This past Christmas, my 6-year-old son was given one of the most unique and thoughtful gifts of his young life. It was a gift certificate to Kiva.org. According to its website, "Kiva's mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty. Kiva empowers individuals to lend to an entrepreneur across the globe. By combining microfinance with the Internet, Kiva is creating a global community of people connected through lending."
It was a beautiful thing. We gave our loan to a couple in Cambodia who make and sell cakes along with raising, slaughtering and selling pigs. What a combo, huh? I'd hate to see those two get mixed up.
After a few months, our small loan was repaid, and we received a glowing report about the success of our recipients. Next, our original loan amount was credited back to our account, and we were able to choose another worthy recipient.
This time, my son and I chose a young woman from Peru who rents rooms in her own home to farmers and workers in her area in order to support her husband and two children. Throughout the next few months, we will watch her business progress as she pays back our loan and then, with any luck, we'll move on to helping someone on another continent.
The brilliance of a concept like microlending is that it doesn't feel like charity. Don't get me wrong. I think charity is something that every person should practice. Sometimes we need to give out of our abundance with no strings attached. As a Christ-follower who works in an urban setting, I have opportunities to practice charity every day. If and when I feel led to do so, I try my best to use the moment of giving as an opportunity to display the loving-kindness that was modeled by Jesus.
Charity, though, is a paradox. It is at the same time a very good thing and wrought with some intrinsic hitches.
First, charity rarely enables a person to make lasting changes for the betterment of his or her life. On the contrary, it often enables that person to maintain unhealthy processes. Second, charity can sometimes be guilty of robbing the recipient of something valuable that often resides underneath the surface: dignity.
Jesus was known for charity.
He fed large groups of people for free. He gave to people who could not repay Him. He brought healing and life to people who were considered friends and others who would have been thought of as enemies. He was a very giving person, and His spirit of caring for the poor is still present in the church today.
But charity for charity's sake was not what Jesus set to accomplish. In other words, Jesus was no mere philanthropist. During the most active time of His ministry, Jesus was asked to confirm His identity as the one whom God had sent to bring salvation to the world. He described his own activity among human beings in this way: "The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Luke 7:22 TNIV)
When asked to describe the essential nature of His work among people, Jesus listed results that allowed broken and needy people to experience dignity again. This dignity was accompanied by a new opportunity to make a contribution.
Think about it. The blind could see -- they would no longer be forced to depend on their loved ones or strangers for direction. Those with a physical handicap could walk again -- they could participate in an active lifestyle without the need for assistance from others. The lepers could move back among the people and experience some semblance of a healthy community. The deaf would no longer be limited to visual cues for their productivity.
Families and communities received their dead or almost dead back to health, and the good news that Jesus brought was delivered to the most ignored areas of culture. The message of hope was passed from one person to the next bringing light in the midst of darkness.
The other brilliant part of the Kiva concept is that the act of giving becomes a transaction that affects more than two people. The recipient is almost immediately equipped to begin contributing to society at large and offering resources for the good of others.
When we give to those who cannot repay us, it is a blessed thing. God clearly expects us to do so at times. If we can give anonymously, it is even better. As I said, charity can be beneficial for the receiver and the giver.
On the other hand, if we can turn charity into opportunity by giving someone the chance to benefit from our benevolence and contribute to others, the whole picture comes together in a somewhat mysterious way. If we look for creative ways to help meet the needs of people, we might just find that those we have helped will soon be equipped to help us when a need arises. That type of exchange truly is a beautiful thing.
Eric Costanzo is Minister of Community Ministries and a teaching pastor at First Baptist Church in downtown Tulsa.
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