We give because...
We give because somebody gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.
~ Alberto Ríos
On early mornings when I was in seminary in Chicago, I’d go to a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue for my morning venti coffee with almond milk, enough coffee to wake me up and keep me awake for a day of classes, often in a large windowless room. Invariably as I left the coffee shop I’d run into many unhoused men who’d been required to leave the shelter for the day, as they tried to figure out how to occupy themselves, get some food, find a warm spot, get some money, get a hustle, get some dignity, get some…. It is a common occurrence among shelters for the unhoused all over the place that people are required to leave the shelter space each morning, and sometimes only allowed re-entry at day’s end for dinner, perhaps a shower, and for sleep.
Their presence was so commonplace that I’d admittedly walk by, preoccupied as I hurried to class. Some of the men sat down on the sidewalk along the curb on Michigan Ave holding their hands out for money, or merely sat and waited until someone handed them some food or drink or money. Nothing needed to be said as it was obvious why they were there on the curb on one of the wealthiest avenues in one of the most famous cities in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. I walked by, preoccupied – though I noticed more than I dared admit.
One day during lunchtime, as I headed out to figure out what I wanted to eat, I noticed an older classmate, she was in her 70’s, who was walking about a third of the way ahead of me. I started to hurry forward to join her, until my attention was caught by something she was doing. She’d walk toward one of the men on the curb and seemed to extend her arm out in a gesture toward them. She’d walk toward another and another, sometimes saying a few words, but always making that gesture. As I moved in closer I realized that her gesture was to hand them money, but she did it in a way that seemed so relational as she smiled and spoke to almost each one she encountered. She was a retired judge and among our class cohort, she had a reputation for being pretty crotchety. And yet here she was so tender, so gracious, so generous. I followed her for a while, wondering if or when she would stop giving as she did. I never discovered the answer as I eventually realized I needed to get lunch before it was time to return to class. Fill my hungry belly. The irony did not escape me. I was deeply moved as I saw this woman with new eyes, as well as the men she encountered and treated with generous dignity.
A few days later, I shared with her what I had seen her do. It had been as if I’d witnessed a private moment in her life on that busy street and I somehow felt I needed to let her know I saw her and how much she had touched my heart and how beautiful she had been. Her stern face softened into a smile as she told me that she and her grandmother used to walk through her town giving to those who had less. She had been taught to always carry cash or food or water, even small amounts were just fine -- to give to those who had less, or perhaps nothing at all. And it didn’t matter what they did with it, because who wanted to be out on the street with nowhere to go and nothing to eat if they had some other option? And she said she received so much more within her own heart.
When I think of giving, I always think first of this story. And I also consider the many possibilities for giving and why…. How even those of us who do have food, drink, and places to live, also are in need of being given to or need to give ourselves. Sometimes money or things, but also simple, creative acts of the heart or spirit shared with another.
I recently completed a trauma-informed writing workshop with other Black folk at ERUUF that was led by author Zelda Lockhart, funded by the ERUUF Foundation as part of our congregation’s REI Theory of Change work. We bonded through five weeks of creative writing, and sharing our life stories, giving of ourselves. In the final session, as we shared we marveled at how transformative the experience had been. I realized I had been hungry and thirsty, and though I had a place to go, I felt I recognized in myself and those who journeyed with me in creative process, moments when our spirits had been like unhoused men sitting quietly in the bustling noise along a Chicago street curb.
You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me
What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give--together, we made
Something greater from the difference.
~ Alberto Ríos, from “When Giving Is All We Have”
When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.