Whose Needs?

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Traveling cross-country by train is a good way to see the disparity of wealth in our nation today. From the railroad tracks we see not only the underbelly of working America, but also the opulence of over-consumption. Deserted brick factories share space with sleek shopping malls. Junk-infested waterways pour into bays festooned with shrink-wrapped sloops and cocktail clubs. Is there any hope of bridging the gap of abject poverty to ridiculous wealth? What, as Quakers, could we be doing? Our nine-member worship group in Moab, Utah (pop. 6,000) has changed over the years in our responses to these questions.

In the 1990s, members of our meeting greatly enjoyed 'adopting' a family or two each Christmas. We set a budget, shopped with care, and wrapped gifts for the families during our December potluck. We looked forward to this celebration, surrounded by Christmas carols and festive food. I loved being the designated shopper (a guilty pleasure for a Quaker). However, I had the nagging feeling that I was taking something away from the adopted family. While I was careful to purchase items in the requested sizes and favorite colors, I didn’t know if the four-year-old preferred Sponge Bob or Superman. Shopping for strangers got me in the holiday mood, but I wondered how the parents of these kids were getting into the spirit. And I wondered what I was doing buying all this imported plastic stuff from mega-stores many miles from my home.

As a group, our meeting began querying ourselves and discussing options. We began to avoid syndicated apparel and toys altogether. We began to only shop locally, and we leaned toward books, games, and craft kits, as well as underwear and diapers. This felt much better, however, we still questioned our emphasis on Christmas. We wondered if this whole exercise was more for us than it was for the families.

Fortunately, three members of our meeting work directly with many families in need.  We seasoned the idea of giving support to families at any time of year when we discover a need. Now, when any meeting member learns of a need, we are encouraged to bring it forward for consideration. I am constantly amazed at how often we find ourselves on the same page concerning the amount to be given, what we expect the family to contribute, how long the aid should last, etc.

With this process in place, we've done everything from buying a crib mattress and high chair, to paying for alternative cancer treatment for a 26 year old, to paying for preschool for a child stuck at home with a chronically ill sibling and an overwhelmed mom. Frequently, families approach us with needs that are immediate and urgent.  In those cases a meeting member will often provide the finances up-front, knowing that the group will need to approve the expense before reimbursing it. This prevents over-exuberant emotional spending by individuals, since each member knows they will not be fully reimbursed if expenditure is deemed inappropriate by the group.

Finally, our meeting gives a monthly donation to our local women's shelter (which is where we hold Meeting for Worship) and to a church that provides weekly meals to the homeless and other hungry people.

I have personally found our meeting’s discernment process to be extremely helpful in evaluating my personal charitable giving. Is my gift being given out of guilt, or compassion? Is it empowering, or demeaning? Am I giving for my own edification, or to fulfill a true need? In the case of giving to a non-profit organization, does it have a board of directors, and is their mission to save their own souls, or to give what is actually needed?  Finally, are there ways that those receiving help can also contribute to increase their own joy and self-worth?

Our meeting has found that being flexible in our giving has many advantages.  We are more able to respond quickly to individuals with urgent needs.  Or donations now reflect a wonderful diversity of concerns, and we feel more focused in our giving. And unlike the guilty pleasure we felt in the old days of playing Santa, we now feel pride in reducing our pure consumerism while we care for our neighbors who are struggling. ~~~

Audrey Graham has been a member of Moab Monthly Meeting for 15 years.  She just finished an 8-year term as a Grand County Council Member, where her main focus was affordable housing in our county.  She currently works in Early Intervention with children aged 0-3 with disabilities. She enjoyed providing infant childcare for several years at IMYM.

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