Reflection by Rev. Nicoline Guerrier, 11 February 2018
Imagine it’s Sunday evening, only a few hours from now.
You and a few others have just finished a delicious meal in a restaurant. Along with the aroma of coffee and perhaps Indian chai, there’s the ever present scent of fresh, hot cooked food. It wafts into the room every time the kitchen door swings open or a smiling waiter walks by carrying plates to neighbouring diners.
The energy in the room is high: along with laughter and all the sounds you’d expect - like ice clinking in glasses, dishes being stacked and removed, and the chatter of excited patrons waiting to be seated - there’s also an unusual amount of interaction between tables. People are introducing themselves to folks they’ve never met before. They’re trading stories and discovering connections. One table is teaching another a song.
And although your budget might be excessively tight, and you’re not used to finding yourself out at a restaurant at all, this time you feel no worry when the waiter (a volunteer) hands you the bill, written on a crisp notecard. You look it over and, as expected, it reads:
Your total: $0, followed by this script: “In the spirit of generosity, someone who came before you made a gift of this meal. Now, it’s your chance to pay-it-forward for a future guest and continue the circle of giving. How much would you like to pay?”
What restaurant is this?
You’re right. You’re at Karma Kitchen, the brainchild of California resident Nipun Mehta. Mehta is someone who left a career in information technology to devote himself to collaborative learning. He’s given himself the mission of finding innovative ways to mobilize people’s energy for selfless service, otherwise known as karma yoga (and thus the name of his restaurant project.)
Karma Kitchen doesn’t have a fixed address. Rather, it’s a model that’s been adopted in a number of cities around the world – though none in Canada yet, unfortunately. Here’s how it works: organizers rent a restaurant for a single evening, often a Sunday or some other day of the week when business is typically sparse. They pay a fixed price which covers use of both the space and food. Volunteers take charge of cooking, serving, and cleaning up.
Guests never pay for their own dinner. Instead they’re invited to “pay it forward” by making a voluntary contribution. Through giving whatever they can afford or choose to contribute, they cover the meal of someone else who will dine after them.
I hope I’ll have the chance to experience Karma Kitchen one day (and if anyone here would like to begin this project locally, let me know and I can tell you right now, I’m in!) I’ll post a video and some links on the church Facebook page, for folks who want to learn more. Because whether they go to eat, or to volunteer, Karma Kitchen changes people’s lives. Whether it’s from knowing someone before you left you a gift, or whether it’s from reframing a meal into an opportunity to give, people discover the model frees them up into being able to interact joyfully and more openly with one another. As a side benefit, they discover feelings of deep connection with the people who make and serve their food, with the other diners, and especially, with the unknown guests who will arrive at the restaurant after they leave.
Have you done anything like this? Have you knowingly played a part in what some call the gift economy?
People who champion the gift economy, like writer and public speaker Charles Eisenstein, point out that the purchase economy is built on a series of closed loops. Once you receive the item or service you’ve paid for, the transaction is over. You might say a loop like this is energetically dead, once payment is complete.
By contrast, gifting in a way where the outcome is uncertain, but where you, yourself, recall your positive experiences of having been on the receiving end of the gift cycle, seems to generate energy and creativity toward the many other ways generosity is both possible, and desirable. What else would explain that at Karma Kitchen, people find themselves adding in gifts of music or performance; they leave objects on a gift table for others to take home. And ultimately, people leave asking themselves and each other, why is life not more often like this? And, how else can I serve?
Some would say that every religion has its values, or principles, and then the activities by which these values are incarnated, brought into the realm of experience (and sometimes, transformation.)
Karma Kitchen incarnates the Hindu value of selfless service, or engaging in the spiritual practice of doing right action without attachment to outcome. It’s an example that makes me wonder how we, as a Unitarian Universalist community, incarnate our central values.
All this month, as this community turns its attention to the theme of interdependence, I’ll be paying special attention to how we incarnate, or embody, what we call our seventh principle: “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” We usually talk of the “interdependent web” when we want to remind ourselves of the ways we humans are nested in a web of interdependent relationship with all other elements of life on this planet.
But to me, the notion of interdependence also evokes the ways in which a chance gesture or change of attitude on our part – like the smile tossed into the stream of urban life in the reading Shoshanna shared with us earlier – shifts the way we experience ourselves and one another.
Let’s play with these concepts of interdependence, but also incarnation, as we turn to a time of meditation, using this simple song: From You I Receive.
Every spiritual community has its rituals of giving, recurring activities which become woven into the shared communal identity of its people. As a long-time member of this congregation, the ritual that for me seems to go back “forever” is the one that used to be called Bidnite - though as of last year, it’s been reincarnated with a new time slot and slightly new name. If you were here last year, you’ll know it as BidSunday.
For those of you who might not have experienced Bidnite/BidSunday, it’s the annual fundraising auction. The concept is simple, and hardly unique: people donate items and also services to the church, which are then auctioned off during an a big congregational party - in order to generate income. Things for sale range from items made in people’s homes – like a pound of shortbread – to hand-me-downs, like antique treasures ready to find a new home. There are also big-ticket items like a donated weekend away at a residence in a different city or country. A lot of people make offers by hosting social events, which also become opportunities to build connections within the congregation: you can celebrate Mardi Gras at a sumptuous dinner in a congregant’s home, for example, or visit with the minister at her famous annual homemade Italian gelato party.
At the same time, as any of you who have experienced financial hardship will know, this event is not so fun for anyone who doesn’t have the ability to give using money. No surprise, it’s often the smaller items that generate the most intense bidding wars. Shortbread or homemade jam with a starting bid of $10 get sold for $50. In recent years you’ve begun making some of the Wow! Items available through a raffle, with tickets sold at a modest price. Still, to some degree the auction has the feeling of a big shopping extravaganza, where it’s easy for folks without cash flow to feel lesser than those who have the ability to bid without restraint.
I know this, because during all the years I was raising my children as a mostly single parent who worked part-time, even finding $25 or $30 to spend at this event was a stretch for me. More importantly, though my head knew this community saw me as a person of worth, this event – of all of the church activities – always felt to me like it divided the room into two, leaving me inevitably, and uncomfortably, on the side of the “have-nots.” In the end, I just stopped attending. Others, here and elsewhere, have told me they’ve done the same.
This year, we’re taking a little step toward inclusivity by introducing a small but important change to BidSunday, which will be held on April 29th after service. As an experiment, every time someone offers a good or a service, their name will be entered into a draw. After the deadline for submitting offers has passed, two names will be drawn – and those two people will win the equivalent of $200 to spend at the auction. We’re hoping this will help reframe the event as one that honours giving, period, not just giving financially.
But this is a fundraiser, I know some of you are saying!
I hear you! It is a fundraiser. But I also want to say, “But wait – “because there’s another model for this event that – and here’s the secret – I wish you’d really consider trying.
People who’ve observed this phenomenon have noticed that generally speaking, folks come to these events with a pretty good, pre-established idea of what they’re planning to spend. Those who’ve tried this alternative model base themselves on this premise, and invite everyone to make their contributions when they arrive, before the bidding begins. Some might give $5, some $500. Everyone brings the gift of their presence and their excitement. At that point, each person in attendance is given play money – let’s say in your case, UCM dollars – in exactly the same amount. And then the bidding begins.
Any guesses how this tends to turn out? First off, the bidding wars end up having an entirely different energy to them. People end up rooting – as a group – for those who come from behind. The level playing field leads to unexpected risk-taking from people who are usually quiet – and of course, lots of hilarity. And the big surprise: these events tend to raise the same amount of money, if not more, than what the same group did using the “old method.”
Talk to the folks at the London, Ontario congregation – who as far as I know were the first Canadian congregation to take a leap of faith and try out this model. Or talk to Danielle Webber, your sabbatical minister, who grew up in a congregation that’s had successful results fundraising with this style of high energy auction party.
You might wonder, how does this matter in a world poised on the brink of self-destruction, where what we really need is resistance, revolution, international collaboration based on sophisticated political savvy?
I agree that we need all those things. But I also believe that church needs to be a place for incarnating the values we say we most deeply believe – because that is how people are transformed, brought to see the world with new eyes, and reenergized to seek the good.
Back to Nipun Mehta, he traces his own generous nature at least as far back as his great-grandfather, someone he describes as, “a man of little wealth, who still managed to give every day of his life.”
This great-grandfather’s habit was to start every day with a walk, and as he walked along he dropped a pinch of flour onto every anthill he passed. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking. Mehta himself agrees that objectively speaking, these miniscule acts of generosity had an unmeasurably small impact on the world of ants, or any other species, for that matter. But they shaped his great-grandfather, who started every morning with a ritual of awareness, conscientiousness, and generosity. You might say that those ants, by their presence, offered Mehta’s great-grandfather the opportunity to give, and then to cultivate his identity as a person of intentional generosity.
So who was the giver and who the receiver here?
I believe we are all, deeply, interdependent, both limitlessly able to envision new futures for ourselves and deeply vulnerable, giving and receiving from the moment we first enter this life, to the moment we take our last breath.
What I do know is that most of us come to church longing to feel whole and holy, to know our lives are of worth;
We come seeking sanctuary from a world and a worldview that tells us that we, or those we love and live among are lesser;
We come to re-member – to put back together identities that are broader and more complete than the ones we live with in the day to day world;
And whatever or whoever we believe in, we come seeking good companions who will know us and see us as we deeply are, not with the world’s eyes. May we never forget to offer this to one another.
“From you I receive, to you I give, together we share, and from this we live.”