Mullen | Give, Oh, Give: If you're giving anything at all, you're doing the right thing. 

Last week, I was driving through a Salt Lake City neighborhood, trying to wrap my brain around the reality of being relatively new to this country, of knowing only a short string of English words, of trying to feed and clothe a family of nine on $900 a month and of desperately needing a box of diapers for a baby and two toddlers. n

My stepdaughter was on the cell phone, giving directions to the home of a Somali Bantu refugee family she has been assisting since last summer. I had a load of much-needed household items for them. She wasn’t sure of the exact house number. She knew what it looked like. “It’s a white house,” she said. “There’s a chain-link fence around it.” I told her lots of houses were white. Lots had chain link fences. “There’s probably a mini-van in the driveway,” she said. “Silver?” I said. “That’s it,” she said.

n

Earlier in the day, my stepdaughter had asked me to deliver the Christmas gifts early. The father had lost his job recently. “They’re running out of everything,” she told me. They’re even out of diapers.”

n

Three agencies in Utah oversee relocation of all international refugees. Caseworkers often juggle 30 or more cases at a time, and easily 100 or more refugees in that caseload. My stepdaughter is one of many stepping in to fill the gaps—helping refugees to navigate the school system and aiding in other adjustment issues.

n

I pulled in front of the house and got ready to distribute the necessities my husband and I had agreed to buy as our Sub for Santa donation from our family to this one: Two cases of Huggies—400 diapers. An industrial-size bin of laundry detergent. Bars of soap. Toothbrushes and toothpaste.

n

Seven children, ranging in age from 8 months to 15 years live in the home with Mom and Dad. The kids, like all young immigrants to a new country, are picking up the language fast. They translate for their parents. As I stepped out of the car, the 13-year-old boy emerged from the house, followed by four younger siblings.

n

The little ones swarmed me. A 4-year-old hopped inside the car, grabbed a case of diapers twice his size and tumbled onto the driveway.

n

“It’s early Christmas,” I said. “Merry Early Christmas.” The words were past my lips before I consciously took note—duh—the family is Muslim. I quickly self-corrected. “Never mind,” I stammered. “These are just some things you need.”

n

The older children took the rest of the load and Mom came out with a baby in her arms. She smiled and waved. The last image I saw in my rear-view mirror was five pairs of hands waving goodbye.

n

I have more than enough to live well. I am in need of nothing, and whatever I merely want, I can usually buy for myself. This is the time of year to help those who can’t help themselves. Still, I drove a block from that Somali family’s home, pulled to the side of the road and let out a deep sigh.

n

It didn’t feel right—this dumping of discount-store loot in a crumbling driveway and taking off. Something about the whole experience left me feeling empty. The family didn’t show the gratitude I expected. I wanted warm and fuzzy; what I perceived was, “Whew! It’s about time you got here.”

n

I turned the volume up on the radio Christmas carols and thought about the nature of giving and receiving. There’s a delicate balance to that relationship. It hit me hard that I wanted something from this family it couldn’t give. When you’re down to your last scoop of laundry soap, it can’t be easy to fall all over the dressed-up charity lady at your door.

n

Rabbi Josh Aaronson of Temple Har Shalom in Park City tells me he understands the slippery emotional nature of these giver-and-receiver relationships—even those of a temporary nature, like the ones we experience in the holiday season.

n

In this dynamic, Aaronson says, “It’s incumbent upon the giver to do the right thing. It enhances the spiritual life of the giver” to offer charity. It shouldn’t matter how the receiver reacts.

n

In the Jewish tradition the word tzedakah roughly translates to “do the right thing,” Aaronson says. To that end, “the response of the receiver of tzedakah is almost incidental. We’ve come to see it as desirable to have a relationship in these situations of charitable giving, but it doesn’t always happen. Nor should the giver expect it to happen.”

n

Besides, Aaronson says, there are easier gives than others. It may be easier to give holiday charity to an unemployed autoworker because he looks like me. Members of a struggling Somali Bantu family do not look like me, live like me, believe like me. A harder give, perhaps.

n

But the focus is always on the give. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” Aaronson says as we end our conversation. “I always try to encourage generosity of spirit in how people view themselves. If you are giving anything at all, you are doing the right thing.”

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