A few weeks ago my pastor announced from the pulpit that each congregant in our church would be receiving a check for five hundred dollars. There were a lot of emotions in the room, but the general sentiment was surprise, and perhaps, amazement. After all, it’s a pretty incredible gift to be given. Five hundred dollars can make a big difference in a person’s life, in several people’s lives. Five hundred dollars is an incredible opportunity.
That was how I knew I was supposed to feel. And it wasn’t how I felt.
Backing up a little, let me explain that the money came from the sale of property the church had invested in thirty years ago. I had heard that the church had received a large sum (1.6 million, to be exact) of money, and in conversations with my husband had come to the conclusion that regardless of how the church decided to use the money, we would stay out of the decision making process. We haven’t been involved in how the church chooses to spend its annual budget thus far, and a significant increase in the amount of money wouldn’t and shouldn’t change that.
And then we found out that we were going to be very closely involved in how that decision was made. Each of us was given $500, part of the first ten percent of the 1.6 million dollars, to spend as we see fit.
So my first reaction was more along the lines of, “Isn’t it someone else’s job to make these decisions?”
Frankly, I’m having a hard enough time figuring out how to find time to do the dishes and the laundry. (How many times can you wear work pants before dry cleaning them?) I don’t want to be responsible for the thoughtful discernment of how to spend five hundred dollars.
Also, I don’t really want to think about money at all. I much prefer to leave that to my accountant husband. I’d rather not have to take a look at the total sum of how much money my husband and I spend eating at restaurants each month. I don’t want to know the total amount of money I spend in a year on my daily ice tea from Dunkin Donuts.
My life is pretty much working for me, and for the most part I’m pretty generous. My husband and I support different charities and give money to our church. We get involved in the occasional volunteer project. Add to that the fact that I am working in an urban school district, helping children receive a quality education, and I’d like to think that I’m doing pretty well for myself with my talents and my skills and my contributions to the world. (And for the record, I get my daily iced tea in a reusable mug.)
In the past three weeks hardly a day has gone by without me saying to my husband, “And maybe we could give some of the money to this.” Whether the “this” be to a friend who is struggling to meet rent, to a former student who is paying for college tuition, to another friend who is providing weekly meals to people in Chicago, or to a charity working to stop the spread of Ebola in Western Africa. The need is all around.
In other words, getting this five hundred dollars has been forcing me to engage with the world in a new and uncomfortable way.
It would be one thing if it stopped there. But it doesn’t. Because the other truth of my first thought when I got this money was, “Wow, that’s not very much money.”
Because in the greater scheme of things, it isn’t. And because in the greater scheme of our family budget… it isn’t.
It’s not that my husband and I are Scrooge McDuck, swimming in a sea of gold. We still have student loans and a mortgage, we were recently hit with a large auto repair, and re-doing the roof of our house cleared out our savings.
But generally speaking, if we want something we have the means to get it. Like my daily Dunkin Donuts iced tea. Or a recent dinner out to Alinea. Yeah. So while we may not have $500 to give away every day, we could probably give away more than we do.
I remember once talking to my mom and hearing her say that she rarely goes to Caribou Coffee because she knows that at five dollars a drink, going there five times is the equivalent of sponsoring a child through World Vision for a month. By the way, she will hate that I wrote that, because she doesn’t say these things to be showy. She told me this in the most matter of fact kind of way possible. Most likely while doing my laundry. Because my mother is lovely and loving and wonderful. And because I hate doing laundry.
I, on the other hand, do not think about the child I could be sponsoring if I gave up my Dunkin Donuts tea addiction. In fact, I get pretty surly when my husband asks if I would ever be interested in brewing my own iced tea at home. Because seriously, where does that line of thinking stop? Should we sell our house and live in a tent? And so what that I paid two hundred dollars to get my hair cut and colored? That’s how much it costs, and I need to look professional for my job. The job, I would like to remind you, where I help change the lives of children. Fueled by the caffeine in my REUSABLE mug.
And on and on and on.
So no, the five hundred dollar check, still sitting in the trunk of my car where I left it the Sunday I received it, has not brought unlimited happiness and celebration. It’s brought a lot of tough reflection.
My husband and I are in a small group with three other couples that go to our church and we have been talking about pooling our money and creating a fund of $4,000 that could be used in a variety of mutually agreed upon ways. While discussing how this might work, I said, “A big part of me wants to write a five hundred dollar check to the charity of the moment, because that’s so much easier than having to pay attention to all the needs all around me.” And I stand by that. The check is a hot potato I’m more than ready to pass to the next person.
But despite my whining and complaining, I also recognize that this discomfort and frustration, this magnifying glass to my own financial choices, well that might very well be the point. (And yes, I am whining and complaining about being given five hundred dollars and if that is too much entitlement for you to get over, I can’t really blame you.)
We haven’t decided how to use our money. We’re talking about pooling the money and then contributing more money to the pot on a monthly basis, and making it a part of our biweekly meeting time to talk about how to spend different chunks of the money. We’re talking about using the money to match contributions we make to various people and organizations we see.
We’re talking about how we can make it more than just writing a $500 check and being done with it, how we can keep the conversation going, how we can continue to give, even when this $500 is gone.
And so it is that this $500 is the beginning, albeit an uncomfortable one, of a new engagement with the world around me. Because maybe small things like brewing my own ice tea (note, I am not committing to this) can add up to make a big difference, and maybe if I actually believed that, and other people did, too, then giving each congregant in a church $500 wouldn’t be such a big deal. Maybe that kind of giving would be normal.
Maybe it should be. And maybe that starts with me.