Anne blogs at Front Porch, Inspired about surrendering everyday living for sacred purposes. She and her husband, Jay, are founders of a ministry called The Bridge, focusing on missional living and advocacy for youth in vulnerable places of life. She holds an MA in Teaching Languages (English and Spanish) and is a lover of words and the Word, culture and communication. Jay and Anne have four young kids, a front door that can’t stay closed, and an abundance of messy, holy chaos at their neighborhood center/home in Iowa – of all places.
“Do you have someone who can use some used toys (clothes, TV, etc?) Still works fine and everything; we are just upgrading and needing to clear out some space.”
And, sometimes the above question is followed by:
“I don’t want to just drop it off at (local used goods store). I want to make sure it goes to people who really need it.”
At the ministry of The Bridge, we receive variations of this question regularly. Often, the giver includes a request that we make sure the donation goes to a certain type of recipient, sometimes detailed right down to the age and gender. The intentions seen noble enough.
Why, then, does it leave us with an awkward feeling and a shudder?
The awakening comes after we wrestle through some admittedly tough questions--
While we know your heart is generous and often truly desiring to bless another person, there are some blind spots that easily show up in our materialistic culture. Please understand, I share the following points as just that - points to consider. And, I offer suggestions – not rules or hard facts, but possibilities to create a more positive outcome.
And, please know, all this takes conscious efforts by the dominant culture. The majority rarely has to consider its influence on the minority, whereas the minority is constantly aware of and adjusting to the power of the majority. If you are reading this as part of the majority, then you will typically feel the strain of seeing this situation from another point of view. You may even be surprised by what you haven’t considered. But, please do try.
1. First, please consider - what is your motivation in donating something(s)?
In all honesty, ask yourself why you are donating this used item. It may be to alleviate some guilt surrounding materialism. Or, maybe it’s to teach your children about giving or to make a point about their excessive amount of toys. May I suggest teaching about sacrificial giving and biblical tithing (giving of first fruits) rather than used leftovers?
2. Also, consider why do you have an issue with “just dropping it off at the local used goods store?”
If your motivation is 100% to just clear out junk – does it matter who receives it? Give without strings attached. Let go of controlling the destiny of your leftovers.
3. Finally, is this item useful to others, or only meaningful to you?
For example, it may be alarming for you to conceive of someone living without a TV or Christmas presents or box springs, but your “necessities” may, in fact, be just luxuries for another. Sure, they’ll take it all if you offer it, but the amount of help achieved remains debatable. At worst, it may be enabling.
Now, slip your feet into my shoes, as a leader in a faith-based nonprofit ministry.
Back to the idea of your motivation. If the underlying theme is alleviating your guilt, then suddenly my job description includes “making the wealthy feel better about their materialism.” And, it is often at the expense of those individuals we actually work with. Instead of dealing with your own excess, it is projected onto the recipient (with my assistance) and causes that person a real loss of dignity. Because, honestly - no, not everyone is desperate and overwhelmingly grateful to receive your child’s used stuff toys. Would you be?
And, the role of The Bridge is not the same as a Goodwill store, for example. We affirm such entities in their work, but we simply don’t have the capacity or vision to do the same. Our work is relational; we focus on training and discipleship and friendship, and the introduction of more stuff often complicates rather than blesses.
So, may I make a couple more suggestions?
Please cut the strings and choose to truly bless another (and us) by not putting an impossible task on us - because it’s just plain hard to track down that one "needy" family who needs your black and white TV and then to somehow, awkwardly inform them of the donation.
Instead - and this is a BIG one - whenever possible, please let people have the self-respect to walk into a store and make their purchases at a lower cost. Dignity remains.
From my point of view, I see numerous families living with less than I personally would consider comfortable, and they are content. Somewhere along the line, I recognized my own bias of what meets my standards of “comfortable living,” and I’m learning to not project that onto other people.
Our goal is not simply to raise everyone's standard of living. We don't seek to "improve" people, like a project. The mission is not to ensure that all children have presents to open on Christmas or that everyone sleeps on a box spring and mattress; our mission at The Bridge involves "valuing individuals, nurturing relationships, and witnessing the transforming power of Jesus Christ." Sometimes this includes an emergency, relief response of getting a family certain items, but rarely - and only within the context of a relationship. Because, overall our goal is not to emphasize the “haves” and “have nots” at all, but to value the whole person and to emphasize his/her potential (not lack) in God’s eyes. Often this happens through the unseen – education, spiritual growth, love, respect, and relationships.
And, while many people in our community may come from very little in terms of physical goods, they actually have a far better understanding of a concept most North Americans crave but can’t attain –-
So, if you truly want to be a blessing and be compassionate, please don’t call or email to ask to drop off your used goods.
How to really be a blessing? Give your friendship not your stuff.
People in our community don’t come to us asking for more things. They desire relationships, connections, and community. They are often lonely and missing their homeland. They struggle to figure out what you could clarify in a few conversations – paperwork, winterizing a house, recommendations of businesses in town, fixing a vehicle, language questions, and more.
You see, mere things don’t fill those empty places. Mere things aren’t friends.
So, when you think of what to give away, glance at your clock rather than around your house.
Invest time. Share life with someone. Meet a new friend, someone with whom you will interact year-round. Build a relationship and make memories. Learn from each other. Invite someone new over to your house. Take time to talk with your neighbors.
Maybe that sounds like a strange concept to you? It is for most of us with strong North American mind sets. But, believe me, your friendship will be a treasure, and your time investment will be valued far above old TVs and stuffed animals.