Generosity and gratitude come together in Earline Johnson. Until Hurricane Katrina sent her wading to safety through chest-deep water, she lived in New Orleans public housing. Thanks in no small part to Unitarian Universalist volunteers and donors, she is settling into an apartment near Houston with her son, daughter, and four grandchildren and says, simply, “Everybody here has been so wonderful to us.”
There are thousands of stories about evacuees like this family, and thousands of stories about Unitarian Universalists and their congregations who have dug deep into their money, time, and energy to help them. [See articles beginning on pages 50 and 63.] More than $2 million has come in to the Gulf Coast Relief Fund sponsored jointly by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations and the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. Many of our congregations have raised money for the fund, and more than twenty have become partners with UU churches that Katrina damaged or churches that are helping families like the Johnsons in Texas and elsewhere. UU volunteers from all over the country have descended on the region with their sleeves rolled up.
This generous response to Katrina’s devastation gives Unitarian Universalists genuine reason to indulge in the complicated emotion of pride. What makes pride complicated is that it so often blocks out good reasons to be less than proud. For example, UUs give substantially less to their churches than people in most other denominations: Many conservative Christians tithe, but academic studies show that giving to most mainline Protestant denominations exceeds ours, too. It’s common to hear people say that UUs are uncomfortable even talking about money.
What would it take to inspire our everyday generosity to the level of abundance? This is a practical question, but first it is a religious one. The practice of reverence begins with gratitude, gratitude for the gift of life and for the many blessings that have come to us unbidden. Awareness of this abundance moves us from gratitude to awe and wonder about the possibilities that present themselves to us all. Religious life is not just about personal piety, it’s about reaching for these possibilities, for answering a call to create the beloved community.
There are strong signs that we are reaching higher. People who track UU church budgets find that giving to congregations has been going up faster than inflation year after year. Congregational donations to the UUA Annual Program Fund are also on the rise, and donations to Friends of the UUA are up sharply. Unitarian Universalists donated more than $2 million to help victims of last year’s Asian tsunami, and recent floods in Transylvania have attracted almost $100,000 in UU giving.
More and more of our congregations are splitting the loose money in their collection plates with programs that help people in their communities—and finding at least twice as much loose money in the plate. Being generous through our churches is about making our dreams come true through institutions that we love, and splitting the plate is one good way.
Thanksgiving is just around the corner. It is a time to gather friends and family and express gratitude for the blessings we have been given. It is a time to remind ourselves that reverence turns gratitude to generosity, that the world out there has great needs, and if we aim to be abundant we can make a difference.
This is a spiritual question for the holiday season: Do we have to have human suffering of the Katrina magnitude thrust into our faces to inspire us to embrace abundance, to lift our sense of what generosity can mean?
I don’t think so. I have faith, not only in the love that comes into our lives unbidden but also that we will respond to the possibilities we are presented—not only to help families like Earline Johnson’s but also to help other neighbors whose needs are just as real but less dramatic.
Here’s wishing you an abundant holiday season!
The Rev. William G. Sinkford
President, Unitarian Universalist
Association of Congregations