To Be Among the Least

Maine isn’t good at a lot of things. We don’t go to church (according to the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies, Maine has one of the lowest rates of church attendance). We aren’t business friendly (according to Forbes). We aren’t diverse (according to the Census Bureau, we are the whitest state). And now it turns out, we aren’t charitable either (according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy).

It doesn’t really surprise me that Maine is among the “least” in many categories. I certainly notice that lots and lots of people don’t go to church, for instance, and that Maine is indeed a very, very white place. And, that Mainers aren’t especially generous.

Among my own peers, I try not to think about generosity, because it just fills me with despair. Earlier this year, for my 50th birthday party, I invited a big group of friends to my birthday party. Instead of a gift, I asked them to give to a local charity that most of them know is very important to me. One or two couples gave generously. The rest did not. A few couples didn’t give anything at all. In other places and ways as well, I’ve noticed a decided lack of generosity among people I know and with whom I socialize. And, through my experience serving on boards of local charities, I’ve learned that lots of people who live in Central Maine are not especially generous.

In explaining the lack of generosity, the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy suggested that the low rankings for northern New England stemmed in part from “low rates of church attendance, but also from residents’ ‘independent streak’ and a tradition of self-reliance.”

That may be, but the culture of giving within churches, by those who go to church, is not especially strong either—at least in the churches I’ve been involved with. I’ve met people who haven’t altered their pledge in twenty or thirty years. I’ve met people who, though they are active members, refuse to pledge or to give much in a financial way. I’ve encountered people who boast to me about the significance of their giving to the church, suggesting that their level of giving should afford them more influence, while also denigrating the assumed level of giving of other church members. And, then I’ve discovered that the denigrated church members actually give considerably more to the church than the one who is boasting.

At Old South, giving is a private matter. Only the financial secretary knows how much people give (the only details I know are from what people tell me themselves). I’ve respected this practice, primarily because, knowing myself, I suspect that it would affect my ability to offer appropriate pastoral care to those who leave the impression that they give generously when they really don’t.

In church and out, Mainers are not charitable. The “independent” streak may have something to do with it. I can think of other reasons too. Mainers—as well as other northern New Englanders—tend to be thrifty and, well, cheap. They like a bargain (or, “bahgain,” as it is pronounced here). And, this tradition extends to people who aren’t even from here, but have moved here. Almost all of my friends who were invited to my birthday party, for instance, are not originally from Maine. Has living in Maine made them uncharitable, or were they that way to begin with? Is there something in the water up here?

It’s hard enough to be in the “whitest” state, and in the state with such low church attendance, but to live in the state that is just about at the bottom of the charitable list (only New Hampshire is less charitable than Maine) is truly unsettling. It’s hard to think about inspiring generosity when the work is so daunting, when the culture and tradition is so unambiguously uncharitable.

Inside the church, it’s especially frustrating to think about the feebleness of charity. The Bible does, after all, provide ample guidance on generosity, on caring for those on the margins, the widow and orphan. At the same time, the Bible is clearly lacking in verses and stories that support “self-reliance” and “independence.”

Maine isn’t good at a lot of things—church attendance, business-friendliness, diversity, charity, generosity. And, biblical literacy. It’s a sad commentary. Independence is one thing. Being a part of a strong community, where people seek to help each other, would be a lot better.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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