Like most people, when I see tragedy, I find myself heartbroken. I take in the images, the firsthand accounts, the details, the analysis. I wrestle with the elusive and mysterious reasons why, whispering prayers for the unknown victims. I remind myself that God is not absent, even though it may seem so if measured by the anguished faces.
I silently, privately, selfishly, express gratitude that for the moment, tragedy is not on my own doorstep. In this honest place, I am reminded that my place of peace is not to be hoarded, but to be shared with those who suffer. That’s what God’s love revealed in Messiah, the Lord Jesus who came to put an end to the sin that perpetuates, exacerbates the suffering. Because of His pursuing love, I am called to pursue those who are suffering so I might extend His love wherever pain has reared its horrendous head.
I know I am not alone in wanting to do more in the face of tragedy than merely gawk and lament. Inspiring acts of kindness and generosity are plentiful each time our world is shredded by another incident.
In recent years, I have wrestled with what this help should look like. Do I send tangible goods? Do I give money? Do I show up in person? All I know is that I want to do something. I want people to know others have seen their loss and hate what has happened. I want them to sense God’s love and comfort even as they are being swallowed by overwhelming sorrow and doubting His existence or sovereignty or goodness in light of their present suffering.
Whatever I may want people to experience through any acts of kindness I may aspire to deliver, it will be for nothing if I focus more on what I want to give rather than on what people truly need.
My concern is confirmed in an NPR report (“‘Please, No More Clothes’: Relief Groups Ask for Cash”) on the outpouring of tangible goods sent to Oklahoma after the massive tornado tore through on May 20. Donations come in by the truckload, carrying “everything from diapers and teddy bears to crutches and toilet paper.” These gifts are made by people with giant hearts, people who care about the plight of the victims. However:
“Donations have been so overwhelming that groups around [Moore, Okla.] are posting on their websites, ‘Please, no more clothes.’ ”
Christ and Pop Culture’s own associate editor Brad Williams remembers donations sent to his home state of Alabama after Hurricane Katrina. He observed truckloads of used and often tattered and stained clothing. Was it sent with good intentions? Sure. But it was also shortsighted. When people’s lives have been ripped apart, the last thing they need is another bag of damaged goods to deal with.
And that’s the trouble: Oftentimes we observe people who have lost everything, and we assume that our worn-out stuff will be their new treasure.
Part of the impetus for such regifting is that we prefer to give tangible goods rather than cash. Maybe it’s the sense that something we specially gave will be a physical help or the fear that cash donations may not be handled properly. This too is shortsighted.
When we insist on giving what we prefer to give rather than what is truly needed, we sacrifice being a true help to people in need.
The answer to this conundrum is not simple. We have to do some legwork to discover how to be a true help. That means staying informed and reading the news. That means talking to your friends about what one another could do to best help. That means calling organizations providing direct assistance in the disaster zone to find out what they are doing, how they are doing it, and what their greatest need is at the moment. It likely means giving cash to a trusted group that will be a good steward of your money.
No, this isn’t simple. But giving is not meant to be simple. True giving is a sacrifice, one that takes time, effort, planning, and resources. This is the sort of giving modeled to us by Jesus, in His servant-lived life and by His sacrificial death. And we are called to follow in His footsteps, giving what is needed, not what’s most convenient.