More Than Money
Issue #33

Embracing The Gift

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories: The Passion to Give”

Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff

For a time, I was just going to walk away from my money and all that it had brought me. Then a friend said to me, "It's time to embrace your heritage." That phrase stayed with me and led me down a different path.

I first had the idea of giving it all away when I watched Brother Sun, Sister Moon, by Franco Zeffirelli. The movie portrays the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis' father had a textile business. His workers were paid poorly and had poor working conditions. Francis knew that the money he lived on was made off cheap labor-so one day he went into the factory and threw the textiles out the window. When his father took him before the city court, Francis stripped naked, disassociated from his family, and started building a church. He built the church into a thriving community that became a haven for the poor.

I watched Brother Sun, Sister Moon when I was very young and Francis became, for me, the model of how to honor God with my resources. I literally went into my room, took a big handful of clothes out of my closet, and went to the window to throw them out. We lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City, in a pre-civil war co-op with a 24-hour doorman, overlooking Central Park. My mom stopped me at the window and said, "Let's think about this."

The matter was complicated because my mom is my trustee and she has to sign whatever check I write-so I had to talk with her about it. She had said all along that if I wanted to write a check for my entire inheritance and give it to a shelter, I could do that. She felt it would be better to wait to make such a big decision, though, because people's thinking develops over time; I could decide to do that in the future if I wanted. She knew that throwing everything out the window was, in part, my response to the guilt I had of having more than most people, and that I would eventually think of a better way to give.

What actually stopped me from just giving it all away was that I didn't know where to give it. I asked myself, "What's the best way to give this money?" and realized it was a much more complicated question than I had understood. I came to the conclusion that throwing it out the window wasn't the most responsible thing to do.

I went to seminary and got a masters' degree in New Testament studies, so I was studying the Bible quite a bit. I noticed that Jesus kept on talking about serving the poor-the widows, the orphans, and the foreigners-not just giving to them, but personally serving them. He also told a parable about talents. One of the people in the parable buries his talents in the ground; one uses his and turns them into a whole lot more.

As I thought about how best to use my money to serve the poor, I realized that it wasn't just money that I had inherited. I had resources available to me by virtue of the fact that I had grown up with money and the privileges it offers. I thought, "How can I be the person who is a lot with her money?" I decided that writing a check and just giving it away wouldn't be the wisest way to use it, but I could possibly be involved with its distribution in such a way that I knew it was transforming lives.

I now work as a fundraiser for Agros, which helps break the cycle of poverty for families and communities in Central American countries. (See sidebar) Finding Agros has been a very important part of my journey-I feel really good about giving my time and my life to the organization. Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." I think that's true. Christ had 12 people that he gathered around him, and those people multiplied. I knew that on my own I would flounder, but I felt that this organization I had found was a mechanism through which I could channel my giving.

Problem:
  • In Guatemala, five out of 12 million people are living below the poverty line, on one to two U.S. dollars a day.
  • A wealthy three percent owns two-thirds of the country's productive land.
  • Nine of ten farmers don't have enough land to feed their families.
-The United Nations Development Report, 2000

Solution:

  • Agros has helped to establish 17 self-sustaining villages in five countries and expects to increase that number to 50 villages in the next three years.
  • Agros has helped 3,700 people break out of a cycle of poverty.

I chose Agros because of the character of the people and their commitment to service. I trusted and believed in the mission of the organization and the people in it-not only the board and staff, but also the program participants, who work very hard to make good use of Agros' services. Everyone works together as a whole organism to transform lives, to restore broken relationships, and to help break the cycle of poverty.

Just as, originally, I had wanted to reject my inheritance, in the same way, I had wanted to reject capitalism as a whole, because I felt it was responsible for so much poverty in the world. Then I heard a talk by Ron Sider, who wrote Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger . He brought to my attention the system that God prescribes for Israel in the Torah. Each person has his own plot of land to farm, so each family has its own food to eat. In this way, everyone has enough. Every seven years, debt is forgiven. Every 50 years, there is the Year of Jubilee, during which the land is returned to its original owners (Leviticus 25).

At the time, I was partial to socialism and thought we should all just share all that we have with each other. Through Ron's talk, however, I realized that I wanted to work within the capitalist system. I believe that what's lacking in our society is not a different type of economic system, what's lacking is generosity. The prosperous within our system must be generous. Everyone needs to have just enough , as Proverbs 30:8 says: "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, 'Who is the Lord?' Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God."

I decided to work as a fundraiser for Agros because my job with the organization is redistribution of wealth. I give people who have lots of resources the chance to help others increase their resources by earning for themselves. It's not just giving handouts. We loan land to farmers; they pay us back. It's redistributing wealth, at a snail's pace. Statistics show that people who receive a dole end up poorer afterward. (It's the same with the lottery.) The Agros model takes time, but it effectively breaks the cycle of poverty.

Every day, I am grateful for my job. I've been here two years and haven't regretted a moment of it. I like being on staff, because I am part of a team that is transforming lives. As a fundraiser, I'm able to give back from the resources I've been given, and provide ways for others to do the same. Many of my donor contacts are through people my family knows-people I wouldn't have known if I hadn't been born into a family of wealth.

When I was ready to throw all my things out the window, the passion to give was in me. At Agros I found a group of people with the same passion, and with an effective strategy for redistributing wealth. Agros presented a viable choice that would allow me to actually do what I had originally wanted to do. When I realized this option existed in the world, I realized my hopes.

A woman in an Agros village once said to me, "I used to dream with my eyes closed, but now I dream with my eyes open, because I'm seeing my dreams come true." When I stop and think about my life, I could say the same thing. Her dream was to own land, and my dream was to throw my things out the window like St. Francis. I'm doing that now, but in a way that makes sense for me. My friend was right; sometimes it is best to embrace one's heritage.


© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved