Last January the 5 men and I distributed mainly children’s clothes and then food parcels to the people in the squatter’s camp in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal. One of the group said to me following the distributing of the clothes: “It does not make sense to me. They have no food, no clothes and no money and yet they are happy.” A number of things did not make sense that day. One observation that did not make sense was that they had nothing and yet when we arrived there was great concern expressed to us that there were people who would not be there to receive their share of clothes and food. What also did not make sense was that we found that the children and adults were happy, an expression of emotion that their condition did not merit. Among the children’s clothes there were clothes for infants. Among those gathered there was a mother and her infant. Her child was the smallest child present. As the clothes were sorted and distributed the small sizes were automatically handed to the mother. After receiving some of the clothes, this mother refused to accept any more stating clearly that her child had sufficient and that other infants needed to benefit from these gifts as well.
Their behaviour was unexpected and surprising. There was no rush to grab but a patient waiting to receive. Even more surprising was their concern for one another and their desire that all share in the gifts. We realized that they had a lot to teach us and in particular they had an important understanding of stewardship that we in the West needed to see and hear.
In North America we perceive ourselves as being richly blessed because of the abundance of things we accumulate. We see ourselves, especially when contrasted to the poor in the rest of the world, as rich. This attitude has permeated and influenced the church’s approach to stewardship. We automatically shape our stewardship message to reflect this belief in our abundance and stewardship appeals call upon members therefore to share out of their abundance. This underlying stewardship message we proclaim implies that since we are so richly blessed we are to share these so called blessings. This message apparently has not resonated very well with our members since the issue of stewardship is not always joyfully received or welcomed. Stewardship out of our abundance has also become closely linked to tax receipts which may create a sense of satisfaction but not much joy especially in April.
The poor in the squatter’s camp had a very different understanding of stewardship. Their stewardship came out of their poverty. They graciously and generously desired to share the little gifts they receive with one another even remembering those who could not be present. There was no resentment about having to share but a deep sense of sharing with others in need. This joyful response to sharing was reflected in one particular girl of about 14 years. She had just arrived from school while a girl’s dress was unpacked. The dress was given to her. Her response can only be described as an explosion of joy. She beamed from ear to ear and started and could not stop dancing. This was probably the only dress she has ever had and probably the first gift she has received. Her response of joy made a deep impression on all of us. What I learnt from the people was a stewardship out of poverty. They had no money, no food, no clothes yet they shared joyfully. This was truly an expression of stewardship out of poverty that overflowed with joy.
What would our stewardship look like if instead of starting from an assumption of riches and abundance, started instead from an understanding of our poverty? This understanding of stewardship should not surprise us since the root of Christian stewardship is not an expression of our abundance but rather rooted in the cross of Jesus the Christ. The cross reveals the one who emptied himself and out of his emptiness gave himself for the cosmos. Christian stewardship is a stewardship of the cross and part of our problem in the church is that we in North America have failed to acknowledge our poverty. Compared to those in the squatter’s camp who had no money, no clothes, no food, we are spiritually poor. Desperately we have tried to satisfy this spiritual poverty by accumulating things. We have fooled ourselves that our riches are sufficient to fulfill life’s deepest longings. But this only leads to a fool’s paradise in which we must accumulate more and more since what we have never satisfies our poverty of spirit. We are like the hamster on the treadmill. We expend lots of energy but get nowhere. We are trapped in a vicious circle with no escape. As a result we have made the malls into our temples and we sacrifice ourselves to the great god of consumerism.
If our approach to stewardship is to change, how can we talk about our profound spiritual poverty in the midst of abundance? What would a stewardship programme look like informed by the cross instead of the implied assumption of abundance? Perhaps we need to spend more time with the poor of the world so that we may humbly confess our poverty of spirit and then perhaps they will teach us how to recapture the true spirit of Christian stewardship.
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