Barely a day after Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, at the start of this year’s devastating run of natural disasters, I saw the first of many appeals pop up on social media. Please contribute stuff: clothing, bottled water, canned food, cleaning supplies, diapers. Drop it off at the collection point we’ve set up. Help us fill the truck!
This is standard operating procedure in a consumer culture: We’ve got to send stuff! Because, you know, survivors have lost their stuff. So, quick: help us get them more stuff!
It’s a beautiful, generous impulse. But so often, it’s not what’s really needed.
How do I know that? Because I’m a disaster pastor. My church is located in Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey — close to where the eye of Hurricane Sandy came ashore nearly five years ago.
The asset houses of worship and relief agencies most welcome, in the wake of a blockbuster storm, is money: undesignated money. They can use it to purchase the goods and services local survivors most need, at each stage of the recovery process. Yet, many high-minded and generous people shrink from writing such a check. They’d rather fill a shopping cart with items for the disaster-relief truck than contribute an equivalent amount in cash.
Why is that? Why hesitate to give money?
There are two reasons, I think: money is an abstraction; and money is dangerous.
There’s an inescapable material reality to natural disasters. Winds tear off roof-shingles. Water rises to the top of the kitchen counters. For as long as the power grid is offline, each nightfall drapes the world in inky darkness.
Sympathizing with the survivors, distant donors envision very specific physical needs. It’s a soul-satisfying experience to fill a shopping cart with items from some imagined shopping list. The tactile experience of handing over blankets or baby booties warms donors’ hearts, more than just sending cash. We may not be able to look into the grateful eyes of the far-off recipients, but we can imagine the experience.
What is money, after all, but an abstraction? Cash is but a rectangle of rag-paper imbued with an arbitrary value. Checks are but a promise of future payment. An invisible credit-card transaction sends electrons silently surging through cyberspace.
What good are such airy abstractions to a sleep-deprived person slumped on the edge of a Red Cross cot, head in hands?
Plenty, it turns out. In the hands of a skilled relief agency, money in a disaster area functions like stem cells in the human body. It can transform itself into most anything that’s needed.
Money moves at the speed of electrons: far faster — and far cheaper — than anything that can be loaded onto a semi-trailer. Due to economies of scale — not to mention price breaks wholesalers extend to charities — there’s more bang to every buck contributed directly to a house of worship or relief agency than there is in using the same greenback to buy dog food or diapers. The cost of transportation must always be factored in. Besides that, empowering local non-profits to do the shopping close to the distribution-point helps jump-start the storm-ravaged local economy.
But there’s another, more ominous reason why, for so many donors, gifts of stuff trump gifts of money. Money’s not only abstract; it’s also dangerous.
Money is fungible. Drop a buck into a panhandler’s cup, and you have to truly let go of it. You can’t specify whether the person will use it to buy a burger or a bourbon. Money can harm as well as heal. Having relinquished it, you have no choice but to trust the recipient to use it rightly.
You likewise have to trust the people who run relief agencies. Is their CEO’s salary appropriately modest? Do they avoid dropping a huge wad of cash each year to rent Mar-a-Lago for their fundraising gala? Can we trust them to spend our donation more wisely than we could ourselves, pushing the shopping cart?
When we give away that dangerous money, we let go of it completely. That’s scary. In a consumer culture, that’s not a skill that comes easily.
There’s a classic scene from one of the Marx Brothers comedies in which Chico and Harpo are running a slick little scam. They’ve used a fishing pole to hook a dollar bill. Chico uses the money to buy something. The seller then pockets the bill. As soon as he starts to walk off, Harpo deftly pulls back on his pole, retrieving the money and delivering it to Chico: who then turns around and uses it to scam the next customer.
How many of our charitable contributions are like that? Even after we’ve handed over the money, there’s a part of us that still wants to give a yank on the line.
The church I serve is located near ground zero for Hurricane Sandy. Nearly five years ago, half our town was flooded, upending our lives and displacing many of our church families. It’s taken us years to recover. For some local families, especially those who were swindled by dishonest contractors, the recovery is still not complete.
As the sun came out following the storm, before electricity had even been restored, the phones of every pastor in town started ringing. If we send you stuff, can you distribute it?
Sure, we replied, why not? God knows, there’s no shortage of need around here. And we are the church, after all. We can do this!
Little did we know…
One of my ecumenical colleagues welcomed four school buses to his church parking lot. Each was crammed full of secondhand clothing and cases of bottled water. Other vehicles arrived as well, at each of our churches. Most of them we directed to our community food pantry, located in the Episcopal church building across the street from our church. In no time at all, every one of their Sunday School rooms was filled, floor to ceiling. One room contained nothing but diapers.
It was a marvelous display of generosity, but it took them months to distribute it all. In the meantime, they had to relocate their Sunday School classes.
A week or so after the storm, the high-school gym across the street from our house became the locus of clothing distribution. Volunteers spent hours sorting piles of clothing, laying them out on folding tables by category for storm survivors to peruse.
That thrift shop with no price tags enjoyed a booming trade for a day or two, but most of those secondhand clothes — many of them the worse for wear — went unclaimed. Only a handful of evacuees had left home with nothing but the proverbial clothes on their backs. Most had at least a suitcase or two. Clothing was just not something they needed. Eventually, huge piles of donated garments had to be baled up and sold by the pound to a cloth-recycling firm.
One day, a tractor-trailer truck arrived at our community food pantry from a non-denominational church down South. It was completely filled with cases of bottled water. The exasperated Episcopal rector was at his wits’ end. There’s no more space in our church building, he said. Could you Presbyterians take the water?
He and I both knew we had little immediate use for it: nor did anyone else on the Jersey Shore. Our local municipal water systems had never been compromised. But what were we going to do? Tell the driver to turn his rig around and head back home? That would have seemed ungracious. So we thanked them for their generosity. Then, we sent out an urgent call to our Boy Scout troop, whose members lined up and passed the cases of water into the building and up the stairs, bucket-brigade style. It made a rather impressive little mountain, there in the church hall.
It took us several years to give that water away, but eventually we succeeded. Most of it went to members of visiting volunteer work teams from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance who bunked in our church hall. They drank it at their work sites.
The cases of water — a hodgepodge of different brands — had evidently been purchased by members and friends of that big-box non-denominational church. A surprising number of cases, I noticed, were a premium Trader Joe’s brand that had been bottled in Fiji. That was quite a carbon footprint, to ease recovery from a storm that had very likely been aggravated by global warming.
What if those donors had skipped their trip to Trader Joe’s and contributed money instead? Their church could have saved the cost of the delivery truck, and added that money to the total. Their collective gifts would have done far more good than all those stacked-up cases of water ever did. We could have routed that money through our county long-term recovery group to help survivors rebuild their homes.
Yes, money is dangerous. But that’s because it’s also powerful—and powerful generosity is about the only thing that can stand up to the devastation wrought by the storms of 2017.