Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Lesson in Generosity

Here is my latest church newsletter article
-The Archer
After a week in South Dakota at an Episcopal Youth Camp, I have literally just returned to St. Mark's as of this writing because I came back on the day of the Roar deadline. After a blissful frolic in the Black Hills where there was no e-mail access or cell phone coverage where I was, I found St. Mark's a bustle of activity. My computer is currently still downloading the 238 e-mails awaiting my attention. The church smells from the new doors downstairs that were apparently primed and painted yesterday. I, at first, thought the main chapel was on fire because there was a haze of smoke. (Turns out our organist, Kurt, burned some incense in there to cover up the paint smell.) And last but not least, the massive water main construction project on R Street is going full blast outside my office window, which has to remain open for the time being due to the aforementioned paint smell.

As I stated in the first paragraph, I got invited back to be the chaplain at the Diocesan Youth Camp that our neighboring Diocese of South Dakota runs in the Black Hills of South Dakota. During seminary, I was an intern one summer on the cluster of Episcopal Churches on the Rosebud Lakota Reservation, just north of Valentine, Nebraska. Part of my duties that summer were to help out at the Thunderhead Episcopal Center youth camp.

What keeps me going back to the South Dakota diocesan youth camps are the kids. Usually at any given camp, over half of the youth are children from the various Native American Reservations in South Dakota, usually Lakota children. To this day, there are more Native American Episcopalians in South Dakota than any other ethnic group, including what used to be called the WASP demographic, because the Diocese of South Dakota was from its inception in the 1800s created specifically to minister to Native Americans. This was an anomaly because the Episcopal Church historically tended to follow the white settlers.

Unfortunately, issues of extreme poverty, alcoholism, and other serious problems are still rampant on many reservations. What was most shocking to me when I was first working on the Rosebud reservation was the growing issue of gangs and gang violence gaining ever increasing strength among the youth. Needless to say, I still volunteer when I can at the youth camp because many of the youth that come are youth that are at extremely high risk to join gangs or engage in other destructive behavior.

While many of the endemic problems found on reservations are cyclical and can seem hopeless, I believe with God's help, there is still hope. I saw a glimpse of this hope the last day I was at camp. The theme of the camp was the traditional four virtues of Lakota culture: Bravery, Wisdom, Fortitude, and Generosity. Each day we focused on one of those four virtues. It so happened that the last day was the day for generosity. I admit I was somewhat ambivalent about how to approach the topic of generosity to children who live in dire poverty and about whom American culture would just as soon forget. I took the track of stressing that being generous is not necessarily about being able to give stuff to other people. You can be generous by loving others, giving compliments, or by helping others.

As it happened, the kids had either brought a bit of money to buy Cokes and such at break time, or if they did not have any money, had been given some money to do so by the camp director. On the last day, we talked about how Jesus had told the church to be generous to others. We talked a bit about Episcopal United Thank Offering and a project that the Diocese of South Dakota was doing to build a well in a war ravaged community in the Sudan. We gave the kids the option, if they wanted to, to be generous and donate some of the snack money they had left over from camp to one of those two projects.

That was when I got my lesson in generosity. When it came time to check out and load the kids on the bus to go home, I noticed one particular 6th-grade Lakota boy staring intently at the two cans we had set out for the UTO and the Sudanese Well project. The boy was standing there with a handful of change that was probably not more than a dollar and a half. He would look at his handful of change, look at one can and then the other, and then look back at his handful of change. He was no doubt deciding into which can to put the money. He finally nodded to himself after a long moment and split the money into the two cans evenly. He then got the“I just did a good deed” grin on his face and merrily ran off to get on the bus.

I do not know for certain, but I am fairly sure that dollar and half was probably the only money he had in the world. In terms of mortal money, a handful of coins was not going to go far in building a well halfway around the world. But as Jesus reminded his disciples after they witnessed a similar incident that the King James Version used to refer to as 'the widow's mite,' he gave more than everyone else because he gave all he had. I may never see that boy again, but I believe God will be with him because though he may never have much else, he has love in his heart. That is something that gangs cannot give nor can all the riches in the world ever buy you for love and showing love to others is a gift from God.

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