Pass It On, April 24, 2016

Rev. Nicoline Guerrier, First UU Church of Winnipeg

Imagine you come to church one Sunday morning, and along with the order of service and a hymnal, the usher hands you – and everyone else who enters - a single, sealed envelope.[1] When you open it you discover an index card and some money: either a two dollar coin, or a five, ten, or twenty dollar bill.

During the service, you receive the following instructions. The money is meant to be used. However, you are asked to understand that it’s the church’s money, not yours. It’s neither a gift, nor a loan, you are told. And the rules for using the money are these: You can’t give it back to the church – remember, it’s not a loan. Nor are you allowed to spend it on yourself – remember, it’s not a gift either, though you might be in a position to really need it.

(On that note - most churches have a small amount of money available to those in need of emergency assistance. In this church it’s the minister’s discretionary fund, and please talk to me if you’d like to know more about this - but that’s not what this exercise is about.)

Whatever is in your envelope, whether it’s two, five, ten or twenty dollars, you have to spend it in some way that furthers the church’s mission. Now, you might notice yourself thinking that two dollars is not very much; that surely the people who received twenty will be able to do better things with their money. But the idea is, even though everyone is worthy, and everyone has something to give, at any single moment in time what we do give doesn’t all look the same. But with creativity and the will to put the money toward good, no amount is too small to accomplish something.

The index card? It’s for writing down what you end up doing. You’re asked to hand it back in to the minister within a couple of weeks, so that she can share your news with the congregation.

Take a moment to think about what you might do with your envelope. Remembering that the money must be used to further the church’s mission – to turn its goals into action – how might you use it? How might you be changed by it?

So, as you might have guessed, this was a real exercise: one the congregants at Harvard Unitarian Universalist Church did a few years back with the Rev. Wendy Bell, who was their minister at the time. As it turned out, this simple exercise had lasting effects. It changed something for the people who opened those first envelopes, and it transformed the congregation. First, people got a chance to use their ingenuity in order to grow the effects of their small amount of money. For example, some decided to donate to a food bank – an obvious choice - only instead of just sending the cash, they purchased individual items themselves, took them to the food bank in person, and ended up donating an afternoon of their time as volunteers (which is what many of you did last month in celebration of the church’s long connection with Winnipeg Harvest.) And as you know, if you have ever worked at or used the services of a food bank, an encounter like this has effects that linger long beyond the initial contact.

Others pooled their money as a group, chose a charitable organization to donate it to, and then reached out to family and friends inviting them to join in on the group contribution. The exercise launched conversations and built new connections.

At another level, though, one of the biggest ripple effects was that the congregation ended up choosing to go further with being generous. In the end, they started a Share the Plate program - something you did here in the past, and began again this past January. Unbelievably, Harvard’s program grew without anyone necessarily planning for it. People initially thought the Harvard church would generate about $5,000 a year, and this was back about ten years ago. (Winnipeg, by comparison, has already given away over $1,200 during the first three months of this year.) However, as the Harvard program gathered momentum, donors multiplied. Once it was established, the congregation actually found itself raising $14,000 a year for outside organizations – and it’s a group that’s no bigger than this one.

All good. But on a day like today, when this congregation gathers to vote on its budget for the upcoming year, I think it’s only fair to stop and ask the question: why hold generosity up as a goal? How does generosity connect to what we are meant to be doing here as a religious community, anchored in a building? What about fiscal responsibility, which is also a good? And isn’t being generous completely counter to that lesson people love to draw on, the one that says you have to put on your own oxygen mask before you help others?

Our English word generosity derives from the Indo-European root, gen, meaning to beget. It also dates back to the Latin stem genus, which refers to the concept of kin, or clan. I’d like to suggest that the way to measure generosity’s worth is by looking at who it connects as kin, and what it begets – or what its ripple effect is. Back to church, when you think about what this congregation chooses to do with its money, what do the choices tell us about who this church says are kin, or family? And what, if anything, does being generous beget, or give birth to?

Part II

This is the final Sunday in the month where we’ve been thinking together about generosity. I’ve talked about your longing to become more of a community where love and care are among the gifts you freely offer one another. I’ve invited you to reflect on how your willingness to receive is a precondition for others to practice generosity. But today I’m wondering more about our cultural DNA. I’ve been asking myself, what has to happen for an organization, or a culture, or even a planet to become more generous by nature?

There’s a man named Nipun Mehta who started out working in Information Technology, but gave that all up to dedicate his life to helping people become more generous. He originated the restaurant concept called Karma Kitchen, where everyone who cooks and serves is a volunteer, and guests don’t pay for their own dinner, but “pay it forward” by paying for someone else’s visit. At the end of each meal, diners are presented with a notecard saying their total is $0, and with the words, “In the spirit of generosity, someone who came before you made a gift of this meal. Now, it’s your chance to pay-it-forward for a future guest and continue the circle of giving. How much would you like to pay?”

People rave about what it’s like to work at, or eat at Karma Kitchen. People interact joyfully and openly with one another. Unexpectedly, they find themselves feeling deep connections with the people who make and receive their food, to the other diners, and to the unknown guests who will arrive at the restaurant after they leave. Paying for someone else, rather than simply purchasing a meal, seems to free them up to become more spontaneous, more generous. People add in gifts of music, or performance; they leave objects on a gift table for others to take home. And the ultimate outcome seems to be that people wonder to themselves and with each other, how can life be more like this? And, where else can I serve?

Mehta discovered echoes of this joyful way of giving and receiving when he and his wife, newly married, took a thousand kilometre walk through India on a budget of only $1 a day. Having so little money, and being on foot, meant that they often had to depend on the generosity of strangers. The couple noticed that in cities, people tended to be the most wary and the least generous, often meeting them with a “what do you want from me?” attitude. In small rural areas where there was often incredible poverty, yet deep and enduring connections between the residents, people offered from what little they had, or even borrowed from each other in order to be able to provide water or some small food offering to these wandering guests. The rural folks knew they would probably never see the couple again, and yet – beyond feeding them they also brought the gift of their deep curiosity, and the experience of including the travellers in the circle of family.

I believe that church is meant to transform us into people who are ever more aware of the deep connections we have both with our neighbours, and with strangers we have never met.

I believe that church is meant to remind us that what we beget – what we bring forth in this world – is just as important as whatever it is we do with our days.

And though the world we live in often invites in fear, telling us that if we are wise, we will focus on protecting what we have, I believe church is there to push back against this way of living.

Nipun Mehta traces his own generous nature at least as far back as his great-grandfather, someone he describes as, “a man of little wealth, who still managed to give every day of his life."[2] The great-grandfather’s habit was to start every day with a walk, and as he walked along he dropped a pinch of flour onto every anthill he passed. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Mehta himself points out that objectively speaking, these miniscule acts of generosity had an unmeasurably small impact on the world of ants, or any other species, for that matter. But they shaped his great-grandfather, who started every morning with a ritual of awareness, conscientiousness, and generosity.

You could say that Mehta’s great-grandfather saw those ants as kin, or at the least, living beings to which he was related. Indeed, in sharing this planet we are all related to the ants of the world, whether we choose to feed them, or ignore them. He chose to feed them. And, he begat children, who raised children, who eventually were part of the generation that raised Nipun Mehta – someone who went on to make a mission out of inspiring others to live lives of service and generosity.

What do we pass on to others, out of our beloved Unitarian Universalist movement? What habits of kindness and generosity do we cultivate here at this church? Who, outside of this circle, is able to say that they know, by our actions, that we honour the way we are deeply related to them – and that we show ourselves to be family, or kin? And what do each of us beget? What is the culture we are laying down even now as a model for future generations?

You might think these are strange questions to ask on a budget meeting Sunday, but in fact, some see the budget as the central mission statement for every church. By how you spend your money, you – as an institution - witness to what it is you care about. By how you spend your money, you shape the present and seed the way you will live your mission into the future.

The writer Julia Alvarez has said, “The point is not to pay back kindness but to pass it on.”

Which brings us back to love. In the end, I believe, generosity is one of the tools we all have, at any moment, for working toward justice, and for passing on love. Love affirms and stretches us toward a life that believes there is a common good, and that this is the purpose of our living.

Whatever is inside your envelope, today, and all the days of your life, may you be blessed with the opportunity to allow it to serve, and to serve generously.

Blessings along your journey,

Rev. Nicoline


[1] “A Story of Generosity,” an interview by Laurel Amabile with Rev. Wendy Bell, reprinted in http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/stew-dev/study_guide_giving.pdf

[2] “Paths Are Made by Walking,” 2012 U Penn commencement speech, Nipun Mehta. http://www.dailygood.org/story/236/paths-are-made-by-walking-nipun-mehta/