12/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Try a Little Tenderness: Americans Give During Tough Times

"Strung out" is how Adam Kersten describes the homeless man who he sees every afternoon for lunch at his local deli. "We eat together then chat outside the deli while he tells me all kinds of stories. I never ask questions about his personal life or go there unless he wants to talk about that, which he rarely does."

Kersten, a nurse based in Seattle, says the man frequented the deli in business suits when Adam first moved to Seattle nearly four years ago. Then he went missing for two years only to show up at the deli thinner, tired, anxious, restless. The next time Adam saw him, he had a sign strapped to his neck that read: "Give me money because my penis is small."

"It was written to make people laugh--which it did, so they gave him money for their entertainment. But I couldn't help thinking there was a human being behind that sign, as self-deprecating and self-evasive as the sign tried to be," Adam says.

Turns out he had lost his job, home, and marriage when the economy crumbled, traveled two years in search of work, food, and a place to sleep at night, and returned to Seattle when all hope was lost. Adam has a deep passion for giving and shared his resources, however limited. Adam's sensitivity to his friend's tragic circumstance informs his charity, an approach that doesn't undermine but celebrates humanity by making no assumptions.

"If he shows up, I buy lunch; if not, I'll wait for him. Every day," Adam says.

No question Americans have a solid reputation for giving in international circles. Peace Corps volunteers live in villages among communities throughout the world, adding manpower in support of local initiatives. No question Americans give most generously to those most in need. In late December 2004, when a tsunami devastated most land masses off the Indian Ocean, killing nearly 230,000 people in eleven countries, America was quick to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars plus military might and manpower for humanitarian relief. Such efforts reduce global poverty and disparity among people, adding to America's security abroad. But now that economic instability has visited the United States, hurting Americans through unemployment, homelessness, reduced incomes, most Americans are turning that drive to share their resources inward among local folks struggling to survive domestically.

Doctoral candidate Tonia Poteat of John Hopkins University claims there is an inherent tension in American society that makes giving a must. "We are a Christian country that operates through capitalism. To be someone as a Christian is to deny oneself; to have an identity as a capitalist is to supply oneself. That creates an internal tension since Christianity places no one person above another but capitalism does. Guilt comes when someone accumulates wealth but doesn't feel worthy, which often results in giving."

"Which doesn't mean you have to give money," Helen Hottner explains. Hottner was recently promoted to a full-time supervisor from part-time worker at a supermarket chain. When an employee kept arriving late for work, Helen felt it was insubordination and prepared to fire her. "I shut my office door, cleared my throat, ready to deliver a clipped speech about her sub-par performance when all of a sudden she started crying." Helen listened patiently as her employee explained that she recently left an abusive relationship for a homeless shelter and the move plus the trauma had made it difficult adjusting to a new routine.

"I couldn't fire her, not with the economy the way it is and her trying to get her life back on track." So Helen sat down with her employee, readjusted her schedule for a later shift and longer hours in the evening for extra pay. Now she comes to work on time. When asked what she gave her employee, Helen says: "The evidence of things unseen: I listened. Didn't judge her. I showed compassion at a tough time. I'm not sure but I think that's what I gave her."

Maybe she gave her a second chance.

Or an ear, a meal, a conversation, a strategy, a small but much needed service at the right time--isn't that what we all can give?

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