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Giving Away Our Trash in the Name of Generosity

Privilege can be a terrible burden. I don’t know that I really understood this before the first day that I was in a local village in El Salvador.
Some clothing had been sent with our mission team to share with the children of the community. Although our team had not intended to be involved with the distribution of the clothing, we ended up doing so.

I was tasked with the responsibility of giving shirts to the boys. I could not bear just to hand out shirts with the attitude of “You are needy. I have something to help you. Take what I offer, whether you want it or not.”

So as each boy came up to receive a shirt, I first tried to find what would fit and then I asked if he liked it.

Sometimes I would go through several shirts before finding one that was suitable, and sometimes I was unable to find one that made someone happy.

As the stack of shirts decreased, the whole project grew more uncomfortable. I realized that the last children would not get to choose and that we might even run out before all the boys received a shirt.

It was an awful feeling. I felt acutely the burden of privilege. I feared that we had sacrificed relationship with these children for the sake of a material item. Instead of a relationship of mutual love and generosity, we were thrust into one of wealthy versus needy.

Several years ago, on an earlier mission trip to the Dominican Republic, the group of which I was a part was playing with children in the batays, which are migrant camps for the Haitians who come to the Dominican Republic to harvest sugar cane. Many of the children were wearing long-sleeved winter sweaters.

I asked the missionary who lived there why these children were wearing sweaters in such a hot climate.

She responded that when clothing is collected in the states, people put in all kinds of clothes. It is boxed up and shipped to the Dominican Republic and distributed to the missionaries.

The children basically get whatever comes out of the mission box, even if it’s the wrong kind of clothing for the climate. Hearing that, I was angry and ashamed.

Thoughtless giving, giving our “trash,” giving that destroys relationships, is not generosity.

It’s insulting, heartless and demeaning. Instead of building another up, it belittles them. And as the giver, such giving hardens our hearts, separates us from each other and fosters arrogance.

Recalling the act of clothing distribution to the children in the village in El Salvador is still painful, even now, several weeks afterward. As I hold that pain, I pray that it opens my heart to just how much privilege can inhibit meaningful relationship with others.

My hope is that I can instead live the way Paul described in Philippians 2:3-4: “Don’t do anything for selfish purposes but with humility think of others as better than yourselves. Instead of each person watching out for their own good, watch out for what is better for others.”

I am grateful we had the rest of the week to build genuine relationships with the children. Their love, joy and generosity with each other and with us embodied the Scripture above. I pray I may follow their example in my relationships with others.

Ann Smith, a CPA for more than 25 years, is currently a spiritual director, writer, speaker and author of “Written on My Heart.” A version of this column first appeared on her blog, Out of My Heart, and is used with permission.