A Gift is not a gift until it’s given

A community can never own that which was created for them, in the same way that they own that which they create for themselves. That process of creation is an inside out one, and it is contingent on discovering and connecting gifts, capacities and resources.

It is often said that a gift is not a gift until it is given. After all if a gift remains stashed in a closet and is never gifted, or is inside the head, heart or hands of an individual, what is it? We might say it is a ‘waiting gift’.

But who are the people who make these invisible gifts visible?

If it is true to say that a gift is not a gift until it’s given. it is also true to say a gift is not a gift until it is received. After all if we take a gift out of the closet and offer it as a token of esteem, or take a natural talent and offer it to another, and they reject the offer, where does that leave us?

But who are the people who help us accept gifts that are face value we do not recognise as valuable?

One of the most corrosive experiences in life is to have a gift that can’t find meaningful expression or reception; some gifts exist like sundials in the shade, ever present but never presented or presented but never received. They are unrequited gifts. Or worse, a gift that is utterly invisible to the very person with the gift and / or those around them.

But who are the people who help us discover our untapped, unnamed, unknown, ungiven gifts?

One of our most fundamental needs is the need to be needed, in other words, to find meaningful expression for our gifts of the heart (our passions), gifts of the head (things we know about), and gifts of the hands (things we can make and do). When the channels for such expression are blocked for whatever reason, our gifts start to stagnate, and then like stagnant water, an environmental hazard emerges and begins to surrounds us. The result is a form of ‘social malaria’, the symptoms of which are multifold, including loneliness, reduced self esteem, mental health challenges, anti-social behavior and the like. 

As with malaria, the symptoms of course need to be addressed, but for enduring change to result, the environmental issues at the root of the problem must be addressed. Which is to say we need to get well in the very place we got sick. This is the grounding theory of Public Health and community development.

But who are the people who help us to create the conditions whereby gifts can be exchanged?

David Steindl-Rast usefully points out that gifts are not restricted to objects of exchange or talents that we share; that in fact gifts are carried by the present moment, what he refers to as ‘given moments’ which are themselves gifts. He explains in his gentle and wise TED talk, refreshing in its ego-free delivery style, that moments contain opportunities, and that these opportunities are the ‘gift within the gift’. For him a gift is something of which we personally consider to be of value, and which is freely given-in other words you haven’t bought it, earned, worked for it or traded something else for it. So the receiver is not indebted to the giver. It is not transactional, but can be transformative. AsJohn McKnight  would say, it is freely given from the heart, one person to another.

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Brother David Steindl‑Rast

A gift therefore is not a commodity, object or product although of course we can buy an object and give it as a ‘gift’, David Steindle-Rast’s point is that the object itself is not the most significant part of the exchange, it is a token of esteem, the moment of exchange is where the abundance resides, it is not to be found in the thing that is exchanged.

And when something of great value is freely given to us, there is an almost universal spontaneous response, and that response is gratitude.

David takes the view that gratitude or more specifically ‘grateful living’ is cultivated when we realise that every moment carries a potential gift, an opportunity. Of course there are lots of moments that we can not be grateful for in their own right, moments of oppression, injustice and abuse demand righteous indignation. He rather gleefully points out that, contrary to popular opinion opportunity does not knock only once, or twice, but if we guesstimate that every present moment is approximately three seconds long, across an average life, it knocks 600 million times.

Happiness therefore is linked in his mind to gratitude in a very particular way. He believes ‘we are not grateful because we’re happy; we’re happy because we’re grateful.’

But who are the people who can help us think about gratitude, in a way that doesn’t sound naff, preacher-like, or elitist?

Thinking about gratitude, but more particularly the questions above about ‘who’ are the people who do the gift prospecting brings me to reflect on the community building practice of my good friend Al Barrett, who along with his friends and neighbours from Firs and Bromford Estate in Birmingham, and under the auspices of the Jubilee Centre at Birmingham University has recently published a report entitled: ‘Good Neighbours in A Good Neighbourhood?’ on their endeavours to pay particular attention to what people in Firs and Bromford are grateful for.

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Revd. David Urquhart, Bishop of Birmingham sums up the report as follows:

“The work described in this report – the patient work of building relationships
and growing community, and the attentive work of researching gratitude in a local neighbourhood – is encouraging in many ways, not least because it offers, as the writers suggest, a counter-narrative to those more dominant stories of our cities’ outer estates. Rather than focusing on ‘deprivation’, or on what some in politics and the media label an ‘entitlement culture’, this report tells a story of the residents of one estate discovering the gifts they have, and demonstrating deep gratitude and generosity – often across differences of age, ethnic background, and faith commitment – and building bridges of friendship and trust through such sharing. Many of these ‘good neighbours’ are working together to change their community for the better, and to challenge injustice and inequality where it leaves its mark.

Here you will find descriptions of simple, accessible methods and resources for exploring gratitude among all ages – from community ‘bring and share’ lunches to ‘thank you jars’; insights into the many different kinds of things that people are thankful for; and an encouragement that an intentional effort to provoke and invite expressions of gratitude can help nurture good neighbours and good neighbourhoods. There is much for all of us to learn here. “

“Participants through the research and development process were asked what they were thankful for, across different gratitude domains: ‘Me’; ‘People’,

‘Stuff’ and; ‘Places’. Responses highlighted:

  • That people and relationships infused almost everything people were thankful for (even in the ‘stuff’ and ‘places’ domains); and
  • That people tended to be more readily thankful for things that were more immediate in time and space.

The report also details a variety of creative ‘interventions’ with groups of different ages, to encourage and further explore gratitude.

Evaluations of these activities from both participants and practitioners within the wider community highlighted:

  • That organisations and agencies seeking to engage in ‘community regeneration’ do well to listen attentively to the things local people are thankful for, as well as what they might see as ‘problems’ (this might be articulated as an ‘asset-based community development’ approach);
  • That generous time and intentional encouragement is often needed to help people express what they are thankful for, beyond the immediate: things from the past, things further away from ‘home’, gifts buried ‘deep within’;
  • That asking ‘the gratitude question’ regularly, without too much formality, can move beyond initial strangeness to help people towards a noticeable positive difference in their outlook, often worked out in practical actions; and
  • That creating inclusive environments that invite regular giving and receiving, such as a community lunch where people feel able to bring-and-share, can make a noticeable positive difference within a neighbourhood, a ‘hub of community’, going beyond the impact on individual participants.”

More general findings included:

“both adults and children often valued inanimate objects for the people and relationships they symbolised, mediated, or enabled. A second observation is that the prominence of things people were thankful for seemed to be quite closely correlated with the immediacy of those things, in time and space: so, for most adults, their partner was more significant than their parents; for children, their parents were of most significance; and the further away from home you asked people to imagine, the more difficult they found it to come up with responses, particularly concrete ones.”

Al is one of the UK’s greatest social explorers, and what is particularly telling about his exploration is that:

  1. He never goes alone;
  2. He intentionally goes with others to the edge where people have been pushed or exiled;
  3. He never goes too far beyond his local Estate-his orientation is towards the kitchen table, not the Cabinet table; a neighbour’s hall door, not Whitehall. He is a host, not a hero.
  4. He never travels faster than the speed of trust.
  5. He’s not working to an election cycle, and though he faces funding challenges on a near weekly basis, he does not allow those challenges to erode the core mission. In simple terms he’s not going anywhere soon. He’s rooted in the community of Hodgehill, as are his wife and children.
  6. He has no map, but he pays close attention to his compass: which is to say the community direct and challenge his practice, not his ego or an institutional edict. They lead; he serves. But in his theology he sees that he is called to create a culture of neighbourliness, of friendship.
  7. He has grown a circle of connectors. As you would expect among this circle of connectors are people of faith, but there are also people who don’t move through the world in that way. It is another important feature of Al’s practice, which although fundamentally grounded in a faith-based ministry, feels refreshingly free of the need to ‘convert’, or to only work with the converted. His focus is community building to all residents bar none. I have yet to find him peddling a pre-engagement agenda. He is happy for people to determine their own outcomes.
  8. This circle of connectors of which Al is part includes Janie Barrett, Sarah Maxfield, Paul Wright, (both co-authors of the report) Tim Evans, and many, many others. They are, first and foremost, friends, a circle of people deeply committed to the place where they live and the people whom they call neighbours.
  9. Everyone in this ever expanding circle are gift-centred people, in other words they believe that all of their neighbours have something essential to contribute not alone to making their neighbourhood better, through the deepening of community, but also in challenging external forces that unjustly press down on their community.

They are not naïve people, they are grounded in the principles of social justice, and consequently they know there are deep injustices, connected with issues of structural poverty. Notwithstanding, to quote the great African American poet Maya Angelou (as Al himself is often prone to do) ‘Still they rise”, their defiant assertion to paraphrase Fr. Moses Coady: “we will use what we have to secure what we need, and we will use what we don’t have to inspire us, to use what we do have, to prevail and thrive in a culture of gratitude and community.’

Another great example of a faith community shifting from a charity approach where they bestow the blessings, to a more humble process of making invisible gifts visible is found in Pastor Mike Mather’s ministry and the Broadway Church story which you can read about here.

Today I am grateful for Al, Mike and their neighbours, and happy to call them friends. But I am also grateful for the fact that while what they do is wonderful and essential, it is not unique and it is not confined to people of faith. There is an endless reservoir of such people, opportunities and gifts in every community, just waiting to be identified, connected and mobilised. So what are we waiting for? After all a gift is not a gift, until it’s given.

I think we may be waiting not for leaders, but for connectors and community builders like Al and Mike, and their neighbours-so that we can remember again that we are best when we accept we have what we need if we share what we have. Al and Mike represent the very people in our neighbourhoods who would run and hide at the thought of being cheered on for their quite, modest efforts. But there are wonderful carriers of hope for creating a gift-centred world. They understand that labels conceal and learning conversations reveal our giftedness, they also understand that they need their neighbours gifts, as much as their neighbours need theirs, and that may be the richest gift of all.


Cormac Russell 

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