Paying It Forward

Today was my birthday, and my favorite gift was one I was able to give away.
Janet walked back into our condo with a sober look on her face after taking the trash out to the dumpster this morning. “When I opened the trash enclosure door, there was a Hispanic man and woman in there, picking through the trash.”
We have a Hispanic family that comes by in a truck fairly regularly on the evening before the trash truck comes, the truck bed usually piled high with discarded furniture and mattresses.  I’m glad they seem to do a good business.
But Janet wasn’t sure what the couple in there today was doing.  I asked her if they were using any tools; she replied that the man was just using his bare hands.  
I immediately knew what I wanted to do, if it wasn’t too late to catch them.  I ran to the garage and snatched up the pincer tool that I’d been given 4-5 years ago by a little Hispanic woman who didn’t really speak English. I’d grown to really appreciate that tool for reaching into the rafters, or retrieving the bar of soap our cat knocked under the sink.  Every time I use that grabber tool I think of her generosity and smile to myself.
But the tool has done the good work in me that God had intended for it.  After all, it prompted me to write about it, write what became my first meditation.  I assigned that story to the first chapter in my book, to mark its significance to me in shaking up my bifurcated worlds–the one I resided in, and the one I’d visit among the poor.  That little Hispanic lady started a cascade of synapses, connecting the dots between paradigms I’d experienced on my trips and the value they could bring to my everyday life, my life back in the erstwhile “bubble” of comfort in which I live.
Having a forty-something couple dumpster-diving a few yards from my front door tends to make those worlds collide, too.  I knew there were a great many things I did not want to do in response to Janet’s report, actions I could take which might be perceived as demeaning, or would embarrass them, like giving them money.  I could assuage my discomfort by calling the police.  I could tiptoe over and lock my front door. 
Or, I could pay it forward and accept that God now had a new, needier owner in mind for my now-beloved pincer tool.
I thought I’d missed them, but when I opened the wooden door to the closure, there they stood.  As soon as I held out the tool in my two hands, they both smiled broadly and the woman exclaimed, “God bless you! Thank you so much!”  Hoping she actually did speak some English I decided to tell them the pincer’s story, probably for no reason other than I wanted to share with them my joy in being able to pass on this blessing that some kind Hispanic person had blessed me with.  
I felt a bond, a kinsmanship, in rejoicing along with them.  And I felt like a caretaker, a steward; that I’d been entrusted with the tool for just such a time as this to pass it along. I wasn’t the owner.  I certainly wasn’t better than them; I felt more like a delivery boy who was handed some valuable, and I now understood that my job was to transport it from one VIP to another VIP.  And I was thrilled to successfully complete my assignment.
I suppose I should feel this way about everything that happens to currently reside “in my hands”. That’s what this idea of being a steward is all about, isn’t it?  If I felt this much joy “transporting” a tool that cost ten bucks, imagine the joy I ought to be getting from stewarding things costing hundreds or thousands.  
But for now, I’m just glad to close the loop on the “Uncomfortable Generosity” I had powerfully experienced in receiving the pincer tool, and the joy I felt in paying it forward.
August 2013
PS: If you’ve forgotten or never read “Uncomfortable Generosity” or want to close the loop yourself, I’ve pasted it below…
Uncomfortable Generosity
Last Saturday we met my son and grandkids to celebrate the twin’s birthday.  As we sat outside at a multi-restaurant food court in Yorba Linda, a Hispanic shopping center employee in her tidy uniform came by picking up trash with a trigger-handled pole that had rubber-lipped pincers on the end.  I marveled that she could pick up the tiniest piece of straw wrapper without stooping down, and non-verbally commented several times with a “wow!” on what a wonderful tool it was.  “I want one of those!” I affirmed with a smile to this pleasant-faced, round and compact, middle-aged bronze woman.  I tried hard to talk respectfully, calling her “Ma’am” so she hopefully wouldn’t mistake my friendliness for condescension.
She smiled, nodded and moved on to pinch trash in other areas.
Half an hour later she’s back, again with her fancy tool… but this time with an identical one still in the packaging which she thrusts into my hand, speaking a few words in Spanish that I didn’t understand.  I tried assuming that she only wanted to show me what the package looked like so I could go buy one myself; or that maybe she would let me try out the new one.  She however didn’t understand me either and apparently thought I wanted her to unwrap the new one for me, which she carefully did.  Then she firmly placed it in my hands. 
I animatedly tried it out—they work great!—ready to hand it back.  But when I turned around, she was gone.  Nowhere to be found.
I kept looking around, trying to decide how to appropriately respond… Could I pay her?  If so, how much? But no, that would cheapen her graciousness. 
Then maybe there is something I could give her in return?!  I quickly tried to assess my assets at hand to find something commensurate with her kindness. 
But it was futile and pointless… she never came back.
Did she give away her employer’s asset?  Will it put her job at risk?  What if someone saw her do it?
All the while, my son sits back assuring me I should simply accept the gift and relax… the same advice I always give to fellow travelers on an international trip when one of them is overwhelmed with the generosity of the poor.  I self-assuredly spout off about relaxing, about accepting, as though I’m the expert.  But subconsciously I comfort myself with a feeling that part of the generosity shown is actually in thanks to World Vision and the impact WV has already had on the life of this poor person, that the visitor is simply the representative of all donors and thereby the lucky and uncomfortable recipient.
I’m full of crap.
Here was no such substitutionary reciprocity, no gratitude for the impact of something I am counted as representing.  Just kindness.  Raw generosity.
Maybe the pincer tool was hers to give, maybe not.  Even if not, she could be charged for it, or possibly fired for giving it away.  Yet she wasn’t discreet or clandestine about it: the adjacent tables all watched the animated conversation.  (Although perhaps that’s why she disappeared again so quickly.)
Her gracious, simple generosity demanded the attention of my thoughts for the rest of the birthday party.
How does one account for the amazing generosity of the poor, and of other cultures in general?  How do I account for claiming to be a person who promotes and inspires generosity yet doesn’t even know how to accept the smallest gestures of it when it comes in pure form?
A major donor recently said to me (though it was clear he was mildly scolding himself), “Don’t thank me for donating.  Let’s face it, Cory.  I’m not giving out of my lack, but out of my abundance.  My giving doesn’t really impact my lifestyle; and almost everyone else you work with is the same.”
We who are not poor may never understand the calculus and ethos of the poor, and why they are so absurdly generous.  It’s why the story of the poor widow who put a mere pittance in the temple offering plate has made the papers for 2000 years and continues to bother us; because she gave everything she had.  Who would do that?  It doesn’t make any earthly sense. 
And yet there it is.  The act itself screams for our attention.  It slams up against our own calculus and says “There is another way; a way of freedom and trust.” 
Of course, we spiritualize the story, and think it’s all about donating money for the church or other Christian causes.
But then what do we say about 50,000 Africans World Vision has trained and organized who are voluntarily caring for those sick and dying of HIV/AIDS around them?  They not only don’t get paid anything, but they will share of their own family’s meager food supplies to feed the sick, use their own money to buy needed supplies, and take in orphans to the extent that virtually 100% of them are caring for other people’s children, either in their own homes or with financial support.
When those realities slam into me, I realize again how little I understand, and how much we’ve lost as we’ve gained material comfort. 
Tim Dearborn of World Vision’s Christian Commitment team, and in some ways our global pastor, recently told us “Our job is to connect those who are rich in commodities with those who are rich in community.” 
Isn’t that beautiful?  Who’s poor?  Who’s rich?  We all are.
What we have, they need.  Sometimes desperately. 
What they have, we need.  Just as desperately.
February, 2008

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