Project 1040: On Generosity, Clean Water, and Imagination

$Here are the common things I remember hearing on the topic of money and resources growing up:

你真的需要吗?(“Do you really need that?”)

不要浪费. (“Don’t waste it.”)

太贵了. (“That’s too expensive.”)

Now, I never sat down with my non-Christian Chinese immigrant parents to discuss their specific worldview on financial resources, simplicity, and generosity – but like everything else – as a kid, you figure out pretty quick what is important and what is NOT.  Thus, conspicuous excess, luxurious spending, and wastefulness were shameful practices.  Also, acts of charity and generosity to those outside our immediate family was also treated with suspicion.

This is the context for my own journey in the Christian faith to reconcile the Bible’s teaching on money and my own upbringing of frugality and self-protection.  I had inherited the lessons of prior generations – borne from a lifetime of being subject to violence, war, financial instability, and limited resources.

In terms of the values expressed on this blog — I found that my family had helped me develop the “muscle” of simplicity, but left the corresponding capacity to be generous in an atrophied state.  It is only in recent years, that I have begun to work on this part of my life.  And although I make no pretense to be a finished product, I feel I am closer today than when I started.

The current example: for Lent this year, my friends and I are raising money to build wells and provide clean water for villages in Tigray, Ethiopia.

Water

Because individuals (typically women) walk around 3.7 miles per day to fetch water for their families, members of our group are also committing to walk this amount each day as well.  It’s a somewhat different “take” on the traditional Lenten practices, but it is a small step for us to try to identify with our brothers and sisters, to push ourselves (and others) to be generous, and appreciate the abundance of what we possess.  This exciting project seeks to raise enough money for 10 wells which may potentially provide clean water for about 5,000 people!  As of today, we have raised enough for 6 wells (Every dollar donated will be matched by our small group)!

More information here:  http://mycharitywater.org/project1040

c-w

Now, I could tell you how fun it is to be a fundraiser (not that fun), or to try and walk the required daily mileage (it’s okay), or to see people give generously (EXTREMELY cool), but for myself, I know that the muscle I continue to need developing is that of being rich toward God by being generous towards others.  You would think that years of tithing to the church, donating towards worthy causes, and building wells would make giving money easier over time.  Truth is, it’s tough.  For Project 1040, Melissa and I committed to giving one-third of our savings towards the matching funds.  And let me tell you – it’s still really hard to do for me.  I’m still often plagued with nagging (but important) voices:

“Is this really the MOST effective use of this money?”

“Aren’t I supposed to be joyful?  Why, then, does this feel so hard?”

“What difference will this really make?”

“I could be doing a lot of other things with that money!”

I wish I had better answers to these questions and internal dialogue, but one thing that has helped is to imagine the look on the faces of the women, men, and children in far-away Tigray when the first trickle of water emerges from the new well.  I think about the kids who may have time to get an education; how many might avoid diseases and death.  I think about the celebration that will ensue.

celeb

Sometimes I wonder how much easier it would be to give if we were firsthand witnesses to those for whom will benefit from our generosity.  What if these people were just next door?  Wouldn’t we act quickly and without reservation?  Maybe what is atrophied for all of us is the capacity to imagine those in need as truly our neighbors.  We, in some ways, are still stuck asking the same Pharisaical question:  “And who is my neighbor?”

I hope you will prayerfully consider join us in our campaign to bless the people of Tigray, Ethiopia – our dear neighbors in Christ.

But even more, I hope you will allow the Spirit to infiltrate your imagination with visions of how a generous God can use you to pursue His purposes in the world.

Effective Giving: Emmanuel Ministries Calcutta

One of the biggest obstacles to effective giving to the global poor is simply lack of data.  In traditional investing, even those of us who know nothing about finance have access to scores of mutual funds that pick the “best” stocks for us and package them in a portfolio that minimizes our risk. And of course there is always the most basic feedback loop of all: the bottom line. Your investments either go up or they go down.

But if your goal is make investments that reduce poverty for others, things are not quite so simple. In this case our data points are typically limited to what organizations tell us about themselves through their appeal letters, websites and marketing campaigns. There are few independent evaluators of organizations that tackle poverty to help us choose where to invest (givewell.org is one excellent exception—look for an upcoming blog post on them.) This lack of data is even more pronounced when it comes to social entrepreneurs who work within newer or smaller organizations—many of whom are doing exciting, effective work, as I wrote in my last post.

What we need much more of is a kind Rottentomatoes for relief and development organizations. So what follows is one Yelp-style review of an exciting organization we supported this Christmas.

I recently spent some time in Kolkata, India getting to know various organizations that work with the poorest of the poor. I was especially impressed with Emmanuel Ministries, which is right down the street from the headquarters of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. Founded in 1971 by social entrepreneurs Vijayan and Premila Pavamani, they work to empower street children, addicts, the unemployed, and slum dwellers, all of which you can read about on their website. Here’s why I was impressed by them:

  • As I talked to their leadership and staff, they all articulated a holistic approach to their work which integrated a deeply Christian worldview with a sophisticated grasp of recent scholarship in community organizing, vocational training, addiction recovery, etc.
  • Several acquaintances in InterVarsity and Word Made Flesh with experience in Kolkata spoke very highly of Emmanuel and their reputation in the community, as did leaders from local churches and other NGOs. They have worked successfully with organizations I respect like TEAR fund and Compassion International.
  • I was especially impressed by my visit to their Christian school, Calcutta Emmanuel School. Uniquely, its students come from among the poorest families in Kolkata, but the school has achieved India’s highest accreditation standards. The principal and other school leaders claim that nearly 100% of graduates go on to college. I talked to more than ten high school students and indeed, they all had detailed plans for their college careers.

If you have any knowledge of Emmanuel Ministries, please add your thoughts below.

Effective Giving: Social Entrepreneurs

The holidays are finally over. Yesterday Epiphany (or Three Kings’ Day) brought an end to the twelve days of Christmas. We decided to really go for it this year, giving little presents to our kids most every day of the mini-season. (Bonus: the stream of stuff really helped to alleviate school vacation boredom.)  But according to family tradition, on Christmas Day we gave not to each other but to Jesus, since it was His birthday. This year we chose to fund social entrepreneurs whose organizations serve the poorest of the poor, which we explained to the kids are just the kind of presents Jesus most wants (Matt 25:31-40).

Why social entrepreneurs? In recent years foundations and philanthropists have emphasized investing in promising local startup NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) in order to help them scale up. Just as business entrepreneurs have changed the marketplace through innovation, social entrepreneurs around the world have combined their creativity, commitment, and knowledge of local culture to more effectively impact those who experience poverty and injustice in their communities. Perhaps the best introduction to this phenomenon is David Bornstein’s How to Change the World, which tells the stories of social entrepreneurs who tackled issues like electrification in rural Brazil, home-based AIDS care in South Africa, and empowerment of street children in Indian megacities. Many economists claim that local organizations are often more effective and efficient than bureaucratic government programs or bloated international agencies with offices in Geneva.

However, as is the case in for-profit investing, the problem is figuring out who to fund. India alone as over a million locally founded NGOs.  Until relatively recently, we’ve given primarily to large, established, international organizations simply because I don’t know how to find smaller, local NGOs that I’m confident are effective. But this year we found that the three organizations we’ve been most excited about supporting are all in the social entrepreneur category.  My next couple blog posts will profile them. I hope they serve as a mini-How to Change the World, helping us give more effectively in this new year.  How about you? Do you prefer giving to the Fortune 500 of poverty relief, or smaller start-ups? Why?

Where Face Paint and Foreign Aid Meet: Fusing Fun with Purpose

When God calls us to “open wide” our hands to the poor (Deuteronomy 15) and pour ourselves out for the hungry (Isaiah 58), He leaves the specifics up to us. We can give to aid organizations or donate canned goods to the food pantry, for example, or volunteer at the soup kitchen.

We can even take those dictates literally by sharing a meal with hungry people. Here in Cambridge, I’ve had the pleasure of befriending Mike, who likes to eat chicken fried rice with his hands, and Harold, a gourmand who makes his own pizza and experienced such horror toward my weekly spam dinners that he once surprised me with a bag of fresh groceries. “Anything but spam, please!” he said. Given his nonexistent income, I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

Yet, most of these responses preclude participation by my large and rather diverse network of friends. Few of our calendars are brimming with empty weeknights that allow us to take a volunteer shift, for example, and from experience, I’ve learned that food pantries can accommodate only so many volunteers each evening anyway.

As I celebrated my 26th birthday this year, then, I decided to put another spin on responding biblically to hunger: I threw a huge, “Back to Childhood”-themed, birthday costume party. Culinary highlights included childhood snacks such as Twizzlers and Yoohoo’s as well as my favorite dessert, pecan pie.

Instead of presents, I invited friends to come bearing costumes and a gift of another kind of wealth, one that we sometimes forget about—political capital. I asked guests to bring a letter for their congressman advocating for foreign aid reform. I tracked their gifts on a spreadsheet and set up a letter-writing station next to my face-painting “booth” for those who hadn’t had time to write letters at home.

hand-writing letters at the letter-writing station… in full costume

 
creating masterpieces at the face-painting booth

With the help of preprinted templates, all it took was five minutes to hand-write a letter, and in the end, I collected a whopping 30 letters from friends across six states.

My party took place the night before my actual birthday, and I ended up spending much of my birthday tracking letters and stuffing envelopes—all over bites of leftover pecan pie, of course.

In the end, I couldn’t have imagined a more meaningful way to celebrate turning 26.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

more costumes, snacks and face paint: just further proof that we can fuse fun with Biblical purpose in our day-to-day lives — all very simply

 

Engineering clean water

When I lived in inner city Oakland, I loved the way folks in our church community could use their careers and professions to serve their neighbors. Teachers, social workers, medical professionals, programmers, attorneys, etc., all found ways to use their skills and background to work with those around them.

Now that I live in Guatemala, doing community development in a small rural community, I love seeing how engineering can radically alter an entire community’s existence. One of the engineers on staff builds water filters out of cement, fills them with three layers of sand, inserts a plastic tube, and voila: contaminated water goes in, 99.9% pure water comes out. I’d explain how this ridiculously simple concept works, but being a social worker, I’ll just post this image:

It works, it’s simple, and it saves lives. It’s estimated that water-borne illnesses account for 1.8 million deaths every year1. These water filters also prevent illness, reducing absenteeism from work for parents and from school for kids. I love being a social worker, but I’m so grateful for engineers’ creative use of their gifts to love their neighbor.

This two-minute video features the community leader where I work demonstrating the use of the filter:

This Lenten season, although I wish I could drink the tapwater here, I’m so grateful I don’t have to hike up the hill like Judith and all her fellow residents do every day. Cheers!

1. World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/water_sanitation_health/diseases/burden/en/index.html

The Simple Living Challenge

“What are you giving up for Lent?”  I usually have mixed feelings when I hear that question this time of year.  On one hand, I deeply value Lent as a way to prepare myself to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ.  I appreciate the opportunity to grow in one specific aspect of my faith and character for a defined amount of time.  On the other hand, I often don’t know what exactly to do, and the churches I’ve attended rarely have done anything together, so I flounder.

But five years ago a group of friends came up with the most inspiring Lenten idea I’ve ever encountered.  They were concerned by the painful fact that one of every eight people today has no access to clean water.  Women and children must trudge long distances to find dirty, bacteria-infested water, keeping them from school or productive work.  Once they drink it, they inevitably get sick.  But my friends also pointed out that those of us from more privileged backgrounds often pass up free, clean, healthy tap water to drink sodas and other high-fructose concoctions that are prime contributors to the obesity and diabetes epidemics.

The great thing about my friends’ response is that they didn’t just think about these hard truths, which feels bad. They did something about it—which feels good! They called it Project 440.  The nine of them, inspired by their faith, decided to drink only tap water for the duration of Lent, bringing attention to the issues while saving themselves money and improving their health.  Meanwhile, through March Madness basketball pools, raffles at house parties, and matching grants, they raised enough money to drill deep-water wells for five villages in Haiti. Not a bad answer to “what are you giving up for Lent?”!

I think Project 440 was so memorable for me because it convinced me that small groups of friends have big potential to make a difference–both for themselves and for people like those in Haiti still drinking clean water today.  In fact, I’d like to celebrate Lent in a similar way every year.  But unfortunately, for the last few years I haven’t been in close proximity to like-minded friends, so I’ve let my vision languish a bit.

So this year, using this space now available in the blogosphere, we’d like to propose a new Lent experiment.   We’re calling it the Simple Living Challenge, and we hope it’s a fun, meaningful way to concretely reflect Jesus’ justice and compassion, even if we’re separated by distance.  Here’s how it works:

  • First, let’s commit to giving up all beverages except tap water for the entire duration of the forty days before Easter.  Every day will be a chance to appreciate the gift of clean water. You’ll save money, simplify your life, and maybe even feel better without the unhealthy stuff we drink in our “comfort beverages.”  If forty days seems too hard, join anyway and challenge yourself to make it as many days as you can!
  • Second, let’s find sponsors to support our tap-water-drinking efforts.  Just as race sponsors donate a certain sum per mile run, we’ll ask folks to donate something for every day we drink only tap water, up to forty.  We’ve set up a page at the charity: water website which will direct 100% of our tax-deductible donations to support clean water efforts throughout the world.  And after Easter we can even see on Google Earth exactly where our donations are put to use.

So what’s next?  This Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, we’ll kick off a six-day window for everyone to sign on.  The Simple Living Challenge will begin at sunrise on Tuesday, March 15.  If this sounds like something you’d be excited about, we’d especially encourage you to spread the word and participate together with friends, family or church small groups.  Please consider joining us!

Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For . . . . I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

–Jesus