When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, I had just started my new grad school here in Austin. Like everyone else, I watched the coverage and was horrified. There wasn’t much I could do, though. I mean, why would they need new English grad students in New Orleans?
And then one of my best friends called. She was the interim volunteer coordinator at the Red Cross in Austin, a job which had involved some spreadsheets and some filing, until the largest crisis in our region hit and she got word that thousands of evacuees were headed our way. She needed someone she could trust, she said. Would I help?
I spent that first week racing to and from my brand new classes while I did a series of odd jobs around town. I helped set up a calling center. I spent the evening at a high school gym receiving evacuees. I spent most of my time in the Austin Convention Center, which had been turned into a massive place to house thousands of people while they searched for loved ones and figured out their next steps. I missed Matthew McConaughey when he came for a photo shoot. I’d been standing in the spot where he took pictures just minutes before he arrived—I was mad, my husband was pleased.
One day, my friend handed me a Red Cross vest and told me to be a bouncer. I’m 5’7” with curly hair and I’m pretty slight—I thought it was kind of funny. There were only a few entrances at the time, and people were only being allowed through one main door to keep tabs on who came in and out. She needed someone to stand at one of the other doors.
There were services set up, wonderfully well-coordinated systems that already existed, and programs being created on the spot when needs were discovered. I watched as my friends and her colleagues poured themselves into the situation. They called the people with food, blankets, counseling, knowledge, influence, and special skills. Churches were involved; non-profits were doing what they do best.
And my job was to stand at the door and turn the rest of the people away.
Some of the people that came along were well-meaning, like the family who drove up with clothes that they had gathered that morning and were willing to drop off there at the Convention Center. They were gracious when I gave them directions to the church who was handling all of the donations.
Some of them were confused, like the poor college guys with a battered couch in the back of a pick-up truck. They kept asking me where to take it and I finally told them to try Goodwill. I’m still not sure where they thought people with no homes were going to put an old couch.
Some of them were just plain mean. One woman, who was clearly crazy, went from entrance to trying to convince us “bouncers” to let her in to help and then berating us when we told her no.
But the worse one was the woman who pulled up with a truck loaded with plush animals. She stopped at the curb, turned on her hazard lights, and began calmly unloading her trunk at my door. When I told her she couldn’t leave them here and tried to tell her how to get to the local church, she griped me out. Those babies need toys, she told me, hands on her hips. When I tried to tell her how many toys had been donated (rooms-full) and that there were people that were willing to take and organize them, she looked at me like I was an idiot. She had gathered these toys from her friends, she said. She would be taking them to the children. Kids needed toys. How could I stand to keep there and keep these precious babies from having the toys they wanted?
Finally I had to call security, the actual bouncers, in the form of some very helpful firefighters. She wouldn’t budge. She was there to give. She finally stomped away, but the toys were still stacked by the door when my shift was over.
I was shaken by that experience, and I got only the tiniest taste of the criticism I saw my friend and her colleagues endure that week. The implication of her argument and her words, that I was the one standing in the way of the people inside being helped, was ridiculous. She had not met the children. She had not been inside. I had spent several hours in that room and had no real idea what was needed, but I trusted the experts who did.
What shook me was her vehemence, her calm sense that she was there to give, and therefore she should give. We started a saying that day that I’ve used several times since then: Not “God loves a cheerful giver,” but “God loves a forceful giver.”
I’ve seen this type of giving, well-intentioned and completely unneeded, in a variety of situations.
That’s how a children’s home in Brazil ended up with a room filled with unopened boxes of clothes.
That’s how pallets of the wrong type of food, baby formula when rice is needed or corn when cooking oil is needed, end up on tarmacs at airports in random places in the world.
That’s how huge amounts of donated t-shirts wreck the local textile industry.
That’s how missionaries end up making up jobs for short-term mission trips, just to give them something to do.
It concerns me when this giving of time, of effort, of food, of clothes, of a trunk load of toys, is ultimately about us. With little sense of what’s needed on the ground in a particular situation, we give because we want to give. We want to feel helpful, we want to feel needed, we want to feel that we’ve done our part.
As Christians, we want to serve “the poor.” At least I did, as a young high school student or college kid, brimming with idealism, insultingly arrogant that my million-watt smile (because my parents could afford braces) and my “slumming” it t-shirts (I didn’t want to insult “the poor” with my nice clothes) would make an easy difference in the lives of the people I was serving. I had food drives and community events to bring clothes and canned goods to “the poor.” But honestly, it was not about them, it was always about me.
It was always, every time, about me.
I’m not sure when that changed. Year after year of being with people in a different socioeconomic bracket has changed them from “the poor” to my friends. And now I look back and cringe. The way I was giving was not the way to give.
Anyone who works with people who are of a low socioeconomic level can tell you, what’s needed and what’s offered are rarely the same thing. Even rarer are the people who say, “You tell me. What do you need? What can we do?”
In our work with Burmese refugee artisans at Hill Country Hill Tribers, we’ve seen forceful giving from time to time, stories I won’t tell you on the internet but might mention if we ever meet in real life. They’re kind of ridiculous, to be honest. Mostly we laugh, but it’s not always funny.
Here’s what we need: People who are willing to squat down, eat some Burmese food, and teach our artisans English. And a church that lets us give without making it about numbers or pie charts. We’ve been so blessed to be a part of a church that’s willing to trust us to help in whatever way is needed—our church has paid for many of the supplies for our artisans for years. I love that the budget lines read “yarn,” “sticks for looms,” “needle-nose pliers,” “1 mm crochet hooks,” or “washers for necklaces.” That’s not true for most churches. We’ve just started a new program where people are being matched to teach English in the homes of illiterate Burmese women and men. It’s being done because we asked and listened to our refugee community and our church is responding to that call. Beautifully, because our Karen and Karenni artisans have been Christians for generations, they asked us to teach them using the Bible, which we’ve been pleased to do. We’re responding to their requests and their needs and meeting it to the best of our abilities, whether we’re “gifted” that way or not. We’re not forcing English on our artisans, we’re sharing it with them because they asked for it.
We’re learning together to avoid the pitfalls of how not to give.
This is the first in a two-part series about the way Christians give to the poor. Part one is how NOT to give. Part two, on Monday, will be about how TO give.