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A new Baha’i asked me once: “How can I be a philanthropist if I’m not rich?”
“One of the requirements of being a Baha’i is philanthropy,” he said, “but aren’t philanthropists wealthy people who can afford to help others? I can barely pay my bills.”
I suspected that my friend had recently read this passage from Abdu’l-Baha, which lists the requirements of a true Baha’i:
If he is a Baha’i in reality, his deeds and actions will be decisive proofs of it. What are the requirements? Love for mankind, sincerity toward all, reflecting the oneness of the world of humanity, philanthropy, becoming enkindled with the fire of the love of God, attainment to the knowledge of God and that which is conducive to human welfare. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 336.
He had, I thought, a legitimate question. It did seem like a conundrum, because in most societies we think of a philanthropist as anyone who writes very large checks out of the goodness of their heart (or in recognition of the tax advantages those checks might confer.) I once worked at a prestigious American university, for example, and a well-known philanthropist called one day to announce that he had decided to donate $200 million. To my astonishment, I soon learned that his huge contribution wasn’t even the largest philanthropic mega-gift that year.
So to answer my friend’s question, I went first, like I often do, to the dictionary:
phiˑlanˑthroˑpy n. [Greek philein, to love + anthropos, human being] 1. a desire to help mankind, especially as shown by gifts to institutions, etc.
What do you know, I thought—philanthropy means to love humanity, just as the Baha’i teachings do:
Ye were created to show love one to another and not perversity and rancour. Take pride not in love for yourselves but in love for your fellow-creatures. Glory not in love for your country, but in love for all mankind. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 138.
You don’t need wealth to be a philanthropist, I told my friend. Instead, you simply need love in your heart for all people—and then you need to turn that love into actual deeds of service for others:
Know, O thou possessors of insight, that true spirituality is like unto a lake of clear water which reflects the divine … That which is truly spiritual must light the path to God, and must result in deeds. We cannot believe the call to be spiritual when there is no result. Spirit is reality, and when the spirit in each of us seeks to join itself with the Great Reality, it must in turn give life. – Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 107.
After I looked up the definition of philanthropy in the dictionary, though, I decided to do a little more research on my friend’s question.
When we think of philanthropy, we do normally tend to picture the wealthiest members of society—the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Gates’, Buffetts and Bloombergs giving large charitable donations. That might dissuade some people who aren’t wealthy from giving. But here’s a fascinating fact: a recent research study in The Chronicle of Philanthropy analyzed charitable giving habits in every American zip code, and found that less affluent areas gave relatively more.
This is consistent with many previous studies, which all reached the same basic conclusion: the people who can least afford to give typically donate the largest percentage of their income:
In 2011, the wealthiest Americans—those with earnings in the top 20 percent—contributed on average 1.3 percent of their income to charity. By comparison, Americans at the base of the income pyramid—those in the bottom 20 percent—donated 3.2 percent of their income. – Ken Stern, The Atlantic, April 2013.
Why? Well, we can’t know the real reasons why anyone feels freely motivated to help others, but some speculate that people on the lower end of the income curve might just understand best how it feels to be poor; and give as a result of their increased empathy.
You may not be able to give money, I told my friend, but you can certainly give your time and energy, your sincere love expressed in action. I got a big smile in return, when my friend recognized that his loving gestures toward others could come not from his wallet, but from his heart and soul:
Therefore strive that your actions day by day may be beautiful prayers. Turn towards God, and seek always to do that which is right and noble. Enrich the poor, raise the fallen, comfort the sorrowful, bring healing to the sick, reassure the fearful, rescue the oppressed, bring hope to the hopeless, shelter the destitute!
This is the work of a true Baha’i, and this is what is expected of him. If we strive to do all this, then are we true Baha’is, but if we neglect it, we are not followers of the Light, and we have no right to the name.