July 27, 2009

Maimonides and the Ladder of Charitable Giving

With Bhima at the makeshift distribution center

"It’s our anniversary!" Bhima announced when we embraced at the distribution center outside her first home in Atlanta.

“One year ago, on July 26,” she and her family arrived in the “Big Peach” with thousands of others from United Nations-run refugee camps in southeastern Nepal. Bhima is a refugee from Bhutan, from where 100,000 people were driven out 18 years ago in an ethnic cleansing operation. Forced to live in the squalid camps, many are being resettled in Atlanta and elsewhere in the USA (and in a few other countries).

Bhima’s and her extended family's journey from homeland to here is a story of survival, courage, intelligence, pluck, resilience, and good fortune during nearly two decades' experiencing torture, terror, and deprivation. We first met at the recent Day of Interfaith Youth Service, a program of Emory University's Candler School of Theology. In her feedback on that experience of American pluralism in action, she wrote:

… I taught about my religion, Buddhism. ... Also, I shared about my years living in a refugee camp. They were very interested to learn about life in the camp. …
— Bhima Thapa-Magar, age 18

Yet our reunion was not to reminisce. Neither was it to meet her mother, aunt, and sister in Bhima's spotless home adorned with family photos and traditional art objects. Nor was it to taste the yummy (spicy!) dish she had prepared.

We met to join with other volunteers of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group. The group, which is not affiliated with CDC, had brought to the newest comers in Bhima's apartment complex essential clothing, furniture, kitchen equipment, household items, toys, and back-to-school kits. And on this sweltering summer day, the refugees found new friends bearing goods, cheer, and hope.

Getting a toehold on the Ladder of Giving, and climbing up
The concept of giving anonymously without knowing the recipient can be traced back to ancient Israel. In his Ladder of Charitable Giving, where each of eight rungs, or levels of giving charity, represents a higher degree of virtue, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) writes of the eighth rung:

“Anticipate charity by preventing poverty; assist the reduced fellow man, either by a considerable gift or a sum of money or by teaching him a trade or by putting him in the way of business so that he may earn an honest livelihood and not be forced to the dreadful alternative of holding out his hand for charity. This is the highest step and summit of charity's golden ladder.”
— Maimonides, 12th-century Jewish philosopher, physician, rabbi

On the seventh rung of the Ladder, the anonymous donor expects nothing, not even recognition, and doesn’t know the recipient’s identity. At the lowest rung, the reluctant donor "gives with a frowning countenance."

The refugees joined volunteers to unload from a caravan of cars, vans, and trucks donations from people all over Atlanta. And the array elicited the refugees' initial wonder and amazement, then laughter and polite negotiations.

I watched Jonathan's dishes carried away with exquisite care, and blonde Stephanie's petite-size tops and slacks clothe smiling brown-skinned beauties. (Some local donors are "putting [the refugees] in the way of business so that [they] may earn an honest livelihood.")

Charity as justice
Tzedakah is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity, though it is based on a root meaning justice (tzedek). In my tradition, tzedakah refers to the obligation (not an option) to give charity and to do philanthropic acts. And this teaching, which corresponds to similar ones among people in other faith communities and none, has been unleashing infinite rewards for thousands of years.

Get a toehold on the ladder, y'all, and keep climbing up.

My related posts

July 23, 2009

Day of Interfaith Youth Service: American pluralism in action

Atlanta teen refugees from Bhutan and Nepal
and immigrants from Pakistan and India
relax after a day of interfaith dialog and service work

Birendra Odari
| Bhutan
At Emory University, I learned about differences between religions, such as that some are monotheistic and some are polytheistic. My religion, Hinduism, is polytheistic. That means that just as a family has more than one person, we believe there is more than one god.

Bhima Thapa-Magar | Nepal
Our day at Emory was really fantastic. It was my first time with that kind of thing in the U.S.A.: doing volunteer work, being with such good students from other states and different religions, and talking about it. … I learned that Muslims pray on Fridays, and that students are excused from class during prayer times. I taught about my religion, Buddhism. We pray to Gautam Buddha as a God, our Book is called Tripitaka, and the place of prayer is called Gumba (stupas). Also, I shared about my years living in a refugee camp. They were very interested to learn about life in the camp. …

Sabah Khan
| India
I learned many things, and the main thing is volunteering, as I haven't been to any volunteering locations until now. …

I taught that during the Muslim holy month Ramadan, Muslims fast the whole month from dawn to dusk without water and food. The entire Quran (Muslim holy book) is recited in mosques and all over the world with the five daily prayers during Ramadan. During this month, which provides an opportunity for Muslims to get closer to God, a Muslim should try to — See not what displeases Allah (the name that Muslims call God), Hear no evil, Do no evil, and Look to Allah with fear and hope.

Bishnu Odari | Bhutan
This is my first time in the United States to meet these many teenager friends. I am really glad to be with them. They are such great and friendly people, which I never thought would be. When I first met the students at my school, some of them laughed at me and the other new students and it seemed they didn't want to be my friend. So I thought it would be the same at Emory. But these people were not that way. I met Saehara from California. She was with me the whole day and shared lunch with me. She was like my best friend whom I miss a lot. I also met Cody, our group leader, who was the funny one, and Brian, a group member who shared a lot about Christianity and wanted to learn more about Hinduism and other religions. …

I learned that Christians of the different branches of Christianity have different and opposing feelings about their religion.

I explained that Hinduism is polytheistic and mainly believes in the three-in-one God known as "Brahman" that is composed of Brama (the creator), Vishnu (the preserver), and Shiva (the Destroyer). The Hindu religion has millions of Gods and Goddesses, and these three are only the beginning. I also shared that the Hindu people believe in their "karma" — that doing good begets good, and doing bad begets bad. And with good karma, a person can be reborn into godhood, and with bad karma, a person can be reborn in a bad condition or even as an animal in their next life.

Tilchand Mapchhan (Naresh) Thapa | Nepal
Thanks for a chance to help others, share views about religion, make friends, and work together. "United we stand, divided we fall" is the main point I learned. Religion is a way to pray to God, and it is [usually, not always] a strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny. All religions are the same [in some ways] but praying and believing in God is different in each religion. …

If we have to make the day better than yesterday, we have to be united to do work. We did that in friendship and cooperation to help African students who need books for their schools, and the U.S.A. donates them. If you don't know anything, ask others, and if you do know, share with others and help them. … I hope we will again have the same type of program to help and get together to make others happy. Emory Day of Interfaith Youth Service was really great because to help others is a great thing in human beings. And if we help others, they will help us when we need help.

Kamal Dahal | Bhutan
It was an opportunity to learn many new things. Every moment I spent is now a remarkable memory. Meeting people from various backgrounds and states was like drinking salty water, which makes me more thirsty the more I drink. I got to learn about worshiping styles and beliefs people have about their gods. All holy talks are blessings for me. They pave my way to giving service. The lessons each religion teaches are the heavenly path, where we can kiss the summit of greatness and success.

Beyond the great knowledge I got, I had a golden opportunity to give my time to people who have a keen interest in learning and in exploring this world. I shared my heart and soul with other kindhearted fellows in sorting books for Africa.

Nirmala Regni
| Bhutan
I was so happy to see people from different countries and listen to their feelings and thoughts about religion. This is my first time taking part in an International Faith Day. … It was really interesting to sort books in the book storeroom where we all danced together. Later, we all played soccer, which was another interesting part of International Faith Day.

Many people asked about Hinduism. And I shared that it is the oldest practiced religion, with the third largest following after Christianity and Islam. More than a billion followers practice and 90% live in South Asia, particularly India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan. From the Indian subcontinent, it spread by migration, not conversion and evangelism, which are absent from Hinduism. Hindus also live in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Mauritius, Fiji, Suriname, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the U.S.A.

The back story
Since 1993, the Candler School of Theology has run a three-week residential summer program — the Youth Theological Initiative (YTI) for Christian rising seniors nationwide. Rooted in the Christian tradition, the program of justice-seeking theological education includes a “Day of Interfaith Youth Service” when participants engage in dialog and service work with Atlanta teens from other faith communities.

This year, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim voices of newly arrived refugee and immigrant students at Atlanta's Druid Hills High School added to the mix of local participants from the Jewish Community Center of Atlanta and the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau.

The refugee and immigrant students' participation was a project of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group, which helps ease the transition of our new neighbors to Atlanta. The students' ESL teacher, Smaranda Livescu, identified them to me and to Leslie Sokolow, who spearheaded the volunteer group, which was recently featured in the CDC newsletter (April 2009): CDC Volunteers Aid Bhutanese Refugees.

Sharing traditions: Hindus, Buddhists,
Jews, Christians, Muslims, and an agnostic

The day featured much dialogue among the participants (total: about 75, including me and the other chaperones). In small mixed “home groups,” they shared their religious traditions, and how each tradition regards doing service for others.

As participants shared stories about their backgrounds, the refugees’ experience in refugee camps (some were born there and others lived there 17 of their 18 years) and the perspective of their beliefs, traditions, and values captured the interest and imagination of their peers (most of whom were born in America or grew up here).

Hands-on learning
(interrupted by spontaneous dancing)

The afternoon off-campus service project, sorting warehoused books to be donated to Africa, was an ideal hands-on application of the morning discussions.

One new Bhutanese neighbor was excited about the books they were allowed to take from the warehouse recycle bins. His collection, carefully culled: an English dictionary, an SAT preparation guide, and M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled. ("What drew you to the book?" I asked Birendra. "It is the title of the Robert Frost poem I learned in the refugee camp school," his sensible reply).

Heartfelt thanks
On the way home after dinner and soccer ("We won!"), these ambassadors of courage, optimism, and tireless hard work uniformly expressed “heartfelt thanks!” to the organizers and hope to “get such an opportunity next time, too.” They also thanked “everyone who shared their thoughts about religion.”

My related posts

July 04, 2009

July Fourth picnic with Atlanta's new Bhutanese neighbors

Celebrating our nation's independence:
4-year-old Ryan, first-generation
son of Bhutanese-born parents

The CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Bhutanese Refugee Support Group honored our new Bhutanese neighbors as we celebrated our nation’s 233rd birthday together.

From the refugee community, Emory, CDC, the public schools and the Refugee Women's Network, folks came to Tobi-Grant Park loaded with cheer, American flags and decorations, and yummy food featuring vegetarian delights. My friend Craig, wearing his Abe Lincoln T-shirt, brought two dozen roasted ears of corn, home-grown organic cherry tomatoes, two benches, and ideas on sharing from the wisdom of George Washington's father, Frederick Douglass, and Uncle Abe, for whom the preamble to the Declaration of Independence represented a moral standard for the United States.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863

Flag-waving sweet Ryan's daddy, Tulasi Ghimirey, shared his thoughts on this holiday and on "this great nation where until today, nobody asked me from where I came, and why I'm here... where human rights and democracy are respected."

Watch the video (1:33 minutes)

My related posts

About Bhutanese in Atlanta
About July 4, American Independence Day