the first places people tighten their belts. This trend will continue, because people of faith and those committed to social justice have not been immune from the debt-fueled overconsumption that has brought the economy to the tipping point. Indeed, middle class workers have been squeezed by policies that shift the risk for health care, retirement and other "benefits" to them.

How can people of faith maintain a capacity to be generous, to help those who are in desperate need, in the midst of our current belt-tightening, spending freezes, and the reimagination of "the good life" that is now beginning? In a great article called "Preparing the Middle Class For Life in Uncertain Times," Tom Sine and Penny Carouthers of Mustard Seed Associates suggest that managing our vulnerability to the vagaries of the economy by reducing debt and consuming wisely is a good start. But that can be difficult when it's getting harder and harder to buy milk for the kids and gas the car for the commute to the job you hope you still have.

It can help to stay in touch with the fact that, even if you are struggling, it feels good to help. One of our people at the food collection booth that day said, "You know it feels good to take the money I would have given to church to buy food to donate." Being part of a faith group putting belief into action made him feel like a better person, he said.

He raised a real challenge, though. Note he said he used money he once would have given to church. As leaders, we are challenged to figure out how churches can be leaner and require less fuel and energy, less of our people's money and time, so that they can retain their capacity to give.

It also helps to keep perspective. Those on the margins, I have learned, have a sense of generosity that ought to shame many of us with many more resources. We can learn a lot from the man I encountered at another of these food drives many months ago.

I approached him with a request for a donation, and he told me that he had just been to the pantry, and he was just stopping in for milk. I wished him a good day and he entered the store.

A few minutes he came out and quietly handed me a bag containing a single bottle of shampoo.

"I was just at the pantry," he said. "There was a lady there who asked for some shampoo, and they said they didn't have any. I want to make sure there is some if she comes back."

If you want to know how to stay generous while your 401(k) vanishes and your retirement moves farther away, listen to those who already experience that reality. You may need their wisdom...and the services they depend on... yourself someday (soon).

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