I have a strange relationship with free things. As a missionary kid, free things were frequently being given to me. Some of them were nice and some of them were used cast aways that were only good enough to be cut up and used as clothing for dolls or animals. It was always a weird feeling to see cardboard bins at the back of churches accepting donations for missionaries. I would peek in and wonder what kind of things we were going to get.
I learned early on in life that it was best to first refuse handouts and then, if the person kept pressing, to politely accept. This way you don’t appear too desperate and the giver has an opportunity to back out in case they weren’t really sure about their decision to give. I still say “Are you sure?” when someone offers to give me something or pay for my hot chocolate.
When I was in College I volunteered at a shelter. One of our tasks was to sort and shelve the food donations. Halloween had just passed, so there were a few mini chocolate bars lying around. One of my fellow volunteers offered me one and after asking if he was sure, I ate it. I was wracked with guilt for years after, I had eaten food that was intended for those who didn’t have adequate food or shelter. Someone who needed it could have really enjoyed that chocolate bar. I was so ashamed.
I have watched people receive free things in the city. At soup kitchens and food banks, no one walks in with their head held high. But I’ve also had conversations about the sense of entitlement that forms after years ‘in the system’ when one begins to just expect free things. And all of this leads to more talk about dependance and enabling and rules about how to give and when to give.
We live in a 96 unit apartment building. 55 of those units are subsidized. We live in a great apartment. Every morning I wake up here, I’m thankful to have such a nice, clean, mouse-free place. But there are many, many more reasons why this is a great place to live. We have great neighbours and as it turns out, we get free bananas (and other food too). With my complicated relationship to free things, I wasn’t sure about taking the free bananas my neighbour was offering me. A grocery store delivers free food to the apartment every once and a while. Being one of the non-subsidized tenants, I assumed that these bananas were not intended for me. It felt a bit like taking the chocolate bar at the shelter. I politely turned them down. But he insisted “they are for everyone”. I checked it our with another neighbour who assured me that it was ok. There is enough to go around.
It felt so good to take those bananas, without string attached, without having to feel like someone else deserved them more. Because no matter who you are, or what’s in your wallet, it’s nice to get some free bananas! In the helping sector we learn to distrust those who receive our services, we question their true need, question their stories, question their motives. We forget about the grace and the generosity that so often comes our way – un-needy and undeserving and we are. It’s the whole point of the Good News Jesus came to bring. We all need it. We all need the hope that we’re valued and that there’s a way out of the dark places we sometimes reside. This is the one free gift we can all use. We don’t have to show our medicare card or proof of address. But, and here’s the hard part, we do have to put our hands out.
By Jasmine Chandra