In what now feels like a lifetime ago, I spent nearly a year in a dusty border town in southwestern Ethiopia. Over the course of nine months, I and my husband at the time, served as volunteers with our church at the Gambella Bethel Presbytery where we worked as teachers and helped the community of Nuer people start a couple small scale micro-enterprise projects. One blisteringly hot afternoon, I stood in the cinder block church building with a group of women discussing what kind of business venture they could start with a grant from my sending organization, LCMS World Relief. As was often the case in my life’s experience at the mere age of 25, I was amused at how, yet again, I found myself square in the middle of something that felt quite out of my depth: raising chickens. With funds in hand, the women of the community were thrilled to begin. Soon enough an impressive chicken coup was constructed, complete with a host of feathered friends in whom we all placed high hopes that there would be many eggs.
Although the year was rife with challenges, beginning with a serious car accident, my husband getting malaria, and many days spent soaking our feet in a bucket to cool ourselves from the 110 degree temperatures, it was a time that I will never forget. The leaders of the community we were serving were hard workers, proud of what they had accomplished. They had built their school from the ground up with their own hands, using resources naturally available to them: mud and sticks topped off with corrugated iron roofing. They were gracious and kind to us, generous in hospitality and friendship.
On Sunday mornings we’d be packed into that concrete building, the iron roof absorbing the heat while the service dragged on. When they passed baskets to collect an offering, I was struck by the mix of coins and corn tossed in. Whatever they had, they gave; they offered generously from their resources, even if it might appear to be just a few measly kernels of corn. What it said to me was so much more.
When I think of generosity my mind usually goes down the path of dollar signs. A friend once told me I was generous, but I had to stop and really consider what she meant because, after all, I am by no means rich. My charitable giving is boiled down to the few bucks I can spare each month and several trips to the Salvation Army where I drop off well-worn and outgrown clothes with maybe an old lamp tossed in. I think of everything I don’t have to give, instead of stopping to consider what is mine to offer: friendship, encouragement, faith,and a little hospitality thrown in there.
There are plenty of opportunities to practice generosity, if we’re paying attention. Sometimes it’s as simple as celebrating a friend’s success when a hint of jealousy creeps in. It’s reaching beyond my misfortune or limitations to acknowledge the joy, good fortune, or happiness in another. It’s saying, “good for you, way to go, you can do it,” and meaning it. It’s a fresh-baked brownie for my neighbor or making dinner for a friend. It’s all the ways I show up for others when I’d rather be taking care of myself.
What I saw in that crowded church in rural Ethiopia over fifteen years ago, were people who understood what it meant to be generous with the gifts they’d been given. At first glance, it didn’t appear like much. Yet, it was the currency of spirit that stuck with me. If all you have to give is corn, then, by all means, give it.
So I’m leaning into this example. I’m learning to give what I have, not what I want to have. When it is hope, I will give hope. When it is love, I will give love. When it is abundance, I will give from my bounty. If my pockets are empty, I can at least give from a full heart because, after all, I’m practicing gratitude in equal measure.
What gifts and strengths do you have from which you can practice generosity? Pause for a moment and give thanks for those good things. And then, by all means, give.