Is all money, money?

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Several years ago (around the early 90’s) the infamous arms dealer Sarkis Soghanalian was making headlines in the Armenian press by donating to Armenian organizations and churches.
He had appeared on CBS-60 Minutes at the time and was internationally known for his sale of arms and weapons to a variety of different clients.

When there was talk that Soghanalian might donate to the churches, one of our overly righteous, self-appointed defenders of the ethical virtues of the church (a priest, no less) cried foul. How dare we, the church, take “tainted” money from this man? Ill-gotten gains, he claimed.
On the surface, this reasoning sounded good. After all, the church is an agent of peace and there’s a definite incongruity in peace efforts being funded by money coming from the sale of weapons of war. But, what got me thinking deeper on the subject was that the priest who raised the issue was serving in California’s Central Valley. In other words, his congregation made its money by working the land. And so, you have to wonder, how much of the money that came into his church’s plate was from farmers and land-owners who had exploited migrant farm workers? (Yes. Coincidence that tomorrow is Caesar Chavez day?)

And so, we have a double standard here: somehow money from guns is dirtier than money produced at the expense of people who might not rate a spot on the 6 O’clock News? Mexicans risking their lives, crossing the border for a chance to make a few bucks. They live in sub-standard conditions, and because they will, they work for very little wages. And if someone exploits these people they are called shrewd and good businessmen – after all, they are turning over a buck for less than what it would ordinarily cost. How is this any less ill-gotten or tainted than the money from the arms dealer?

So my question – isn’t money, money? If you go far enough, isn’t there some factor that will always put the money in the tainted category?

I bring this up now because I’m concerned about the role of money in our efforts. I have always insisted that we have a product that is worth funding. (Check out the “Miller Interviews” on the In His Shoes area of YouTube.) In other words, we have to stand by our product and believe in it to the point that we can (and should) ask for money for the product. If we are engaged in a ministry, we should ask people for money for the ministry. If we are engaged in helping children of war, we should ask people for money to help children of war. And so on…

What would you think of a store which sold light bulbs, but every time you walked into that store they kept handing you oranges and insisted that those oranges were good oranges? Well, for a while you’d be confused and then you’d get use to it. You’d start coming to the light bulb store to do your shopping for oranges. And eventually, the employees themselves would be convinced that their job was to promote and sell oranges. But, the savvy shopper will figure out that there are better oranges at the produce store and since you’re unsure of your main product – light bulbs – then certainly the better light bulbs must be elsewhere as well.

This is what has happened in our church. We’re selling all the wrong things. We have a product called Armenian Orthodoxy, and instead we’re selling Debutante Balls, Fashion Shows, and basketball games. So what happens – people come to our church searching for the ancient truth that they can ONLY get from the Armenian Orthodox church. They walk in, like they do to the light bulb store, and we tell them, here, have a debutant ball: this is the mission of the church. Or our children come looking for identity and we say “Join our team! We belong to a great basketball league!” Well – what do you suppose will happen? At first, people will be confused but eventually we will have a steady clientele ready to consume the products we offer. Some people will come thinking this is the Debutante store. Others will come thinking it’s the basketball store. Many of the employees will forget what the product is. BUT the savvy shopper, will figure out there are better basketball courts at the YMCA and there is certainly better places to learn about faith than a place that doesn’t want to give it to you.

In your own experience – I know we can all relate to this – you tell non-Armenians that you belong to the Armenian Church and what do they tell you? “You have some great food.” “I love the bakalava… or is that the Greeks?” In fact, just in the Los Angeles area I can tell you if people want the best pilaf it’s at one of the churches, the other has the market on kufta, and still, the other is known for its topig!

Which are the successful ministries? The ones that offer a product they believe in. Does that mean they don’t sell anything else? Certainly not. We’re all realists and we know that money is the necessary tool to get work done. But there are certain ratios that need to be agreed upon from the beginning. Albeit, these ratios may be arbitrarily established, still they are there to guide us. For instance, I have set up an arbitrary ratio in my own ministry between outreach and time allocated to admin. The same can be put in place for funding. If we can raise 80% of our funds from donations directly to our ministry then we can justify 20% of the money coming from non-ministry functions. I think this is reasonable and we’re doing it in our small corner of the world.

In His Shoes and the St. Peter Youth Ministries has been funded primarily by people who believe in the mission we’re engaged in. Even the occasional dinner dance, or concert is supported primarily by people who are supporters of the ministry, so that the events don’t come off as fund-raisers, as much as opportunities for the community to get together and enjoy fellowship and each other’s company.

Now we are engaged in raising money for poverty. Our annual Famine, raised awareness and money for world hunger. Most of the money comes from direct donations – people giving to the cause, that is, to aid world hunger. A percentage of the money comes from indirect solicitations, for instance, the sale of lemonade on the street corner – with proceeds benefitting the Famine. We have to admit that the person buying a glass is more interested in quenching his own thirst than hydrating the dehydrated children of Africa, still, in a small way awareness for the big cause is heightened.
This balance between direct and indirect solicitation is important. It will be the difference between a sincere effort to do our mission and selling oranges, just because we don’t believe in our light bulbs.

A few months ago, we saw a raffle ticket that was being sold by an Armenian organization to bring aid to the Refugees of Iraq. This was a hard one for me – because behind each of those words is a mass suffering. It’s another one of those incongruent situations where people vying for a chance to go to vacation in Hawaii might also be saving a life in the war zone. As I read the raffle ticket I wondered if the Jewish Diaspora during World War II was selling raffle tickets to vacation in New York, with proceeds benefitting displaced persons in Europe? Or even worse, if we had a large enough Diaspora in 1915, would we have raffled off a Ford Model-T so that proceeds could be sent to aid Genocide victim families and survivors?

Obviously, there are many for whom these issues – poverty, ecology, torture, violence, environment, immigration – are not important. And there are many in these categories that have money. And I would even venture to say, once that money is not used to bring aid and comforted, it falls into the earlier tainted category. AND, so the challenge is on us – the Robin Hood challenge – to take from the rich and distribute to the poor. It’s a challenge. It’s also ethically challenging because we ourselves don’t want to be tainted in the process of doing this. So it’s important that we hold our mission always in front of us and not lose sight about what we’re doing and the reason why we’re doing it. And along the way, we need to police ourselves, in case it does get out of hand. I think this is an area that we need to develop as we grow and as we expand. Certainly, if nothing else, I think the addition of these blogs and the dialogue that follows either on line or in our Questions in Faith discussion, is a step in this direction. We don’t want to be like the light-bulb store employees, who have gotten so use to the idea of selling oranges that we’ve forgotten that we have a product that is worth pushing, promoting and selling.

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Vazken Movsesian

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