Inspired by the song "You Can't Beat God's Giving," and her experiences growing up immersed in ministry, Jennifer Kaalund helps us reflect today on stewardship lessons from the African American Church. Other conversations about church stewardship frequently hinge on assumptions about hard money paying for tall walls where congregations gather. Hopefully you can address those assumptions with a grain of salt after reading below about the importance of a pound of sugar.
"You Can’t Beat God’s Giving": A Reflection on the African American Church
My understanding of stewardship has been shaped by my formative years in churches where my father served as a minister and pastor for almost four decades. From this inside perspective, I am keenly aware of what keeps a building in operation -- heating, cooling, electricity, salaries, and all the bills need to be paid. But church is more than a building.
One of my early memories of my dad’s ministry was a time when we visited a small church in rural North Carolina. Although I do not remember my dad’s sermon, I do remember how the church honored his service -- they “pounded” him. That is, in lieu of financial compensation, congregants gave our family a pound of sugar, a pound of flour, a pound of rice, a pound of peas, and a pound of beans. This pounding was one of the most sincere expressions of appreciation that I have ever experienced. The congregation gave what they had to give, and it was beautiful. We accepted it in the spirit in which it was given: with grateful hearts. And out of such abundance, we gave, too.
This way of giving was reminiscent of the historical African American church. As I reflect on how an enslaved people built such a formidable institution, I attribute this success, in part, to the church’s ability to see its role beyond spiritual development. Historically, Black churches were not only responsible for meeting spiritual needs.They also attended to people’s psychological, financial, educational, and basic human needs. They saw giving to each other as a way of giving to God. Linking their service to each other with their service to God resulted in a community of believers that understood stewardship as more than financial support.
By this strength, the church was the church, even when there was no physical building. Whether meeting in a forest clearing, an apartment, or one-roomed building, it was the gathering of the people that was truly valuable. Building a church’s physical structure required one’s own blood, sweat, tears, and resources; so it became clear that while they belonged to the church, the church also belonged to them. As a result, there was an overarching understanding that the support and care of the physical place where people chose to gather could never supersede the recognition of people’s humanity, including the acknowledgement of their basic needs and provision for their survival.
Indeed, times have changed. While historically the church provided moral, spiritual, and political leadership, many black churches can no longer be viewed in this role. However, recent studies continue to find that “during times of illness, the informal financial and spiritual support and caregiving assistance offered by African-American churches is second only to the support provided by the actual family.”1 Within this network of care, the idea persists of the church as a vehicle for self-actualization. The church can be a place where we learn to see who we really are, and where we can see the divine in each other.
Perhaps remembering the past and rethinking our present relationships in the church will help us reconceptualize stewardship. For me, stewardship cannot be reduced to the practical gains of passing of the plate or having procession around a table. Stewardship displays our ability to imitate God through our giving.
When asked to re-examine stewardship, I was reminded of the song “You Can’t Beat God’s Giving.” This song explores how stewardship can only be examined at the cross section of two main avenues: What we give to each other, and what we do with what God has given to us. In doing, we can remember the practice of pounding to replace feelings of dread and discomfort around stewardship with feeling of grateful joy. This gratitude sustains us when grounded in appreciation for our ability to participate in God’s work. Just as the small gestures in pounds of rice and beans were more than the sum of their parts, we must consider how we give out of our abundance (of talent or treasure) in ways that are overflowing. We simply cannot beat God’s giving. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon us to try.
1 Erica Ball, “African American Philanthropy,” Philanthropy.org, 2003. http://www.philanthropy.org/publications/online_publications/african_american_paper.pdf. Retrieved July 2018.
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Dr. Kaalund has a Ph.D. in New Testament and Early Christianity, and serves as Assistant Professor for Religious Studies at Iona College. Dr. Jennifer Kaalund is the author of Reading Hebrews and 1 Peter with the African American Great Migration: Diaspora, Place, and Identity (Bloomsbury 2018). Dr. Kaalund has research interests in Christian scriptures, African American history and culture, the Bible in popular culture, and the study of early Christianity in its Roman imperial context with a focus on womanist hermeneutics and postcolonial and cultural studies.