This year I spent my Spring Break volunteering at DOOR in Denver, C.O., a program dedicated to providing service to agencies who fight hunger and homelessness in the Denver area. I was fortunate enough to go on this trip with my campus ministry at school, where we spent the week learning about the realities of homelessness and hunger insecurities, as well as strategies to change social and cultural institutions that force people into a life below the poverty level.
On the first day of volunteering, I learned a very powerful lesson at the Food Bank of the Rockies, where we packaged pallets of food in a warehouse to be sent to pantries and shelters all over the city.
It took us almost two hours to find the Food Bank. Seven students, a minister, two wrong trains, and one beautiful sunrise – it was all worth while. We passed beautiful artwork and street performers; some people on the bus even helped us find our way. People laughed with us, and even at us a little bit; they smiled with us and for us once we told them why we were lost.
This made me thankful for the process of reorienting myself, transitioning to the next step. We couldn’t have done it alone, no matter how much research we did beforehand; things are never as they seem. Assume nothing, expect everything. We got lost at least twice, but we also got the opportunity to see the mountains reflect the glow of the sunrise from the east.
Six hours and several hundred pounds of packaged food later, our crew was ready to head home for the day. We walked back to the locker room reserved for volunteers, and I discovered by coat had been stolen. All of a sudden, the satisfaction of a hard day’s work and service for others disappeared as anger and upset took its place.
I tried diligently not to make it the focus of my day, to brush it off and focus on the excitement of working in a new city. I sat on the bus with my head against the window, frowning at the scenery. “It’s just a coat. It’s just a coat. It’s just a coat,” I repeated silently, convincing myself that it didn’t matter, that I could buy a new one online later.
But I was wrong. It did matter, just not to me. My coat mattered to someone else, to its new owner.
Maybe my coat was relief in a moment of need, maybe it was warmth during a cold evening on a park bench, maybe the lipstick in the right pocket would be that perfect shade of red (it definitely was for me).
To me, the coat was just a coat, because I have the means of getting a new one. To someone else, it was a last resort, a last hope for a comfortable walk home.
So if taking my coat is what it takes for someone else to sleep at night, then take it. Take it, and wear it thin. Take my coat, my shoes, my blanket, my time, my energy, because I did not come to Denver to give only part of myself. I came to give my whole self, my whole heart, my whole strength, my whole mind, my whole spirit, because I care about other human beings and i care about what happens to them. And because I am blessed enough to buy a sweatshirt at Walmart on the way home.
Later in the week, I started thinking about the verse from Luke that says, “Give, and you shall receive.” But I have a problem with this, because I don’t like that people might give because they expect to be rewarded. People aren’t always rewarded for giving, but that shouldn’t stop it from happening. The absence of a reward shouldn’t constitute the absence of a motive to give.
If I had the choice to give my coat that day, I probably would have said, “no, I need this.”
However, I found myself realizing that I didn’t need it during the rest of the week, because God gave us clear skies, and sunshine, and a lovely field of grass beside our bus stop in which to bask. I didn’t have the coat, but I also didn’t need it, and I didn’t realize it until I got on a heated bus and started to sweat through my t-shirt.
On the bus, I sat and repeated my coat mantra, wishing it would come back to me and knowing that it wouldn’t. The more I focused on it, the less I noticed the richness of my life without it. The sunshine, the mountains, the dizzying effect of the mile-high altitude, the adventure of a new city, graffitied buildings in a gentrified neighborhood on our walk home, a hot meal waiting for me at the church, even a message from my parents advising me about getting a new coat. I still had all of these people and places and experiences, and a coat couldn’t change that.
I think the point of God’s encouragement is not that you will become richer by giving, but rather that a life removed from petty indulgences allows you to notice how rich and full your life already is.
Our belongings are just obstacles to this realization. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have coats, or that perfect shade of red, but that we don’t need these things to feel complete.
The point is not to choose to give; the point is to surrender the choice.