Out of his poverty (what are we really thankful for?)

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Out of his poverty

"As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. 3"I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. 4All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” (Luke 21)

Every year, the majority of our small groups spend hundreds of dollars planning, cooking, and consuming elaborate Thanksgiving meals as an act of celebration. These meals are complete with an abundance of turkey, side dishes, and desserts, not unlike the meals students will eat a few days later at home. While these events are an act of love and generosity, this year, we decided to do something different.

Our leaders decided to host a “special” activity, telling our small group members that there would be a surprise but nothing more. As they came in through the door, students were given different tickets, each with a number on them- 1, 2, or 3- which they were to keep a secret. Before dinner was served, students were finally told what those numbers meant. 

The ones- all 9 of them, would be seated at the beautifully arrayed middle table, covered with tablecloth and adorned with tableware and wine glasses. The twos- about 20 of them in all, were to sit at lined tables in the back of the room- tables which weren’t covered with anything. The threes- around 40 of them, were to sit on the floor.

Then, the food came out. The first group was given a meal of garlic roasted chicken, pot roast stew, feta crusted salmon, garlic mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, and fruit tarts. The second group was given bags of bread and a container of peanut butter and jelly, to make their own sandwiches. The last group was given large bowls of rice to eat. All of these meals and the percentages of people who received them were to help simulate the disparities of wealth and food distribution in our world.

In the midst of rumblings, laughter, angry looks, confusion, and the expected emotional tension proceeding this announcement,  the completely unexpected happened.

Mike came in.

Mike, local homeless man in Berkeley, is a friend of InterVarsity. He often sits outside of the Durant Food Court with his boom box, and many InterVarsity students have come to know and talk to him over time. Some of our students, excited about the possibility of a free Thanksgiving feast for him, decided to bring Mike to our event. Unaware of the different “tiers” and the broader purpose of the event, these students had no idea what Mike would be stepping in to.

Mike, drawing a three, came in to the room. Looking around, confused, he took a seat along with the students who brought him, congregating around a bowl of rice and a few paper bowls and plastic spoons.

He sat down on the floor.
               The tension in the room rose.

Immediately following, several students came over to me, pointing out what the majority of the room had already noticed. What were we to do?

I went over to talk to Mike, feeling horribly guilty and yet unsure of what to do. Do I let him sit on the floor, eat rice, and participate in the simulation? Do I pull him aside and just make a plate of food for him, singling him out even more? But as I began talking to him, explaining what was going on, he smiled at me and said, “Oh! Don’t worry. I’ll participate.

So he did- sitting uncomfortably on the floor and eating plain, white rice on a night when he was hoping for a Thanksgiving feast

Later in the night, Mike and I began talking. Through his alcohol-scented and half-coherent words, he told me how thankful he was for new friends, how some students had taken him to church recently.  He told me about where hippies came from. He smiled as he talked about his "partners" Andrew and Sarah, how they were gonna get married some day soon. And then he told me his opinions on UC Berkeley.

“You- so many of you, come every year to UC Berkeley, and for what! Do you really come here for the education, or do you come here because it’s UC Berkeley- because of the name? There are over 400,000 people in the city of Berkeley, who will never be a part of UC Berkeley- and you, you come here for 4 years and then you leave.”

He talked about the realities of hunger:

“When you eat the same thing every day, your stomach begins to forget. You eat the same thing with the same nutrients all the time, and you forget that your stomach stops absorbing the nutrients that you need from eating real food.”

And as I stood there, listening to Mike, I remembered our privilege and wealth, to even put on an event like this. I realized that in every step of the way in this activity, students had the power and privilege to choose out if they wanted. I understood that many of these students would go home to a kitchen full of food, a room with a bed, and their own private bathroom. I remembered that a few days later, our bellies aching and sore from being stretched with an abundance of food rather than a lack of it.

Most of all, I recognized that despite all the ways we had planned this event as an opportunity for us to remember the hungry in our world, that we still had much to learn from people in our very own backyard.

At the end of the night, we decided to collect an offering for an organization that’s fighting global hunger. As I stood next to Mike as they announced the offering, he asked me, “Will this money be given to children?”

From out of his pocket, he pulled out two, crumpled dollar bills.

He looked at me and said again, “Will you give this money to children?”

And with that one act, I learned more than any statistic or program could tell me.I learned that the depth of your generosity is not dependent upon how much you have or your capacity to give, but on the emptying of your heart for the sake of others. I learned that even in the face of seemingly unending poverty and hopelessness, the human heart can continue to fight and choose faith.

Out of the 373 dollars we raised that night, I believe it's appropriate to say that Mike put in more than all the others.

He gave out of his poverty.
And he is teaching us.

Posted 11/27/2008 at 2:32 PM - 4 eprops - 2 comments