By Dr. William Enright
Originally published in the Indy Star
Why are people of faith among the most generous charitable givers in the world?
Historian James Hudnut-Beumler posed a similar question: Why do religious people pay through the institutions they support to be in relation to God?
To illustrate the joy of charitable giving and how it can spread, let me tell a story.
Kelly was the new pastor in a Lutheran congregation that traditionally held a food and clothing drive each year at Thanksgiving. Kelly’s first assignment was to lead the annual Thanksgiving mission project, as the congregation sleepily raised a hundred or so food and clothing bags for the poor.
But Kelly had a larger vision, which she dynamically shared one Sunday in her sermon. She envisioned the congregation putting their arms around the needy in their neighborhood, thereby witnessing to the reality—as she put it—that Jesus was alive and present in their town. She challenged them to raise not 100 bags of food and clothing, but 500. Her enthusiasm ignited a contagion that captured the imagination and spread like wildfire through the congregation.
After church that Sunday a 6-year-old boy sitting at the kitchen table with his parents asked what he could do. The family decided to create Kids Kits that would include toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, and lotion for the church’s related food pantry. Their dentist heard of the project and donated four cases of supplies.
The day following the sermon, a woman came to Kelly’s office and gave her an envelope she had been saving for such a moment containing $1,000 in small bills with the charge to “fan the fire.” A week or so later, the high school youth group, feeling neglected, decided they would try to raise the 500 bags themselves. The final tally: 870 bags of food and clothing, 97 Kids Kits and the donation from the dentist. Why was Kelly’s project so successful? She knew building a giving culture begins where a need exists that everyone can buy into and claim as their own.
First, Kelly was authentic and passionate; she cared about the project and saw fundraising to be a part of ministry. Second, she intuitively grasped the limitations of the old, hierarchical “I’ll-tell-you-what-to-do” approach to religious fundraising.
Givers want to be a part of and have a voice in what is happening. When people give generously, they are giving away part of themselves.
Most importantly, Kelly answered the unasked question: How do I give money to God? She talked about giving as a practice of faith.
My Jewish friends use the Yiddish phrase tikkun olam—acts of kindness meant to mend or repair the world—to capture the mystery of religious giving. As a rabbi explained to me: “In our giving, we partner with God in the healing of a frayed and fractured world.”
Jesus’ familiar parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 24) shaped the early Christians’ understanding of charitable giving. It is in our giving and caring for the hungry, homeless, and hurting that God shows up and we meet Christ. In giving, we participate in God’s love for the world and become the face of Christ to our neighbors.
When faith informs our giving, the giving table is transformed into a table of lavish grace, hearty abundance, and contagious joy. We become part of God’s redemptive presence in the neighborhoods and communities in which we live. In a word, we become part of something bigger than ourselves!
William Enright is a senior pastor emeritus, Second Presbyterian Church, and director emeritus of Lake Institute on Faith & Giving at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
If organizational leaders — including those in church settings — needed another reminder that making the organization’s budget needs the reason people isn’t the way to encourage cultures of generosity, Bill has given us one. I don’t know why we’re such slow learners. The proverbial “keeping the lights on” allows organizations to exist as the means by which people becomes “part of God’s redemptive presence in the neighborhoods and communities in which we live,” but it’s not a case for support that grows generous hearts.