Community and Charity: Bold Action Inspires a Closer Look

You will always have the poor among you, and you can help them whenever you want to. – Mark 14:07

I’m not sure Jesus could see all the way to the 21st century.

If he could, he may have been more inclined to offer, “You’ll always have the poor, but there are plenty of ways to avoid their unpleasantries. And you can still figure out how to help them if you put your mind to it.”

Think about it. We’ve invested immeasurable resources over three quarters of a century in land use policy specifically designed to ensure that the poor are not among us. As a result, we’ve detached ourselves from certain truths – biblical and otherwise.

It’s more comfortable, to be sure, but is it really better for us?

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues lately, largely due to the release of a new book, “The Power of Half: One Family’s Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.” The premise is moving: Kevin Salwen and his family decide to sell their posh Atlanta residence in favor of one half its size, then donate half the proceeds to a charity they researched and chose together.

What’s equally intriguing is the spark that ignited their endeavor. Sitting at a traffic light with his daughter, Hannah, the two witnessed an otherwise unremarkable juxtaposition of two men – one homeless, one idling in a luxury car.

The jarring contrast woke up 14-year-old Hannah to the reality of extreme inequity and, in subsequent actions as a family, extreme charity.

It’s a commendable, even beautiful, story, but it makes me wonder: Should we be relying on uncommon people doing remarkable things to bridge the gaps between all walks of life?

After all, in many ways, our current development patterns foster the “A-ha” moment experienced by Hannah by isolating us from the circumstances of the less fortunate. When we finally experience them, they’re shocking. In the case of some special people, they inspire dramatic actions. But for many of us, we close our eyes and hope for the light to change.

But what about the way we’ve lived historically—in traditional, human-scaled, diverse and interconnected communities—where people of all classes often crossed paths as a routine part of daily life and, as a result, were more inclined to develop meaningful interdependencies?

If our built world today continued to be governed by such patterns, would drastic reactions like the Salwen’s be necessary? Or, instead, would our eyes be open to the poor among us as a matter of course and charity take the form of a million little things over a lifetime instead of a big thing designed to make up for previous slights?

It’s not a new idea—Eric Jacobsen explored it nicely in “Sidewalks in the Kingdom”—but the Salwen’s book provides good opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the best and worst of others, and what it would take for our charitable actions to come more naturally.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Kevin socially a time or two and my fellow PlaceMaker, Ben Brown, has worked with him in the past, and that allows us the luxury—for a time—of transcending cynicism and simply enjoying the pleasure of experiencing real-McCoy decency. I think I’ll savor it for a bit.

But then I’m going to get back to the work of building stronger communities. Places where the bold actions of people like Kevin can be complemented regularly by a shared smile between two people of different means.

—Scott Doyon


Filed under Planning and Design, Public Policy

6 responses to “Community and Charity: Bold Action Inspires a Closer Look

  1. Scott,
    I love the way you frame this, in particular your line that our book “provides good opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the best and worst of others, and what it would take for our charitable actions to come more naturally.”

    It’s a dead-on question as we consider groups of people — the homeless, the foreigners, the disabled — without recognizing them as being as individual as we are.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  2. PlaceMakers

    Thanks, Kevin. I enjoyed your work with “Worthwhile” and am glad to see your continued efforts to bring a little soul to our modern world.


  3. jay hoekstra

    Thank you for your article, I will check out the book as well. Regarding the quote of Christ, it really had nothing to do with whether we should or will always have poverty. It had to do with Christ reminding some of his followers about his divinity. Jesus led us to work for the elimination of poverty.

    I dont wish to be picky, but so many others use out of context quotes of Christ and Biblical literature to support their points — many not very good positions. But yours is good, and needs a true quote. Ask Jacobsen for a pertinent one.

  4. PlaceMakers

    Thanks, Jay. Your point is well taken in that the passage’s larger context is not one specific to what I’m saying but I’d still suggest there is relevance in the way he presented it so matter of factly. That is, he presented the presence of the poor as an easily recognizable earthly truth to offset his larger message of divinity. Ultimately, as you say, he led us to work for the elimination of poverty. That to me presents a certain irony when considered in contrast to our present condition and how we’ve managed poverty and our relationship with it. Not so much the context of what Jesus was saying but the fact that he used that example at all presented a connection I thought a reasonable enough prelude to my discussion.

    Best, SD

  5. Pingback: Life as I’d Like It To Be | PlaceShakers and NewsMakers

Shake things up:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s