I’ll just come out and say it: I don’t like to be thought of as rich. Why? I cannot quite pinpoint the reason. Perhaps it is because for over half of my adult life in the United States, I have been, well, not poor exactly, but I can make no claims of ever raking in the big bucks. After years of surviving on a pot-pourri of part-time jobs, counting pennies, praying that God would send some critical last-minute money for a bill, I have grown surprisingly, and perhaps strangely, comfortable in my inconsequential economic identity. But all that changed when I moved out of the country. I really didn’t think it would; after all, Eastern Europe can hardly be compared to a region of destitute poverty where a family cannot access clean water. Still, the economic situation remains fairly stagnant, particularly in places like Serbia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. The unemployment rate is staggering, and there are a generation of bright young people looking for any kind of job. And even part-time jobs often pay next to nothing.
Being an American represents wealth to many other countries. Regardless of my circumstances in America, I am wealthier than the majority of the world. In the developing world, 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day. In America, I had a car, I had a nice place to live, I had multiple jobs, and I had access to resources to supplement my income. Although this is true, something in me balks against the implicit assumption that I have a secret reserve of wealth, that no monetary issue is a problem for me. Even as I write this, I realize that sometimes that assumption does not exist at all—it is I who impose that expectation on the other person.
“I hope this bike lock is sufficient, ” I told my friends as we locked our borrowed bikes up in town one evening.
“Well, you could afford to replace the bike, but we would be in real trouble,” my friend answered. My friend, merely stating a simple fact, meant no ill will, but I felt the familiar and uncomfortable sense of wanting to defend my financial condition. At the time, I couldn’t afford to buy a bike for myself. However, I also grudgingly admitted to myself that if the bike were stolen, I could somehow find the resources to replace it. Since both considerations were true, I remained silent.
Dr. Kumič, prolific writer, speaker, and Christian activist in this part of the world, recently wrote a chapter in To Give or not to Give. In it, he calls for a “transformative generosity”—a Biblical view of mutuality and sharing as we sit at the same “Father’s table.” But what does this look like? “Transformative” indicates that one’s generosity must somehow address the roots of the economic issues, thereby contributing to sustainable change. “Mutuality” indicates that transformation takes place in both parties at the table. But this is a tangled and confusing path, difficult to navigate.
In this part of the world, as in many parts, Western money is both a blessing and a curse. During a recent trip to Serbia, I witnessed the significant financial need in various churches and ministries—but I also heard stories of big problems arising from generous yet ill-informed donors. And yet, when I hear of a friend, ministering in a poor Roma village, having heart issues and cannot afford necessary tests, I immediately want to open my wallet. When I discover that another friend, unable to find a job, worries about putting food on the table for her family, I have the impulse to rush to the nearest ATM. But if I give to all the numerous needs around me, I will soon be on a plane back to America. Just as not giving can be representative of a greedy heart, so can indiscriminate giving offer one a false sense of self-satisfaction and lethargy regarding true transformation.
So the question remains, why am I so uncomfortable at the implicit innuendoes regarding my financial status? How do I handle both the perception and the reality of being ‘wealthy’ in this society? How can I move from being uncomfortable with my resources to wisely generous, bringing my resources to the table as part of my ministry here? Perhaps my discomfort merely signals an opportunity for change, to reevaluate my personal approach to mission and money. My status has changed—therefore so must I.
If you are interested in this topic, check out these books:
*Rowell, John. To Give or not to Give? Atlanta: Authentic, 2006.
Bonk, Jonathan J. Missions and Money. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 3rd printing 2011.