A Placemaking Journal
Community and Charity: Bold Action Inspires a Closer Look
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.