Amazing Little Blessings

It’s funny how life works, and how God works when you have a little faith.

Yesterday was kind of a down day for me. I’ve been working my tail off and starting to feel like my superwoman abilities to balance everything and encourage everybody and follow through on promises in a timely manner are slipping. Not that big a deal really, but I had been enjoying feeling very on top of things for awhile.

So anyway just when I’m sulking and wishing I could vent online about something that I can’t, I got a crazy unexpected email that I won an iPod Nano and a $25 iTunes gift card. If you know me well you know how much an iTunes gift card of any size means to me. Music is my sanity, my inspiration, my saving grace (besides of course THE saving grace of Jesus…but who do you think gives me music?) I was just sitting there wanting to buy some more music and feeling the pinch of a summer budget with crazy expensive camps and soaring electric bills from the AC running hard 24/7. This gift was something I didn’t even ask for, an unexpected blessing.

Later that night Mike and I had a budget meeting that really didn’t go very well. As part of Financial Peace U. we learned that these meetings should take place at the beginning of each month, should be short and sweet and should result in a zero dollar, completely balanced budget for the month. For various reasons this month’s review didn’t take place till halfway through the month and now things have already been spent that could have been skipped. Plus Mike’s budget was showing a fat deficit, suggesting we dip into savings this month to cover the big extra costs like summer childcare. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, common sense tells you not to plan to be in the red at the end of the month…only the federal government consistently runs like that and we all know how well that works.

The long and short of it is that expenses needed to be trimmed. I had an online shopping cart at Gymboree full of awesome deals like $3.00 shirts that I decided to just ignore. Sadly. I had also put a book I’ve been wanting into a cart at Amazon. It was the Jesus Storybook Bible, a book I have heard lots of friends rave about for sharing the wonderful story of the gospel with kids. I really wanted it, but decided it could wait too.

Then yesterday I happened to be checking Twitter at the right time and noticed the weekly WiseBread webchat had just started. My friend Kelly is the community manager for WiseBread, a great practical personal finance site, and she runs these weekly webchats about ways to save money. This week’s chat was on couponing, something I have recently started doing more of and am excited about. So I joined it, because these chats are just fun.

To my complete surprise, I won a giftcard to Amazon in the webchat! It was just enough to cover the Jesus Storybook Bible that was still sitting in my Amazon shopping cart. Completely unexpected. I got the giftcard code immediately and finished placing the order, totally grateful and knowing exactly where that blessing came from too.

Now I’m no follower of the prosperity gospel, but I know where my blessings come from. Blessings don’t always come in the form of money or good things, but sometimes they do. Believing and living like everything you have is God’s anyway and being faithful with a little sometimes gets rewarded in tangible ways with a little more.

How You Can Help The Poor (Hint: It’s Not Buying a Pair of Shoes)

*disclaimer: This post is not intended to be comprehensive or even well organized. I simply want to get some things off my chest and possibly start a useful dialog about poverty and what we can and should do about it. 

**Also if you own a pair of TOMS, please do not feel like I am attacking you personally. I’m not, I just want to share why I’m not on board this train. 

Today the CEO of TOMS shoes, Blake Mycoskie, did a big reveal about how the company is moving beyond just making, selling and giving shoes. I really think by now everyone has heard of TOMS shoes, the company that promises they will donate one pair of shoes to someone in the third world for every one pair that you buy. Now they will begin making sunglasses, promising to “give sight” to one person for every pair of eyewear you buy.

I’ve been amazed lately by how many of my friends, especially Christian leaders and advocates for the marginalized, are seemingly big supporters of TOMS. I’ve also noticed how trendy they have become, appearing in hip boutiques and on the feet of teenagers everywhere. Well these recent events have only increased my skepticism about the company, its founder, and their business model for giving.

Let’s start with the fact that by all acounts, Blake Mycoskie has the heart of a Texas entrepreneur in him. I admit to knowing very little about him other than what’s been published in the news and interviews he’s given, but I understand the mind and drive of someone who has started at least two successful businesses before he founded TOMS…after appearing on reality television. Charity is obviously a hugely powerful marketing tool. I’ve seen it in action many times and it works well to get people to help you succeed by convincing them they are doing a good deed. Sure, a lot of good DOES get accomplished that way, but I will always question the motives. Blake Mycoskie is now reportedly worth about $5 million. I just don’t buy his story that starting a for-profit business was simply a way to make giving more sustainable than founding a non-profit. Don’t. Buy. It.

Next I want to look at the good that TOMS actually does. They say they are giving shoes to people who could not otherwise afford them in order to prevent the spread of disease and allow kids to develop normally and go to school. But I’ve done a lot of research on poverty and injustice and economics in the developing world and I believe at minimum they are not using their money where it is needed most and at worst they are actually doing more harm than good.

It’s impossible for me to outline all the details of what I’ve read, but one thing I am convinced of is that we have an extremely Americanized perspective on how we can help. I strongly question whether they are truly able to determine who needs these shoes based on what I’ve read. Americans love the idea of giving shoes because we see them as essential to life.

What if they really aren’t that essential? What if stopping the spread of disease is far better addressed by working with a community to build latrines, provide clean water, and educate people on hygiene. I was floored to read this comment on a blog post about TOMS,

As to sanitation… I have to wonder how hard it is to dig a ditch, and then use that to poop, and then NOT walk in it. Maybe I’m too ignorant in the ways of the ultra-poor, but basic sanitation seems like a prerequisite to civilization to me.

Yes, you ARE too ignorant in the ways of the ultra-poor. Staggering to me that people do not have any concept of the fact that 2.5 billion (with a B) people lack adequate sanitation. 884 million still lack access to clean safe water and are dying rapidly from preventable diseases because of it.

What if these people can actually buy locally sold shoes for pennies but chose not too? What happens to the people who import or manufacture shoes or shirts locally when the white people swoop in and flood their market with an abundance of donated goods? Why doesn’t TOMS set up sustainable manufacturing operations IN these local communities, providing people with not just shoes for a year but jobs for a lifetime? Why do TOMS make their shoes in China?

Some links that I beg you to read if you doubt what I’m talking about.

Now this last part is going to sound harsh, but I have to say it. America is all about consumerism. I’m just as guilty of that as everyone else. People love the idea of being able to feed their love of comfy hip fashion  while in theory doing something more altruistic. It assuages their guilt. It is entirely self-motivated. Americans want the easy way out of really getting their hands dirty, spending time researching the hard ugly truth of poverty and doing something about it. Studies have shown that cause marketing actually lowers charitable giving.

How about just buying a $30 pair of shoes and writing a check for the other $30 you saved on TOMS to a legit international aid organization…maybe consider sponsoring a child through Compassion International? Or send the money to organizations like Water for People or Living Water International who are doing far more towards ensuring survival, public health and economic development. Or if you REALLY care that much, consider actually giving your time to go with one of these organizations to rehabilitate an orphanage or educate kids about hand-washing. Heck, even building a house with Habitat for Humanity is a better use of your time and money.

For a lot more great information about poverty, addressing the root causes and how we can  help, I recommend the following books:

Don’t take the easy way out. That’s my challenge for you.