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Bright Shiny Objects

October 14th, 2012 by Alison · 3 Comments · lifestyle, money, spirituality & religion

I went to a Habitat For Humanity fundraiser at the Nines here in Portland on Friday night, excited because I love their mission of building stable, affordable housing for low-income families. My husband and I have donated steadily to Habitat over the last five years. But I came away disillusioned, blinded by the event’s bright shiny objects.

The items being auctioned included a helicopter ride from Portland to Corvallis for a Civil War football game, luxury vacations to Cabo and other locales that sold for thousands of dollars, and a table at next year’s Habitat fundraiser that would feature food and wine better than the other tables would receive.

If value judgments offend you, don’t read on.

The first two items strike me as decadent, and the last item as elitist.

 Habitat’s purpose is housing for poor people. They accomplish that typically by middle- and upper-middle class people building homes side by side with the people receiving their new house, hammers in hand, people of all income levels receiving equal status and respect.

 Recreational helicopter rides and stratified dinners feel to me like the opposite of that principle of equality and respect between all income levels.

Habitat For Humanity is a Christian organization. I rarely write about Christ and his message because I respect religious diversity. Many religions besides Christianity, however, work for social justice for the poor. So, let me point out that Christ preached dozens of times on this topic. He was not ambiguous. He made explicit value judgments. Jesus championed the poor, and stated the rich should give to the poor. But Friday night’s Habitat event gave the impression of glorifying wealth, and reveling in excess. 

At a Habitat fundraiser I attended a few years ago, a much smaller affair, a young man who was co-building and receiving his first house was a featured speaker. He was eloquent, heartfelt, and I in turn felt honored to hear how much his new home meant to him. I’m told that a new homeowner also spoke at this year’s event (I left midway through the auction) and was very moving, as well. But the whole context was so contrary to affordable housing. The proportion of conspicuous consumption to the core of the mission (the homeowner) seems like 95:1.

The Portland Habitat office didn’t even respond to my request earlier in the week to find a low-income volunteer who could use my extra dinner ticket (they cost $100 each).

I think the organization has become distracted (like the mainstream culture is) by bright shiny objects. I’m not cancelling my annual pledge to Habitat For Humanity. But I’m starting to think about it more deeply.


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3 Comments so far ↓

  • Colleen

    As someone how attended the event, I think you’ve made a value-judement too soon; you left about 1/3 of the way into the live-auction and didn’t experience the most poignant moment of the night. Five minutes after you left, a new homeowner spoke about her struggles, her life, her joy in knowing her new Habitat home will be finished soon, and how grateful she was for everyone there supporting Habitat. People were moved by her story, her strength, and her willingness to partner with the organization by enthusiastically putting in her 500 sweat-equity hours. Everyone in the room gave her a standing ovation. Then, the next 20 minutes had nothing to do with material gain. The bids were were simple ones, for *straight-up donations* to Habitat. No item required. Bid card after bid card went up (I’d say 100 bids, sometimes 10 or 15 at a time) and many many bids were made in increments of $5,000, $2,500, $1,500 and so on, down to $250. More money was raised for Habitat in those 20 minutes than was gleaned from all 13 live-auction items. The night was not about excess, in my opinion. My husband and I, while having fun bidding for a few things, had no expectations of coming away with ‘stuff’. I still got to hold my bid-card up high, with my husband’s prodding, during the best part of the evening.

  • Thad McCracken

    I have to agree with my wife. If you had been able to stay for the entire event, I think you would have a different opinion. By the time it was over, there had been a very moving speech by a soon to be habitat homeowner. The event raised something like 185K for HFH….much of which was straight donations (one of the more moving parts of the night for me).

    Value judgements I suppose are OK in some cases…ill-informed ones are dangerous, at best.


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