Learning Charity from the Poor and Getting over Wealth Shame

I met a young social worker a few years ago who taught me something about the meaning of Charity and Social Justice. We were talking before a celebratory meal in Vancouver for the work she and others had done in Uganda. I asked what experience in Uganda had remained with her in the years that followed.

She said, “It was the oranges.”

Not expecting that response, I asked if they were particularly good; One of the dumbest enquiries of my life.

“Not really,” she said. “It was the two days I spent waiting for a train with a young mother and her two children. All they had was one orange. All the families were given one orange for the two day wait.” This put a different complexion on her reply, but I still did not see exactly what her point was.

She explained, “Near the end of the first day the mother broke into the orange and gave her children a segment, then she offered me a share. It was all they had but she thought it right to share it, just because I was there. We hadn’t spoken. She didn’t even know me.”

I could see now where I thought this was going and said something banal about what a lesson it was in generosity and community.

“Yes, it was,” she said, but I could tell there was something else and I waited. “I couldn’t take the orange pieces.”

“Because of the children needing them?”

“Partly that,” she said looking a little sheepish. “I had things to eat in my bag. I couldn’t take the orange pieces she offered, I didn’t even want to be near her, because I was ashamed of what I had in my bag.”

I asked, “What did it teach you?”

“It made me realize why the West doesn’t give more to those in need. We are too ashamed of what we have in our bag. If the poor people of the world really knew what we have, how ashamed would we feel.”

“You haven’t said what you did about the food in your bag.”

“Well I had to gather my courage, get over my embarrassment and share it all. That’s what we have to do. Just get over ourselves and give it to the people who need it. It’s only the shame that stops us.”

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