I Give to Get

An essay by Latanya Sweeney

Delivered at Arlington Street Church, Boston Massachusetts, on April 1, 2012.

What can I say about giving in 3 minutes? I give to get.

Sounds selfish, it is. It is not altruistic, but purposeful and directed. I give to get. I give my time, money and attention for particular kinds of benefits. I get communities I care about and I generate goodwill that overflows to others and back to me. I give to get. It is a kind of paying forward, not as directed as this-for-that, but still the benefit is to me.

How did it all start? My path to Arlington Street Church and my philosophy of giving began in 1990. That was one of the most amazing years of my life.

The year began tearfully, with the painful realization that I was horribly unhappy.

All my life I had wanted to be a computer scientist, but my computer dreams were slipping away, seemingly unattainable from the daily grind in which I found my life. There was a computer revolution all around us, yet it was passing me by.

To my knees I fell in prayer and meditation. Every day, I would write a meditation and then, every day, a miracle would happen. Something unexpected. Something amazing. It was a golden year that transformed my life. I started the year horribly overweight. I ended the year fit and slim. I started the year spiritually lost. I ended the year with a renewed spiritual self. I started the year unhappy with my life. I ended the year going back to school, on a path that led to my being the first black woman to earn a PhD in computer science from MIT. It was an amazing year. It was also the year I found Arlington Street Church and the year I learned about giving.

I now have 2 minutes remaining. Let me give you some details.

My partner and I would attend Sunday service at Arlington Street Church and sit in the balcony, over there. We would dash out after service, never really interacting except a few conversations with Rev. Kim.

A homeless man would be up there with us. His appearance and aroma made it extremely clear, he was homeless. I first thought he was there for warmth and shelter, but he was as attentive to the service as we were. Always avoiding contact but ever present. When the time for offering came, he did an incredible thing. He would reach into his pocket, pull out a few coins, and put some in the plate. Every time I saw him do this, I cried. It was my first lesson about giving. No matter my circumstance, I have something to give.

Armed with my new lesson, I initiated a new personal rule. Every time someone on the street asks me for money, I give a dollar. No questions asked. Just do it. So armed with single bills, I would take my bi-weekly walk through Harvard Square, and when asked, I gave a bill. No questions asked.

Well, it seemed no matter how many $1 bills I had, it was not enough. This led to a conflict. For me to have money for lunch, I had to avoid the Square. So, I learned my second lesson. I have to budget my giving.

Then, on every trip to the Square, I would put five $1 bills in a separate pocket. The first 5 people who asked, would each get a bill.

I did this for several days, until one day, the 6th person I met was a young woman who desperately needed the $1. I knew it, but I had none to give. I thought about the 5 people to whom I had given bills that day. Three seemed very capable and not really so needing and two seemed likely hussles. In hindsight, none of them seemed in serious need, certainly not in as much need as this young woman. What had I done? I gave her money away. This became my third lesson. I have to give to what I believe.

These three lessons – I can give, I budget my giving, and I give to what I believe –are the operational cornerstones of my "I give to get" philosophy.

In the 30 seconds remaining, let me say how that relates to Arlington Street Church.

The whirlwind of 1990 catapulted me to a tenure-track professorship in Pittsburgh, where I lived a good life. But almost every Sunday, we thought of Arlington Street Church. It sounds unbelievable now, but true. Of all the activities in which we had been involved in the Boston area, it was only Arlington Street Church that we regularly missed, almost every Sunday for 10 years.

Eventually our son was born, and we wanted desperately to move back to Cambridge and raise him in the Arlington Street Church community. And as if it was 1990, a miracle happened. A job offer. We were able to relocate here and become active in Arlington Street Church, this time not in the balcony looking at the community, but in the pews and activities and among the people and friends that are the community.

I give to Arlington Street Church because I get a multiplier effect –a community of acceptance and support, a community active in social justice, a community of good people doing good works, a community of forever welcome, and a community of love.

I give to and I get from Arlington Street Church.

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