That was the first of a set of prompts given to a small discussion group this week at a class I attended on religious fundraising.
My mind immediately pictured a small cast iron house that was placed on the altar every week at the Baptist church where I grew up in Oklahoma. This small house acted like a piggy bank of sorts, as it had a slot on top where children and adults were encouraged to drop in coins as an offering for our denominational children’s home on their birthdays. I suspect every Baptist church in Oklahoma at that time had a similar device.
My earliest memory of giving involves that special cast-iron bank painted to look like a house. I remember the sound of coins clanking when dropped in the slot, and I remember the excitement of a child being able to put money in the bank.
And that prompted a second memory: The summer a boy from the children’s home came to stay at our house for a few days. In those days, the children’s home sent out its residents once a year to stay in the homes of Baptist families. As an only child, I was happy to have another boy in the house to play with. But that’s not the memory that’s seared in my mind. The image I see vividly to this day is of that boy and my mother and I going shopping for school clothes—not for me, but for our guest. We went together to buy him jeans and shirts, as I recall.
What I could not understand as a second- or third-grader is how profoundly such acts of generosity would shape my own views on philanthropy and Christian stewardship. I had no idea that what we were doing was in any way unusual; giving offerings and sharing what we had was just the way things went in our house.
My parents were tithers to the church their entire lives. They didn’t brag about it, but we did talk about at home. I knew, even as a child, that whatever money came into our house, the first 10 percent of it went to the church.
I see now, though, that my parents lived out a kind of generosity that extends well beyond tithing as a cash offering. They taught me—an only child—by example to share.
At the class this week, several folks talked about coming from similar backgrounds, and each one gave a variation on this additional theme: After their parents died and they sorted through the estates and the financial records left behind, they were astonished to learn just how generous their parents had been all along. One man, who was the youngest of six boys in his family, said he cannot imagine how his parents put food on the table knowing what he knows now. And what he knows now is that his parents were generous givers out of what they had to give.
Parents, what are you teaching your children by example? And when you’re dead and gone and someone else has to tidy up your financial affairs, what kind of story will your checkbook tell?