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On Generosity

Posted on August 11th, 2013

Over the past couple of weeks, I have the pleasure and honour of sharing part of my story (as it pertains to generosity) with my Forefront family in Brooklyn and Manhattan. In the hopes that this may inspire others who were not able to attend, I thought that it’d be a good idea to write about it here. What follows is essentially what I shared, except that it has a bit more context and has had the benefit of the backspace key (which is inconveniently missing when on stage).


I was born into a Catholic family. From a very young age, I was immersed in Catholicism; from an infant baptism to attending a Catholic elementary school to attending a Catholic high school, I was surrounded by the faith. As a corollary, I was also surrounded by Catholics. Because of this, it was easy to grow up with the faith and participate in it without really understanding it too deeply; I went through the motions because everyone else around me was doing the same motions.

The Catholic education system in Canada assured me that there would be a number of Religious Studies classes during my time in school. In those classes, I learned about the catechism of the Catholic church and memorized the salient pieces of  it, along with the history of the church, in order to get good grades come test time. In my head, as long as I stayed out of trouble and as long as I attended Mass on Sundays, I was doing my duty as a Christian. When I did get into some kind of trouble, I could atone for it through confession and penance. Faith, then, felt like a contract that I signed up to uphold; I did my part to inherit eternal life and there were penalties along the way had there been any breaches. (Indeed, much criticism has been levied towards the Catholic church for having too legalistic of an approach to Christianity.)

For my primary and secondary schooling, I followed in my father’s footsteps when it came to volunteering at the local parish. He organized the lectors and so there was a model for how I can involve myself with the church. I started off as an altar server, then became a lector myself. This all seemed to be “bonus” since most of my friends didn’t volunteer. In my head, then, I thought that I was doing great work and currying sufficient favour with God. As far as monetary contributions went, my father was the household’s representative and so he tithed on my behalf. Everything, it seemed, was going swimmingly.

A Turning Point

Things took a turn when I went to university. This was the first time I lived outside of Toronto (and, therefore, outside the direct influence of my family). I lived on campus in a nominally United residence (although ties were fairly loose and nothing from the United church really manifested themselves there). During my first year, it became clear to me that I had to take control of my faith. No longer did I have parents to take (or, in some cases, drag) me to Mass. There was a Catholic residence nearby with regular Sunday services so I started to go there.

Friends from residence invited me to check out another service, one targeted at students, that happened on campus. This church was effectively non-denominational and met on Mondays, both of which were fairly novel to me at the time. At one point, with little else to do on a Monday evening, I decided to join them. This church met in a concert hall so my first impression of it was the physical space. Instead of a well-kept parish with ornate stained-glass windows, the venue was a dark, grungy room that smelled like beer. But it had a lot of young attendees. And there were electrics guitars and drums on stage. And that was cool. For the first time, I felt real intention, passion and energy in a church service.

I became very involved with this church – The Embassy – and it was no longer anything like being an altar server or a lector. The church trusted me with substantial responsibility and really invested in me. I helped out with their communications, their website, and on their volunteer staff team. I helped lead small groups. I was one of their representatives to the student government on campus. It probably took about as much time as my coursework over a given week, and it felt amazing. At The Embassy, the faith with which I grew up became my own and it became personally meaningful to me. I remember, one time, when finances were a bit tight, I gave them a few hundred bucks (a lot for a student) because I wanted to ensure that it will continue to have an impact on others as it did on me. I think that was the first time I ever tithed.

Moving Onward

Eventually, I had to graduate. Despite switching programs and losing a bunch of credits in that process, there came a time for me to bid farewell to The Embassy. By that time, I had an offer to come to New York after a couple of internships at Bloomberg. The thought of spending a couple of years in the Big Apple was really appealing (after which the intention was to return home to my family and friends) so, after making sure that there weren’t significantly better offers in Canada, I packed up for the Empire State.

Eventually, a friend of a friend led me to Forefront. I remember the first time I walked into Forefront’s venue: it was a dark, grungy room that smelled like beer. I’m home, I thought. (I remarked today about how I’m not sure what that says about me or Forefront, but I think it all ended up okay!) It didn’t take long for me to get plugged into this community either.

Celebration Generosity

For a while, I donated a bit here and there as I had some money to spare and as it occurred to me to do so. It wasn’t until the winter of 2012 that I was really challenged to make generosity a priority. Forefront has an annual event called Celebration Generosity where an entire week’s offering is donated to partner organizations. Leading up to Celebration Generosity, there was a series about giving and we were all encouraged to give extravagantly to that offering. (By having that offering go to other groups, I think Forefront was able to encourage giving without looking oddly self-serving.)

It was during that series where I decided that I couldn’t continue piggy-backing off of my dad’s offerings anymore; I had already found a new church home for myself and it was time to personally commit to it holistically. It wasn’t easy, but that’s when I started to give regularly. It started off with Celebration Generosity (i.e. with a bang!) and, each month thereafter, I gave.

Earlier this year, I went on a trip to Haiti (whose details are here). It was an incredibly humbling experience to serve in an area so devastated with abject poverty. Upon returning to New York, I wrote a post where I unloaded the emotions I was experiencing. As I processed more of the trip, I wrote again on how things had to change for me. The excerpt below summarizes my resolve:

I am determined to change something; if I returned to the life that I had before the trip, it would have almost been just as well that I did not go on the trip at all. I wrote earlier that I would volunteer more and that I would save more so that I can donate more, which is a good start I suppose. I can’t expect to have all of the answers and my life figured out immediately after I have a truly life-altering experience, so maybe the best course of action is to let my thoughts and emotions mellow out for a bit. Perhaps I’ll rely less on myself (for once) to sort it out and, instead, give it to God to nudge me in the right direction at His discretion.

Time, then, was next to give.

Chance Meeting

As it turned out, that nudge didn’t take long to happen. A good friend of mine, Jordan, asked to grab lunch one day and, during that lunch, he asked me if there were ways that Forefront can help me realize more of my ambitions. This was right on the heels of the Haiti trip and my passion for service was still very new and very fresh. I thought out loud about helping Forefront make service a central part of its DNA and connecting it to amazing groups in and around New York City.

The staff at Forefront were overwhelmingly receptive to this and, in short order, I was put in contact with a lot of the representatives with whom Forefront had been working. Since then, I have been working with amazing people at Restore, The Father’s Heart, The Kenmore, and The Bowery Mission to bring about renewal and redemption. This is just the beginning and I am so excited to see where, collectively, we will go and how great of an impact we can have here in the city.

The Hard Part

To be honest and vulnerable, being generous isn’t easy. New York, in particular, makes it hard to be generous; when I’m immersed in a culture where corporate and social ladders have to be climbed, it is difficult to push that away (even a little bit) in order to look beyond myself. Getting started was probably the most difficult thing. In a few ways, being generous is like going to the gym (which I do principally to facilitate my culinary adventures): one has to be disciplined about it, and it takes persistence to get the most out of it. Like going to the gym, however, being generous had its ebbs and flows for me; there were times when I was all fired up and really into it, and then there were other times when I was haphazard about it.

The ultimate sign of commitment to a regular gym routine would be to set aside time that I know would not get compromised. Instead of finding time during or after work to go, I could set aside time before work even starts. But that’s hard. I like sleeping.. a lot. So I don’t set aside that time and, understandably, my gym attendance fluctuates quite a bit on a weekly basis. With respect to financial generosity, I used to approach it in the same way that I do the gym right now: I considered it when it was convenient. I gave out of what I deemed as excess and, like the gym, it fluctuated greatly.

To set aside the first portion to giving was hard. I contend that waking up 1.5 hours earlier each day is probably harder than that, so I think I’m approaching this in a rational manner as well. I elected to make due with what was left after I donated and I made a budget around that decision. It was hard to have less disposable income at first but, as time went on, the sting became less and less present until there wasn’t any left.

Then the second major challenge was upon me: making sure that the motivation behind giving remained untainted. One can give out of obligation, guilt, or pride yet none of those are sustainable. Duties and priorities change. Emotion change. Vanity is fleeting. Being generous out of love and out of a desire to see an improved human condition has been the only way I’ve found where my heart hasn’t hardened to it.

The Rewards

The best part about being generous is not some story about being rewarded with more money than when I started. Some people have those stories but I am not one of them and nobody promised me that I would be one of them. And I am just fine with that. There is a realization and an understanding that I am incredibly fortunate as it is, so being in a position where I can be generous is reward enough.

The best part is seeing the fruits of generosity. Today, I said that “generosity begets generosity.” For me, and for Christians around the world, it starts with God’s generosity and His sacrifice to renew and redeem us. Our response to that makes all the difference and I feel that it should compel people to love in the same way that we were/are loved. Through some of the volunteering I’ve done this year, I have met a lot of people with incredible hearts for social justice and service. I feel like the efforts that Forefront has put forward have been catalysts in their lives as they are, in turn, fueling greater generosity. Love is one of the few things such that when you give it away, you end up with no less of it. Seeing other people embody that has been extremely gratifying, and it serves as a primary driver to keep fighting the good fight.

In Closing

I would be foolish to think that I can continue on this track without deterrences. (I, of course, hope that I can.) Inevitably, I will be tempted to use my time or money in other ways and it will take self-discipline and character to stay the course. I am reminded of a comment that a friend of mine made while describing Haiti: “We have things; [the Haitians] have joy.” As long as I remain convinced that I do not need the former in order to have the latter, I feel that I can prioritize accordingly and pursue what really matters.

I have to acknowledge that it took a long time to get to where I am, and that there is much more ahead of me. Perhaps it seems a little daunting to be generous but I can assure you that it starts by making a decision to take the first step. And this step can be the tiniest of steps. I think that starting with something within (or just outside of) your comfort zone is key and, gradually, that zone will expand if the effort is put in. Something as simple as inviting friends over for a meal or spending more time with family can be a good start. Or find a cause that is meaningful to you and get behind it.

At the end of the day, though, generosity isn’t about how much money you’re giving away, or how much time you’re spending on it. It’s about where the heart is. If the heart is in a good place, being generous – however that may look for you or me – will just feel right.

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