On Money, Prayer, and SWEDOW: Responding to the Typhoon and Other Disasters

(This is part I of II.  Here is part II.)

Love and compassion, guide us.
Help us to be spiritually present in the recovery, even when oceans are between us.
Fill our prayers with solace and hope.
Help us support partner relationships with solidarity.
And, inspire within us the true generosity that all tragedies invite, and which this disaster requires.

(Reverend Terry Sweetser, UUA, November 11, 2013)

One article (published November 11) reminds us not to send our “gently-used” goods (teddy bears? Old shoes? Breast milk? Really?) but send MONEY.  I get the idea of wanting to meet a concrete need and I do this with my own hand-me-downs that go to the local Goodwill.  I’m totally in support of that (and not only because I do at least half of my own clothes shopping at such places).

I don’t get spending money on postage or shipping to get such things across the world.  And there’s this, as described by Jessica Alexander in the article referenced above, after the 2004 South Asian tsunami:

After the tsunami, similarly well-intentioned people cleaned out their closets, sending boxes of “any old shoes” and other clothing to the countries. I was there after the tsunami and saw what happened to these clothes: Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Cattle began picking at them and getting sick. Civil servants had to divert their limited time to eliminating the unwanted clothes. Sri Lankans and Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped people’s hand-me-downs. I remember a local colleague sighed as we passed the heaps of clothing on the sides of the road and said “I know people mean well, but we’re not beggars.”

And this:

Boxes filled with Santa costumes, 4-inch high heels, and cocktail dresses landed in tsunami-affected areas. In some places, open tubes of Neosporin, Preparation H, and Viagra showed up. The aid community has coined a term for these items that get shipped from people’s closets and medicine cabinets as SWEDOW—Stuff We Don’t Want.

Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters
Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

It’s like what my local food pantry tells me about how I can most effectively support their efforts: give money, not food (though they accept food donations, as well as those of clothes and other items of necessity).  I might feel good, and somehow more involved, if I pass on some of what’s in my pantry.  Yet, it turns out that my local survival center can turn every one dollar I give them into seven dollars worth of food (and they are more likely to choose the food that actually gets eaten by the people who use their services).  Plus, then I avoid the temptation to donate that food in my pantry that has sat there for months (years?) and gone uneaten.  If it’s not appetizing to me, what are the odds it is to someone else?

Some people fear that if they give money, it will be misused and not reach the victims.  Here is a comment that came across my Facebook feed, in response to the Slate article by Alexander:

Why send money when only 10 % or less actually reaches those that need it most. the charity whores who make money off tragedy love these moments.

I think, okay: fair enough.  There’s corruption out there.  And if not intentional malice, then ineptitude.  Or poor judgment.  Or all of the above.

Given the increased frequency with which these catastrophes are happening (f*ck that prudence that says no single weather event can be linked to climate change), it is the responsibility of people with financial privilege (yes, me, and nearly everyone in Western nations, for as my Tanzanian friend once chided me, even the poorest in your country is richer than most of the people in mine) to find trust-worthy agencies who will ensure that the donations serve the people most in need.

This is a subjective process.  I know some who only trust the American Red Cross and others who will not give it one dime.  Some refuse to give to the Salvation Army because of its homophobic policies (count me in that crowd!) and others are committed to ringing that bell during the winter holiday times.  It does require some effort at a discernment process.  Yet, there are ways to make it a little easier on yourself.

What I do is look to people I respect.  There’s one former humanitarian aid worker friend of mine whose Facebook page always indicates a worthy destination for my support.  She has integrity and so I trust her recommendations.   Regarding support for the Philippines, she recommends Project All Hands.  Since they were already working in the aftermath of the October earthquake devastation, they are well positioned to continue to provide support after Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda.

I also look to the Unitarian Universalists.  I see that the UU Service Committee has a joint Philippines Typhoon Haiyan Relief Fund Effort with the UUA.  This is important to me because I believe in my faith’s social justice and healing efforts.  It is important because there are UU congregations in Manilla and on the Island of Negros.  As UUs, we must live into our interdependent web of all beings — whether UU or not.

Residents gather salvageable materials from the ruins of houses after typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban in central Philippines. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters
Residents gather salvageable materials from the ruins of houses after typhoon Haiyan battered Tacloban in central Philippines. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters

In the midst of feeling like there is not much I can do so far away from those who are wailing in their pain, wailing in their suffering, wailing in their shock, wailing in their despair and fear, the wise words of Unitarian Universalist minister, Kate Braestrup, from her book on prayer, called Beginner’s Grace, have come to me.  First, on money:

Money doesn’t have a particularly good reputation among the devout, who are generally as eager to ascribe virtue to the impoverished as they are to avoid joining their company.  But I love the stuff.  The best thing about money is that you can use it to bridge a wide geographic gap between lover and beloved and translate compassion into succor over long distances.

Yes, money (not teddy bears or shoes).  And prayers if you are so inclined.  But not just prayers.  Prayers are good, but are not enough.  Again, the wise words of Kate Braestrup:

Still, if someone is starving, for God’s sake, don’t sit around praying: Give him food.  (The same goes for water, warmth, rest, and the Heimlich maneuver.)  To assert that prayer is always, under all circumstances, the first thing love should do, or even the best that love can do, is irresponsible at best and a self-serving lie at worst.

Sometimes, however, it’s all we can do.  Sometimes prayer is all we’ve got left.

Vincent Yu/Associated Press
Vincent Yu/Associated Press

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