Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Confessions of an Ungenerous Person

Christ of Picacho, visible from Tegucigalpa's Central Park
Tegucigalpa’s center is muted; it shines beneath a layer of dust and candy wrappers. Walking entrepreneurs shout their wares and it’s a haze of sound, of movement, of dust and the exhaust of cars and buses.

It was too early for church that Sunday, so I bought coffee and bread spread with refried beans and sat in the park to eat it. Even on Sunday morning, Tegucigalpa’s city center bustles with people. Families dressed in their best trickle in and out of the great cathedral, women assemble tables of bracelets or hair bands to sell, groups of children wander around the ancient trees that guard the center’s corners, pointing to the great bronze statue of Francisco Morazán.

I got up again and pushed through the crowd to the quieter street that leads to my little church, unmarked and tucked behind a wall whose graffiti tells the president to “get out”. I know the way by now, past the second-hand store and the history museum. I stepped off the curb to avoid the man passed out on the sidewalk, and walked quickly past the men without legs and women without teeth who held their hands out.

Two lempiras!” one woman shouted at me as I passed her, and I shook my head as I clutched the breakfast that had cost me fifty. I always shake my head at beggars, but this time was different. I kept walking, but I felt suddenly as if I was carrying a great weight. I slunk into church like a sinner and sat in the back pew. All I could see was her hand reaching out, again and again. I had not even looked at her face.

This is my confession: I am stingy with money. Tight-fisted. Un-generous. And until I passed Christ on the street without looking at her face, until I realized how much more I spend on coffee than on others, I did not see it as a particularly troublesome thing.

In Honduran Spanish, to show that someone is tacaño, you tap your palm against your elbow. You’re stingy, it means, selfish with your money. Because of this, you can call somebody codo, or “elbow”, to the same effect. It's an insult, whereas I'm used to thinking of this stinginess as "smart."

Even churches teach this: be wise with your money. We hear this as “stocks”, the wisdom of the world. We praise thriftiness, even while we admire extravagance. Though we use our money foolishly, we don't trust others to use it any better than ourselves. In our thrift or our codo, that becomes an excuse not to give -- They would only waste it. 

Giving well is difficult. I studied nonprofits in college, and quickly learned that none are perfect. There seemed always to be a better, more effective, more efficient option. I heard speeches, I wrote papers, I volunteered time, but my money stayed in my pockets and my bank accounts for my own needs and the things I convinced myself I needed.

In 2013, I visited Compassion and World Vision child-sponsorship projects. Linking donors with a sponsored child is a massively expensive endeavor, and I left the project thinking that though the work was worthwhile, I wouldn’t personally sponsor a child. Better to give to the programs directly, of course, but I never did, and the children’s sponsors checks continued to come.

(Is it better to give wastefully than not at all?)

Giving is complicated. I say no when children ask for money because as long as they are profitable they will be kept in the streets, out of school. I say no when adults ask for money, I don’t know why – maybe I decided it was too hard to decide case by case, it was easier to say no always. I didn’t want to give badly, I told myself, but no, the truth was that I didn’t want to give – even two lempiras, which is less than ten cents and buys nothing more here than a one-liter bag of clean water.

I made myself believe that not giving wastefully somehow made up for the fact that I was barely giving at all. I knew too much about dependency, had heard too much about abuse. It was too hard to decide so I decided to do nothing, until the day I had enough for a coffee and not enough for the hungry, the thirsty, and the naked I had passed every day without looking at them.

Here is what my eyes are opening to: giving is not as much about money as it is about recognizing someone else's need. Giving two lempiras can become as much pressing your hand against an "untouchable" hand as it is about what the lempiras will buy. Giving is a human response to human need, and in stinginess I deny not only others' humanity, but my own.  

Generosity is a muscle, and this year I want to exercise it. I work at an organization that is able to run because of people who give. I am able to do this work because people gave to me. It is time to let myself make mistakes in giving, to have people waste my money and yet to give again. 

I want, of course, to give wisely. I want to give in ways that help, not hurt. But I am done being paralyzed by too many imperfect decisions, letting complications make the non-decision that my selfish self already wanted to make.

It is time to walk to church in Tegucigalpa as Jesus would walk to church. Generously. At the very least, looking into the eyes of the people who ask.

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