In January 2014, I had the unique opportunity to spend 3 weeks in Georgetown, Guyana in South America as part of a cross-cultural experience for my theological education at Wartburg Theological Seminary. It was a fascinating journey filled with experiences of wonder and discovery; and as part of my trip, I traveled to the churchwide offices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Guyana.
On the way there, I had the opportunity to talk with their president (their version of “presiding bishop” although he would not classify himself as a bishop) about the administrative business of the church as well as their budget and finances. He shared with me that the annual income for the churchwide organization is around 5 million Guyanese dollars… which the US equivalent would be $25,000 per year. This comes from offerings from a total of 48 churches many of which are small rural congregations with only 20 active members and their children. (This contrasts greatly with our own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America which has an annual operating income of over 71 million dollars from an estimated 9200 congregations.) Can you imagine?
And with that money, they support Sunday school curriculums, feeding programs for children and homeless, as well as provide leadership training for lay people and potential candidates for ministry. It makes me think about all the times when I sat in a church council meeting and the subject of supporting the churchwide organization comes up… do we really give on the same level as these people in Guyana do to their churchwide office? Do we operate from a place of abundance or do we think we are in a constant state of lack?
Another indelible image that stayed with me long after my trip had ended was a visit to a local church. We were at Calvary Lutheran Church to participate in their feeding program for the homeless near the market by the church.
Most of the time they only are able to offer hot tea and crackers (they call them “biscuits”). But the week I was there, a member of the church was celebrating his 60th birthday. In Guyana, they celebrate by giving to others… so this man donated a considerable amount of money in order for the church to provide hot dogs as well as the hot tea. Then he also brought with him special gift bags that he and his family packed the night before that included sweet cakes, biscuits, juice and other treats. Each person who came received this gift bag along with $200 Guyanese dollars (US equivalent $1). There was no fanfare or announcement that this man was showing his largesse… no, he said he felt so blessed in his own life that he knew that this was the best way to celebrate the blessing of another year. Now I thought again to myself… who has the greater measure?
For all of the many good things that we do in our churches in the US, the important ministry that is brought about by our faithful giving… I still wonder if we always operate from an understanding of our abundance like they do here in Guyana. Certainly there are many things that they are “lacking” here in this country… all the things that we have in abundance. And yet, I don’t remember a birthday celebration quite like the one we had that day. It is not customary in the US to celebrate a Thanksgiving service unless it is November… and yet, in Guyana they have a Thanksgiving service in their homes whenever they want to celebrate a special moment like a homecoming, a birthday, or a promotion. So I wonder… who has the greater measure?
After 3 weeks in Guyana, I returned to the United States… to my comfy chair, my hot shower, and my readily available drinking water… But, I still find myself remembering the Guyanese sense of abundance even in the face of scarcity. The people of Guyana seldom linger long on what they don’t have… but they definitely embrace the blessings that are theirs. That was the most valuable lesson that I brought home with me from Guyana… and one I hope anyone reading this will consider adopting as well. We have so much to be grateful for in our country… so let us celebrate by giving of ourselves more!
Intern Jennifer Michael admits that while she is likely too “high maintenance” to serve as a missionary, she was profoundly honored to share time in Guyana with the people of that country. Their generosity and joy are a testimony for all of us to make the most of what we have!