Stepping Out . . . From A First-World Mindset

Almost every single day, I’m struck by how lucky I am to work where I do. I’m a teacher at an inner-city school that serves families from all around the world. I work in the library where it is normal to see, at any given table, a group of four students working together who represent four different continents, four different languages, and four different faiths. The UN could learn a lot from my school.

I have never featured a student in a post before, but last week, Vanessa gave me permission to write about her. Vanessa is a senior student who would like to run her own salon some day. I remember when I first met her last year, I was struck by how fashionable, pleasant, and confident she was. She is the image of happy potential.

She is also a refugee from a war-torn African nation who arrived in our city with her large family in March of 2014. The eight children range in age from nine to twenty-years old. Vanessa’s dad has worked sporadically since their arrival, but he hasn’t been able to secure regular employment. Her mom has struggled for years with health problems, and she can’t work outside the home. The family gets support from social assistance – and from Vanessa.

Besides attending school full-time, Vanessa works part-time at a salon. Her income is directed in three different ways:

  1. It goes towards helping her family.
  2. It goes towards savings for post-secondary schooling.
  3. It goes towards her tithe.

I was very taken aback last week when I heard Vanessa say that she gives 10% of her income to her church.

“It’s a must,” she explained to me, her voice accented by her African homeland, quiet and steady. “When I was a little kid, my mom worked, and I saw her tithe. My dad did too. And we always had enough.”

But what about now? I asked her if she ever felt tempted not to tithe because of the hardship in her life. She didn’t seem to understand what I meant. “There are a lot of people in your house,” I said. She nodded her head, waiting for me to make my point. “Some people would find that hard,” I explained. “And your dad not being able to find work . . . And your mom’s health problems . . . And having to leave friends and family behind – being new to this country . . .” I stopped trying to convince Vanessa of her struggles as I realized that she simply did not feel hard-done-by.

“Sometimes back home,” she said, “we would let homeless people stay with us for a while. We still send money to orphanages back home. Here, if we have extra food or clothing, we go out and bring it to people on the streets.”

I was unable to reconcile the picture of abundance and generosity that Vanessa was painting for me, with my understanding of her limited resources. “But don’t you ever feel like you need something that you can’t buy?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “And then I ask for money. I ask friends or family. I don’t ask to borrow. It’s always a gift.” Sometimes giving, sometimes receiving (but never going into debt), Vanessa is equally comfortable in both roles. Happy to offer, and not too proud to accept.

Again, I came back to the tithing question. “But if you sometimes don’t have enough money, don’t you feel like keeping that 10% of your income that you give away?”

“No,” said Vanessa calmly. “God won’t let you miss the money that you give.” And she told about a time when she found $10 in her pocket. And a story about a time when she couldn’t afford to buy a coat, but then someone who had bought a coat that was the wrong size gave it to her.

“What do you think,” I asked with some trepidation – because I was asking for myself, “about people with good jobs who live in big houses but who say they can’t afford to give very much?”

I braced myself, but the answer came with no judgement, a continued calm, quiet steadiness. “They don’t know the secret.”

She didn’t follow up with an explanation. “What secret?” I asked. I could see from the clock that our time was almost up. Vanessa had to leave for work at 3:45.  But I wanted to know the secret.

“When you give something, there are more blessings,” she said.

There was a math that just didn’t add up. And yet somehow, it did. I believe this young lady has a bright future in her new country. The skills that she’s learning at school and at work will help to prepare her for it, but her quiet confidence and strong foundation will see her through. I’m grateful to Vanessa and other students who challenge my first-world perspectives and stretch my understanding. She sees the world through a lens of gratitude, trust, and hope, and the obstacles that don’t even register on her seem to vanish beneath her feet as she moves forward.

Do you know someone whose circumstances seem difficult to you, but who doesn’t seem to even notice them? How do you think your life would look if you saw if through Vanessa’s lenses? Your comments are welcome.


28 comments on “Stepping Out . . . From A First-World Mindset

  1. I think one of the most important lessons that you point out is that she doesn’t haven’t any shame in receiving a gift… this is important for all of us, I think.

    Thanks for this piece!

    1. I’m with you on that point, Hannah. I think that many of us are way more comfortable giving than receiving. It’s really pride – often thinly disguised as virtue.

  2. What a beautiful story, Ruth! Thank you so much for sharing your encouraging and challenging conversation with Vanessa. She has such an incredible perspective about tithing and giving. You had me on the edge of my seat toward the end there! 🙂

    1. I was on the edge of my seat as the conversation unfolded. I wanted to know that secret! And I loved the wisdom in her simple words, “God won’t let you miss the money that you give.”

    1. Sean, is that you? Como estas? It is a great privilege to learn from wise young people – as you well know : ) Great to hear from you!

      1. Yes it is me Ruth. Sean from rhs 1988-2013
        So glad Val P shared Your blog. Young or old – it is always a joy to learn from others. We have a great life here in Spain – yet the economic so- called “euro crisis” jades many peoples views of life.

        Marian and I are blessed w healthy families and lively days.
        Best wishes to you and all of your family, colleagues, students and friends
        Say Hola to common friends!


  3. What an incredible, inspiring story! The stats show that those who give most are those with the lowest incomes. The Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts aside, most wealthy people give a lower percentage of their income away than poorer people do — it’s so sad! We as a society have such a tendency toward selfishness, and it’s amazingly refreshing to hear from someone bringing her different point of view to our country. I hope she keeps this perspective instead of losing it, like so many people do. Thank you for sharing this!

    1. I will make sure that she gets your message! I definitely have a lesson to learn given the stats you mention. A humbling revelation.

  4. This is true and very inspiring ..I am glad to have her every second of my life. She’s been there for moral support and does the best big sister job anyone can ever do.

    Thank you, Miss for this piece .

    1. How sweet of you to comment on this post about your sister, Landry! It is not often that I hear a younger brother talk of his older sister with so much respect. Your family is very blessed by the mutual support you show to one another. Thanks for taking the time to add your comment : )

  5. Thanks for sharing Ruth. I’ve just spent time with shepard families in the Atlas Mountains. Same kind of attitudes about money here too. I consider myself lucky to have so much exposure to this way of thinking. I’m not there by any stretch, but at least I’m curious. I think it’s a big shift from our zero sum gain thinking in the west, but it’s inevitable for survival, as economic growth is not sustainable.

    1. Ed, you are having such a cool experience! You’re getting exposure to things that most of us will never see. It seems that poverty, when responded to well, produces a wisdom that is inspiring to those of us who don’t face the hardships involved.

  6. Hi Ruth,

    I wrote you a little while ago (using your contact form) about possibly publishing this article in our magazine, but I haven’t heard back, so leaving a comment here just in case my original message got lost. If you have a minute to jot a quick reply, we’d love to hear from you. (Also let me know if the original note didn’t reach you for some reason and I can resend.)

    Thanks so much, and I hope you’re enjoying a great weekend.

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