A deacon friend of mine, Deacon Willie Cortez had a ministry in East Austin, working among the poorest of the poor. At Our Lady’s Family Center, he created several youth programs for different ages of children and youth, including help with schoolwork. Deacon Willie wanted to get the kids off the streets and out of gangs. At every meeting they always learned something about Jesus and the Gospel.
One of his primary tools was a bowl of hard candies. At the opening of every meeting the bowl of hard candies, which was always full, would be passed around. It was a characteristic of the poor children to grab as many candies as they could and stuff them into every pocket. They were not used to having much, and did not know how to receive gifts or handle abundance.
Deacon Willie explained he could always tell when one of the youths was growing in spiritual maturity. This would happen when one of them would take the bowl at the beginning of the meeting without taking any candy themselves. They would pass the bowl around to others and only take candy for themselves after everyone else had taken what they wanted. With the bowl of candy Willie said he could observe when a young person’s heart had been opened and they were awakening spiritually. He also knew that this growing generosity would gradually have an impact on the others.
Growth in generosity doesn’t come all at once. We continue to grow in generosity throughout our lives a little at a time. It is a bit like climbing mountain slopes. There is always a higher place to go.
Once when I was involved with the Austin-based ministry “Mobile Loaves and Fishes”, a group of us decided to make a retreat on the streets of Austin. Mobile Loaves and Fishes is a lay ministry created as an opportunity to feed the homeless. They take catering trucks filled with food to places where the homeless congregate. Today there are over 5,000 volunteers in Austin alone working every day in this ministry from several locations and trucks throughout the city.
We decided to do a “Street Retreat” of three days and nights, 72 hours, living as homeless persons on the street among the homeless. Almost everyone has their pre-conceived notions of the homeless and panhandlers. You may share the popular notion that beggars live in big houses and have nice cars while they make a tax free living by begging. Or, that they are just lazy bums, or worse.
We decided to make it a silent, or quiet prayer retreat, not ministry. We would take nothing with us except a backpack and perhaps a blanket. We would sleep on the street. We would not take any money or cell phones or credit cards. We would be on retreat among our homeless brothers and sisters for three full days and nights.
Fifteen of us went the first time. Every popular notion we ever had about the homeless was completely shattered by the end of the retreat. We found many working poor who had lost everything, but who worked and were attempting to save up and start over. A couple of black crack cocaine addicts decided to become our guides and guardians, showing us where to sleep and find food. They left each morning to their day jobs. In the evenings, they shared their struggles with addiction. We found teenagers who had been violently abused by their parents and who had run away to protect themselves. We found people who had apartments to live in, but who could not afford meals. We encountered a “transvestite”, a large man who dressed as a woman and was undergoing sex-change operations, who took it upon himself to protect the women members of our group. “Laura” was his/her name and lived on the street while finishing a Masters Degree in Chemical Engineering at UT. We learned there are no easy descriptions of the homeless. We had also experienced first hand becoming “invisible” to regular people when we dressed and acted like the homeless. To most people, the homeless are invisible.
After that experience, those of us who had gone on the retreat had been stripped naked of our pre-conceived notions of the homeless. It was an enormously powerful experience that changed our lives. Many of us continued in relationships with those whom we had met on the street. Our group met often to share our experiences on the Street Retreat. We shared how hard it had become for us simply to drive across town and see a beggar at a street corner. We were moved to give something every time we came across one. One of the group challenged asking whether we gave the smallest bill in our pockets or the largest bill we carried. Afterward, it became easier to part with a $20 bill for a stranger at a street corner, and it has become very expensive for me to drive across Austin.
Today the Street Retreat with Mobile Loaves and Fishes has become one of the required formation experiences for candidates to be ordained as Permanent Deacons for the Diocese of Austin. That is good formation. Whoever goes on these retreats experiences a life-changing growth of their hearts and generosity.
Spiritual maturity can be measured by a person’s generosity. The more they mature spiritually, the more they show concern for others before themselves. If a person is not growing in generosity, it is not clear to me that they are capable of spiritual growth
I had been terrified of going to the seminary after a life of having my own home and many possessions. I can assure you that the seminary experience liberated me, as I was forced to learn how to live in an 8’ x 13’ cell. I found freedom and happiness getting rid of a lot of things I really didn’t need. Generosity is a virtue that keeps on growing as we mature. Freedom does not come from possessions.
Maturity in generosity is continuous. Tithing is just a beginning. The Church teaches tithing as a blessed opportunity. In our parish there exists huge opportunities for continuing spiritual growth as only about 20%, one in five of our families participates in any way in the support of our parish and our diocese.
Tithing means a gift of ten percent of your income. The general guideline suggested by the Church is to give 5% to your parish and 5% to the Diocese or in some measure to the charity of your choice.
In my personal experience I had to learn about tithing little by little, as if I were sneaking up on it. As a young adult I felt good about myself if I put a $5 or $10 bill in the collection plate. When I was older, I remember coming to the realization that I had been putting about 3% of my gross income to charity. Over time I would push myself to add another percentage each year. Most of you know I am a widower. My wife and I would struggle over this contribution, as we both felt the difficulties and financial challenges of raising a family. About mid-way into our marriage we achieved 10%, a full tithe, and often gave more. Today I regularly give well over 10% to Church and Charities. This is not for me to brag. This is to reveal how much I have grown over the years in the virtue of generosity. Even now I don’t feel as if I have grown enough or give enough.
I challenge each of you, couples and individuals, to take a prayerful look at your habits of giving and contributing to others, our Church, our community and our Diocese. Even if we didn’t give a full 10%, even if most of our community gave even a little each week, every week, we would not only be a stronger community, helping others, but our entire community would be growing and maturing spiritually.