Monday, April 11, 2011

Sermon - "A Gift Freely Given"

A Gift Freely Given

We have all heard the proverb, “Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” It’s actually an ancient Chinese proverb attributed to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism in the 4th or 5th Century BC. Interesting that this little gem has held up for so long.

The meaning is pretty clear, sometimes it is more helpful to give a person the skills to help themselves rather than give a quick fix, or what the immediate need is. Today as we are talking about the work of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, this proverb comes to mind. The UUSC is committed not to providing a quick and easy answer to human suffering. Rather they are committed to the difficult work of uncovering what the source of that suffering is. They go upstream if you will, to discover the source, so that that the problem can be solved, not just mended momentarily.

Giving help isn’t just about giving a hand out to those in need. UUSC understands that giving help can also be an opportunity to empower and liberate those people who are most in need in a society. I initially called this sermon “A Gift Freely Given” because we had a newsletter deadline. A much more apt title for what we are talking about today would be “Giving the Gift of Freedom.” Because that’s what UUSC aims to do. That’s what we aim to do in the vast majority of our charitable giving. We aim to give the gift of freedom, to give tools and resources to help people to help themselves, especially those people who are most neglected around the world.

Many of you know that I was in the Peace Corps in 2001. I was serving in Cote d’Ivoire. Yes, that is the country that has been in the news quite a bit these past few weeks where the UN and French military are trying to unseat an illegitimate president. Because of the political unrest, I was only in the country for nine months, rather than the usual 27 months of service.

It was an amazing time of my life. People usually ask what I did there, and I explain that I was in the water and sanitation program. Our goal was to develop the clean drinking water in villages and to do education about sanitation issues. But that’s not what I really did. What I really did was walk around the village. Every day. I walked and walked. I met with elders and traditional leaders. I went to people’s fields. I went to the health clinic. I went to the market. For six months I walked around the village meeting people. There were no building projects, there was only learning and building relationships. Just as we were beginning to talk about building some latrines, that’s when the political situation became a mess and we were evacuated.

Of course people want to know what I did, how I helped people. And it’s much easier to tell them that I was there working on water and sanitation issues. But the truth is, I didn’t have time to do that sort of work, because it took six months to get to know the people in my village of only a few hundred people. It took six months to lay the groundwork for any meaningful help.

One of the things that we talked a lot about, one of the things that we tried to prevent was “cadeaux mentality,” or “gift mentality.” That’s the idea that helping is a matter of giving a gift, and walking away. Whether it’s the gift of a water well, a new school building, or a health clinic, we saw over and over again communities asked for, and Westerners were eager to give these quick solutions. No matter if there were no mechanics to fix that fancy well when it broke down, or if there was money to pay teachers at the school, or supplies for the medical clinic. We saw the run-down remnants of quick fixes that were just not the right answer. I think my favorite example of this was a bicycle powered water pump, in a region where it was unheard of for women to ride a bicycle, so it sat there, and rusted.

Maybe it’s human nature to want instant gratification. On both ends, the giver and the receiver want to make a difference, and make it fast. Well, what I learned probably more than anything in my time with the Peace Corps, is that real difference NEVER comes quickly. There is NO quick fix, no materially gift that can help a community overnight.

The alternative, and the type of work that UUSC is committed to is a much more imbedded type of aid. We know that concept of imbedded journalism, where they are on the ground and interviewing people in the thick of it. Well what we’re talking about today is imbedded giving.

One way that UUSC tries to do that is through working with social structures that already exist on the ground. They may be aid organizations, they may be collectives of women, they may be religious organizations. Like in Japan, the UUSC is seeking to help those most in need by channeling its support through Buddhist congregations, who presumably know exactly where and what kind of help is needed. And occasionally, when there’s no organization in a community to work with, the UUSC will call interested parties together, just to talk about their challenges. And they talk, and talk, and talk, until those people begin to understand themselves as a group of problem solvers.

They almost always partner with an organization made up of those who are in need. It’s the best way, perhaps the only way to be sure that the help goes where it is needed.

The UUSC calls their way of providing aid the eye-to-eye partnership model. It’s about partnering in a way that’s not paternalistic. It’s about building real relationships and learning from one another. The keys that they talk about are building a relationship that is equitable between partners and where listening and trust are central pieces of the relationship. They emphasize taking time for comprehensive analysis, because real solutions don’t happen overnight. Any plan must be adaptable to the current and changing situation on the ground. And perhaps most importantly, they are committed to providing ongoing support to the projects they start. For years they continue to encourage and provide technical support to the organizations they partner with.

I have talked a lot today about how to make change that really makes a difference in people’s lives. We all want to know that our donations of time and money are going to help those in need. There have been big discussions about it this past year, about who’s organization actually uses the largest portion of its finances to help the people in need. It’s a very big question. There are a lot of wonderful organizations doing great work in the world. I sincerely believe that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee is among the best.

But there’s another way to get a bigger bang for your buck. And that’s by telling other people about it. That’s right. The best way to get the full leverage out of your giving is to share that news with others. Start with your children. Tell them why you give to the organizations that you support. It’s a critical lesson that they need to learn. This is what we do.

Telling other people isn’t about being boastful. It’s not about proving how wonderful you are. It’s about setting the norm, being a model. WE can create a culture of generosity. But for that to happen, we have to bring our giving out of hiding. We have to tell other people about it.

Is someone willing to say something about a financial contribution they have made in the past year? We don’t want to hear how much, we want to hear why you gave, and you it made you feel.

I said some time ago, I would not talk about justice in the abstract, I wouldn’t talk about justice at all without giving you some concrete way to respond. It would be wonderful if you donate money to help the UUSC provide relief to survivors in Japan. But there’s also an action to be taken much closer to home.

UUSC is partnering with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of California, to help ensure that people everywhere, but especially here in California, gets access to clean drinking water.
Water is essential for life. Yet, nearly 1 billion people lack access to safe water and 2.5 billion do not have adequate sanitation — more people have access to a cell phone than a toilet. The statistics are staggering. Even more surprising is how simple and cost-effective the solutions are. Roughly speaking, every $1 spent in the clean-water and sanitation sector creates on average another $8 in costs averted and productivity gained. That’s a pretty amazing investment if you think about it.
Assembly member Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park) is sponsoring a six-bill package that, if passed, would make the human right to water into California policy. I know it’s shocking to think that here in California, in the United States, many many people cannot drink the water that comes out of their tap. In rural farming communities, the nitrogen from fertilizers has seeped into groundwater so much, that low-income farm workers are forced to buy bottled water to keep their families healthy. We’re not talking about the water tasting a little strange either. We’re talking about the government telling people that their tap water is unsafe and should not be consumed.

In 2009, grassroots activists, community organizations, and legislators made history here in California: the Human Right to Water Act of California (AB 1242) passed both the assembly and senate. Unfortunately, the bill was vetoed by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 2011, there is new governor, Jerry Brown; a new human-right-to-water bill (AB 685); and new hopes for the human right to water in California!
Today, we are asking that you sign a letters addressed to Jared Huffman, the Chair of Water Parks and Wildlife, Bob Wieckeowski, the Chair of Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, and Lois Wolk, Chair of Governance and Finance Committee, to ask them to lend their support to the Human Right to Water Bill.

Honoring the rights and dignity of all who survive humanitarian crises is tough stuff. UUSC Justice Sunday is a stop on the road. The concern for justice comes back to us Sunday after Sunday and all week long throughout our lives. Opportunities abound to make it happen. It’s up to you. It’s up to us. We give; we receive; we partner. Earlier we sang about when our heart is in a holy place, when we trust the wisdom in each person’s story, and when we share from the depths of our self. As we close our time together, I want us to think deeply about the partnership model that UUSC embraces. Consider who the experts are in the struggle for justice, the people who experience the challenge themselves. And, consider consulting with them, like UUSC does, until “them” becomes “us.” Consider not taking action until we can proceed hand in hand, to create meaningful change, together.


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