People I Read: Nicole Havelka

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Nicole Havelka at Defy the Trend (who, I should point out, I know from Chicago Theological Seminary).

Rev. Havelka is a deeply creative minister; consultant with the Center for Progressive Renewal; Minister for Networking, Resourcing, and Creativity with the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ; and Curator for Youth and Young Adult Ministries with the national setting of the United Church of Christ. Defy the Trend covers a lot of topics, but the ideas that I see Rev. Halvelka return to most often are social justice, faith formation, and – maybe most importantly – the role of social justice in faith formation.

Here are two paragraphs from a single post that speak to this theme:

Those who profess to follow Jesus must recognize that God speaks to us through the lens of time; always calling us to greater love of ourselves, our neighbors, even those we perceive to be enemies. We are called to live this first in our homes and our daily lives. This practice will likely inspire greater and greater integration of faith into life. Integrated faith lives means that people will feel compelled to do something about racial injustice.

Family ministry can and will change the world. One Family at A Time. Maybe it will even prevent the racial violence that tore Michael Brown’s family apart.

Faith formation is about the integration of faith in Christ into our daily lives. That includes – at its very core – diakonia: the work of justice and righteousness that finds its clearest expression in serving the poor and oppressed. Rev. Havelka and Defy the Trend provide a vision of the church as a community that moves beyond the comfortable familiarity of our brokenness into the unfamiliar places where we can do what matters.

Medium: Here’s What Happens When You Give $1,000 to Someone in Extreme Poverty

I’ll hide this little gem in here: With [Give Directly]’s rigorous measurement and auditing, they know that only 3% of their cash transfers are spent on vices (tobacco, alcohol, etc.), and vice consumption is identical to others in the community who did not receive transfers….which is about a fraction of my likely 15%.

He Will Be Our Brother

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moline, Illinois on September 25, 2016. The scriptures for this sermon are Luke 16:19-31 and 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

There’s a word in Albanian: Besa. It means something like ‘faithfulness’ or ‘honor’ or ‘keeping a promise’. But for centuries, it’s been lived our through hospitality.

It was lived out this way during World War II, when Albania – a little country on the Adriatic Sea and just northwest of Greece – was the only country in Europe to end the war with more Jewish people than it started with… despite being occupied first by fascist Italy and then Nazi Germany.

It was lived out during the Kosovo war in the mid-90s, when Albania – a little country with a population of about 2.7 million – accepted hundreds of thousands of refugees from Kosovo.

It was lived out before that when the rule was that there was an extra bed made-up in every house in case a guest arrived. It was lived out when the rule was that homeowners had to accept any guest who showed up.

It was lived out when someone wanted to build a hotel and the town turned out to protest. “Why build a hotel,” the people asked, “when a person can knock on any door and have a place to stay? What kind of people do you think we are that strangers would need a hotel?”

“Before the house belongs to the owner,” the saying goes, “it first belongs to God and the guest.”

I’m not trying to romanticize this idea. Besa was never perfect. There are hotels in Albania. But I like the image. The United Church of Christ is supposed to be a place of extravagant welcome, and I think that besa might look something like that.

And that extravagant welcome is what’s missing in today’s gospel reading.

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day,” says Jesus, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.”

I’m a professional fundraiser. And in my office at home I have a file box filled with mailings that I get from nonprofit organizations. A lot of fundraisers have these. They’re where we go when we need to write an appeal or a thank you note or a newsletter article and we need inspiration. Good writers borrow, as they say; great writers steal outright.

And if you’re like me and get a lot of mailings from a lot of nonprofits, then you’ve seen a thousand pictures of Lazarus. You’ve heard a thousand stories about Lazarus. You’ve read statements from Lazarus himself: I’m covered in sores, I long to satisfy my hunger with what falls from your table… for just the cost of a small coffee you can change my life.

He’s in the mail. He’s on the news. He’s on your Facebook feed.

All of us can look out at our gates and see Lazarus there.

And the point that Jesus is making with this parable shouldn’t surprise us: when we see Lazarus, we have to do something. As author, filmmaker, rapper, and professor MK Asante puts it: “When you make an observation, you have an obligation.”

And there are consequences for not doing something.

Because when Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham. And when the rich man dies, he goes… somewhere else.

And that leads to a moment that’s a problem for me.

From that other place, the rich man looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus. He calls out to Abraham, begging for mercy, “Send Lazarus,” he says, “to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.”

And Abraham says, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

Now, I get what Abraham’s saying here. I get the revenge fantasy afterlife.

I get saying to this rich man, “You spent your whole life in purple and fine linen acting as though your front gate was an impenetrable barrier. You couldn’t be bothered to notice Lazarus. And now the shoe’s on the other foot and you’re getting exactly what you deserve.”

I get it. I just don’t believe it. I believe that the gate has been opened. I believe that the chasm has been filled. I believe that when we cry out for help, Jesus answers with compassion. But I get why Abraham says this.

Because the biggest chasm there is is the one between people who live in comfort – dressing in purple and fine linen and eating sumptuously every day – and the people who live in agony. And it’s a chasm that we dig every day.

“Those who want to be rich,” writes the author of Timothy, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”

My desire for wealth… leads me into temptation. My desire for stuff… plunges me into ruin and destruction. My love for money… pierces me with many pains.

Because when I love money, I will do terrible things to get it. And when I want to protect my stuff, I will put up locked gates and dig great chasms. I will blame the poor for their poverty. I will say that charity is dangerous.

I will say that five-year old Omran Daqneesh, born into war, bloody and dust-covered, sitting quietly in an ambulance after being pulled out of the rubble that’s where his family’s home once stood shouldn’t be welcomed into my neighborhood because bad elements might tag along for the ride. After all, if I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you that just three would kill you, would you take a handful?

And that’s not who I want to be. That’s not the world I want to live in.

I don’t believe in the revenge fantasy afterlife. And I don’t think Jesus believes in the revenge fantasy afterlife. But I think this parable is true.

I think this parable is true because when we love money we create a world. We put up locked gates and we dig great chasms. And the thing about gates and chasms is that they work both ways. Locks that keep Lazarus out can keep me in. A chasm that he cannot cross, I cannot cross. I can’t build a world where lives are separated from one another without being separated from the giver of life.

I cannot serve both mammon and God.

And what Jesus tells us time and time again is that we can serve God; we can live in a world without gates and chasms, without purple and fine linen and sumptuous feasting on one side and Lazarus on the other. We can live – not quaint, biological, little-l live, but big, abundant, eternal, amazing, capital-L Live – in the Kingdom of God. And we can do that right now.

We can do that by giving up our hopes in the uncertainty of riches and putting our hope in the God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. We can do that by doing good. We can do that by being rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.

I know we can do this because Jesus says we can do it. And I know we can do it because, while someone did make the Skittles comment last week, someone also said this: “Remember the boy who was picked up by the ambulance in Syria? Can you please go get him and bring him to my home? We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

I know we can do it because the person who wrote that wasn’t a politician, or a world leader, or a preacher. The person who wrote that was a six-year-old boy.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that the rich man should have responded to Lazarus.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that Abraham should have responded to the rich man.

He saw someone in need and responded the way that I believe – with all of my heart and all of my soul and all of my strength and all of my mind – that Jesus responds to us.

He responded with besa. He responded with grace. He responded with the gospel.

“Go get him and bring him to my home. We will give him a family and he will be our brother.”

FiveThirtyEight: Why So Many Poor Americans Don’t Get Help Paying For Housing

For many of these families, the issue isn’t that they don’t qualify for help. It’s that the help they need isn’t available. That’s because unlike some other parts of the social safety net — such as food stamps — affordable housing is not an entitlement. Once the money appropriated by Congress runs out, the aid stops, no matter how much need there might be. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 3 in 4 renting families that qualify for government housing programs don’t receive any assistance.

Privilege and Perception

Living with privilege means living in a world where you – or, at least, the privileged aspects of you – are ‘normal’. It means that you can live your entire life in spaces where you don’t have to perform. You don’t have to think about how you are presenting yourself. You can simply ‘be yourself’ all the time.

What many people with privilege don’t realize is that this isn’t how things are for people without privilege. Without privilege, you need to learn to perform for different audiences. You need to think about how to ‘be gay’ around gay people, or around straight people, or around homophobic people. Similarly, you need to think about how to ‘be black’ around black people and around white people. ‘Being yourself’ means something different for people living without privilege.

But living with privilege often means believing that other people – people without privilege – live like we do, as the same version of themselves all the time.

It’s like this. When you grow up only speaking one language, and when that works for you, and when others defer to your language preference, it’s easy to believe that other people also only speak one language. This is true even if many other people are bilingual (and are often bilingual for the benefit of people just like you).

It’s easy for us to think about this in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and so on. We rarely think about it in terms of class.

But people living in poverty often need to perform differently for different audiences. When you’re poor, you need to know how to ‘be poor’ around low-income people, and how to ‘be poor’ around middle-income people. And you need to know how to pass as ‘middle class’ around some people. Life without the privilege of the middle class means, as it were, speaking more than one language. And that’s important.

It’s important because part of the case against charity is the case against poverty culture: the idea that people who are low-income don’t know how to budget, or that it’s important to plan for the future, or how to use anything other than ‘casual’ language. That’s a privilege-blinded picture of life in poverty. It imagines that there is one way of ‘being poor’ and that people who live in poverty are always ‘being poor’ in that way. It ignores the tremendous versatility of people without privilege.

Those of us who live with privilege need to open our eyes to that versatility. We need to realize that others are learning different languages for our benefit. We need to open our eyes and overcome the blinders of privilege so that we can all work together on ending privilege altogether.

People I Read: Emily C. Heath

In the early-ish days of blogging, it was normal to have a blogroll: a list of links to other (often more popular) blogs that the author was interested in. The blogroll would sit calmly in the sidebar and let readers browse their way to other blogs and other authors, discovering fresh ideas and insights. Now, nobody maintains a blogroll. The best hope you have of finding someone else is to follow a link in the body of a post or in a comment or in a link dump. Around here, they also show up in link posts that I share fairly frequently.

But the fact is that I kind of miss the blogroll, and I think that it’s worthwhile to share some of the blogs I read and a note one why I read them. I’ll try to put up one example every couple of weeks.

This post’s person I read is Emily C. Heath.

Rev. Heath is a progressive evangelical pastor in the United Church of Christ, a writer, and a public theologian. The easiest way to give you a picture of Heath’s biography and style is just to provide the bio on Heath’s website:

Christ-follower, displaced Southerner, binary-smasher, PhD dropout, former religious “none”, ambivert, fly-fishing enthusiast, progressive evangelical, fountain pen devotee, gender non-conformer, heavy lifter, recovery believer, Sox fan, Trinitarian, bow tie aficionado, marriage equality advocate, LEGO lover, prepster not hipster, blogger, Reformed theologian, fantasy football fanatic, 13th generation New Hampshirite, church lover, and spouse of an amazing woman.

Heath’s blog includes sermons, commentary on public events, and critiques of the mainline church – especially the United Church of Church – from the position of a progressive evangelical firmly embedded in the mainline church. As someone who was born and bred in the United Church of Christ, it’s Heath’s writings on this last topic that I find both most challenging and most enlightening. If you’re seeking a truly progressive evangelical voice that recognized both the successes and the challenges of the progressive mainline, Heath is the read for you.

Heath also has a book out, Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

Boston Review: Great Exploitations

Exacerbating states’ natural inclination toward grift, private companies have taken power at all stages of the welfare system and have done so with an eye on states’ and their own bottom lines. States almost universally contract with private corporations to administer their welfare programs. Welfare providers, such as hospitals, also hire private companies to help them maximize payment claims. States then hire additional private companies to help them reduce their payouts to providers and increase their claims from the federal government. The federal government hires the same or similar companies to audit Medicaid and other industries and to review state actions. These companies lobby heavily at the state and national levels for their own interests and with little public scrutiny brought to bear on how they conduct their business. Hatcher details how often conflicts of interest and pay-to-play arrangements influence the votes of state politicians, for example. At each step, the companies profit off a system designed to provide a safety net for our most vulnerable citizens. They are, quite literally, stealing from the poor. And although it has the authority to do so, the federal government rarely pursues prosecution against revenue maximization schemes.

How to Write Your Thank You Letter

One of the most powerful things that every fundraiser does is say ‘thank you’. It’s also something that a lot of organizations find difficult. There’s always the temptation to turn the thank you letter into a gift receipt, to ask for another gift, or to write about things that are more important to the letter writer than to the donor. Some organizations even forget to say ‘thank you’ altogether!

So I’m providing this short guide on how to write a thank you letter. For my examples, I’ll use the Greater Madison Animal Welfare Center, which I’m pretty confident is a fictional organization.

The Salutation

While all of your letters should be personalized, this is especially important for thank you letters. Select a salutation that fits with your organization’s voice, whether that’s formal (e.g., Dear Mr. and Mrs. Jones) or informal (e.g. Dear Jack and Jill).

Example: Dear Jack and Jill,

The First Paragraph

This may be the only part of the body of the letter that your donor reads, and that means that it has to do the heavy lifting. This paragraph should absolutely say ‘thank you’. It can also let the donor know that you know the amount of the gift and – in a general sense, what it was used for.

Example: Thank you so much for your gift of $100 to sponsor one of our kennels! Your gift is being put to work to provide a comfortable home for a dog until he finds his forever home. Thanks to you, a dog will have a warm, safe place to stay, along with good meals, medical care, companionship, and play time.

The Middle

This is a good opportunity to expand on what you wrote in the first paragraph. The most important thing here is to connect the donor to the good that her gift did. This isn’t about your budget. This isn’t about your organizational concerns. This is about the work that the donor has done by giving that gift. In other words, this is about the people you serve.

Example: Dogs like Beauregard. Beauregard is a four-year old terrier to came to us last week. He’s energetic, friendly, and gets along with everyone. We’re sure he’ll find a forever home soon. Until then, your gift is providing a wonderful temporary home for him.

The Last Paragraph

Take just a moment to say thank you one last time and let the donor know how big of an impact she had.

Example: Thank you for partnering with us through your generous gift. We, and the animals we care for, are ever grateful.

The Valediction

Yes, the part of the letter where you write ‘Sincerely,’ or ‘Yours Truly,’ has a name! It’s the valediction. Don’t sweat this too much, but make it something professional, warm, and suited to your organization. Most nonprofits might use ‘Yours’. A church might use ‘In Christ’s name’ or ‘Grace and Peace’.

Example: Warmly Yours,

The Signature

There’s a lot of debate to be had over who should sign a thank you letter. Some people say that the executive director or president of the board of directors should sign letters. Others suggest that the people who run the program the gift effects should sign the letter for that gift. There’s a case to be made for each of those, and an easy way to solve the dilemma is to have layered thank you letters (i.e.the executive director sends one thank you letter, which is followed up by a letter from a program director).

There is one hard and fast rule, though: always hand sign thank you letters. Printed signatures are not acceptable.

The Postscript

The postscript is one of the most read parts of any letter. This is a great opportunity for a call to action, as long as that call to action isn’t asking for another gift. I recommend providing donors with a way to get more information about the work that their gift is doing. This might include an invitation to view stories on your website. And don’t forget to say ‘thank you’ one more time!

Example: PS: Thank you again for your generous support. If you’d like to see more about the work your gift is doing, please visit us at madisonanimals.org/news.

That Pesky IRS Language

It’s true that our friends at the Internal Revenue Service mandates that your gift acknowledgements contains certain information. This information includes:

  • The amount of the gift or, if it’s a gift-in-kind, a description of the gift,
  • A statement about whether the donor received any goods or services in exchange for the gift, and
  • If goods or services were received by the donor, a good faith estimate of their value.

But this should not be the focus of the letter! If you’ve followed the example above, you’ve already included the amount (though you might want to include the amount and date again). So, if it’s a thank you letter for a regular gift, you just need a statement that the donor didn’t receive any goods or services in exchange for that gift. I prefer to put this in a small note at the bottom of the letter.

Example: For your tax records, and in compliance with 26 US Code§170(f)(8), this letter also serves as verification that no goods or services were given in exchange for your gift.

Conclusion

Hopefully, the template above is useful. The most important thing to remember, though, is that the thank you letter has a very simple job: to let the donor know you received the gift, to thank them for that gift, and to tell them that the gift is being put to work as they intended. If you keep that in mind – and an attitude of gratitude in your heart – writing a thank you letter shouldn’t be an arduous task.

Here’s the whole letter:

Dear Jack and Jill,

Thank you so much for your gift of $100 to sponsor one of our kennels! Your gift is being put to work to provide a comfortable home for a dog until he finds his forever home. Thanks to you, a dog will have a warm, safe place to stay, along with good meals, medical care, companionship, and play time.

Dogs like Beauregard.

Beauregard is a four-year old terrier to came to us last week. He’s energetic, friendly, and gets along with everyone. We’re sure he’ll find a forever home soon. Until then, your gift is providing a wonderful temporary home for him.

Thank you for partnering with us through your generous gift. We, and the animals we care for, are ever grateful.

Warmly Yours,

Jane Johnson
Executive Director

PS: Thank you again for your generous support. If you’d like to see more about the work your gift is doing, please visit us at madisonanimals.org/news.

Date of Gift: September 9, 2016
Amount of Gift: $100

For your tax records, and in compliance with 26 US Code§170(f)(8), this letter also serves as verification that no goods or services were given in exchange for your gift.

The Atlantic: The Plight of the Overworked Nonprofit Employee

When faced with dwindling funding, one response would be to cut a program or reduce the number of people an organization serves. But nonprofit leaders have shown themselves very reluctant to do that. Instead, many meet financial challenges by squeezing more work out of their staffs without a proportional increase in their pay: The Urban Institute report found that most nonprofits choose to cut salaries, benefits, and other costs long before scaling back their operations. “There is this feeling that the mission is so important that nothing should get in the way of it,” Elizabeth Boris, one of the Urban Institute report’s authors, says.

Why I Get Nervous about Importing Ideas from the For-Profit Sector

The Obama administration recently banned ITT Technical Institute schools from accepting new students who receive federal loans or grants. Since ITT relies on that federal money for about 68% of its revenue, this could end up forcing the closure of one of the largest for-profit college chains in the country.

This is important. But to understand why it’s important, it’s useful to understand how for-profit colleges like ITT make money.

When a student takes out a student loan, that money goes from the lender – in this case, the government, to the school. For a for-profit school, every student who pays tuition is a net plus.

A good school will provide something of value to those students: a good education ending with a degree that helps those students gain employment. The good school – especially if it’s nonprofit – may even rely on its graduates having good jobs and positive feelings for the school in order to keep going. It needs the voluntary donations of its alumni.

A bad school will maximize profit by keeping the cost of having students as low as possible. It won’t provide a good education ending with a degree that helps those students gain employment. The bad school doesn’t care about the life of it students after they graduate. It made its money as soon as they paid tuition.

The best move for the bad school is to find people who are desperate for a degree, charge the highest tuition they can, and provide very little in terms of education. If the student can pay that tuition herself, the school takes her money. If she can’t, the school can steer her towards a loan; that way, the school makes the money without assuming any additional risk.

Not all for-profit schools have to be bad, of course. And not all nonprofit schools are good. But the ethos that motivates a bad for-profit school like ITT is rooted in the need for profit: maximize revenue, minimize costs. In that regard, it’s no different from other for-profit institutions. If the interests of investors and students align, it might be great. If those interests don’t align, then the students end up debt-ridden, unemployed, and living in poverty.

And that’s why I get nervous about importing ideas from the for-profit sector.

Both Steve Rothschild (in his book The Non NonProfit) and Dan Pallotta (in his popular TED Talk “The Way We Do Charity Is Dead Wrong”) advocate for the idea of nonprofit organizations generating profit for investors. In principle, there are ways to do this that provide financial resources to nonprofits while generating profit for investors. Rothschild provides some examples that look promising.

But we need to be incredibly careful with ideas like this. When someone makes a donation to a nonprofit, his interests are aligned with the interests of the people the nonprofit serves. For example, when I make a donation to my alma mater, I’m doing that because I want students to receive a good education; the students also want to receive a good education. Our interests are aligned.

If I invest in my school with the goal of making a profit, however, my interests don’t necessarily align with those of the students. If providing lower quality services to the students generates more profit, my interests would be met without meeting the interests of the students. And that’s what happens with institutions like ITT.

I’m not saying we can never ever take inspiration from the for-profit sector. Maybe social impact bonds or human capital performance bonds have potential. But stories like this – where we see the for-profit sector taking advantage of low-income people in order to make a profit, in accordance with the most basic motives of the for-profit sector – should make us skeptical of claims that the for-profit sector has something to offer.

After all, it’s a truism to say that the point of the for-profit sector is not to do good, it’s to generate profit.