Living Simply | December 3, 2018

The luxury of helping

What do a bathroom faucet, a bowl of ice cream, and a wedding have in common? How about a shower, cat food, and a garage door opener?

Over the past 40 years, Global Women’s Project participants have charged themselves a “luxury tax” for each of these. “Luxury” in this case reflects not the dictionary definition of “abundance and extravagance,” but rather recognition that not everyone enjoys equal comforts. In a world where 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation, indoor plumbing can be considered a luxury.

In the speech that launched the Global Women’s Project in 1978, Ruthann Knechel Johansen said:

“Our high consumption of industrialized goods—the highest in the world—also contributes to global inequities. . . . In Latin America, land that could be used to grow food to feed the poor is instead used to produce goods for export such as coffee, carnations, and roses. . . . Because we live on the top of the world economically, politically, militarily, educationally, it is easy not to see the effects of our lives and choices on others. . . . But when we look at the globe as a total unit, we are forced to conclude that, relatively speaking, we belong to the oppressor class. By accident of birth, not by divine design, we are part of the privileged.
“There are at least two ways we can deal with the disquieting reality that we live in an interdependent order acting as if we were free, isolated persons or nation. One way is to try to extend the privileges of the privileged. . . . The second way is that we can become one with the oppressed and undergo a radical conversion, with the grace of God, of our own personal and social priorities. . . .
“By choosing voluntarily to live simply, to resist our culture’s consumption patterns that make hostility and armaments essential, and to redirect the resources over which we have control into meeting the basic needs of two-thirds of the world’s people we can, corporately, make our convictions felt in the world.”

“One of my favorite aspects is the education about our wealth and privilege and donating that money to make a positive impact,” says steering committee member Tina Rieman. “It’s a good mindfulness exercise.” She first heard about the luxury tax after camping, without free access to showers. For 12 years, she donated money for each shower she took. “It made me mindful of that luxury and how much water I use,” she says.

Former steering committee member Anna Lisa Gross explains, “Our mission has, is, and will continue to be inviting all women to live in solidarity with women around the world, seeking to empower women and girls in their own communities in living a life of dignity and respect.”

Gross is one of several mother- daughter and sister legacies on the steering committee: Louie Baldwin Rieman and Tina Rieman, Rachel Gross and Anna Lisa Gross, and sisters Lois Grove and Pearl Miller.

“Our partnerships with women- led organizations around the world grow out of relationships, too” says Gross. “We’re Brethren, after all!”

Has the concept worked?

Johansen recalls, “On the 20th anniversary of the Global Women’s Project, I asked for a record of contributors. Although the list was not complete, several things surprised me. For example, there were several contributions from establishments like pizza restaurants or other commercial establishments. I was most moved by the wide variety of individual women and men, women’s groups both within and outside the Church of the Brethren, and congregations across wide theological perspectives who had joined in giving birth to a world more consistent with God’s reality, mercy, and justice.”

Pearl Miller reflects on the changes over the years. “Hopefully we have made changes within ourselves that have moved us to be more creative and proactive for the benefit of girls and women wherever they may be. Through small grants from Global Women’s Project, women around the world have been given assistance so that they can establish cooperative businesses, send their children to school, move away from lives of domestic violence, incarceration, or economic uncertainty, and work toward more just societies based on human values, equality, and peace.”

Cultural Academy for Peace (CAP) in Kerala, India. Photo courtesy of Global Women’s Project

“It is a gift to know that so many have been touched with ways to access education, provide for their families, and promote community,” says steering committee member Carla Kilgore. “It also touches me to know the amazing women from the Church of the Brethren who have reached out to others to reflect on how reducing our luxuries can allow us to partner with others so that more of us can thrive.”

“As a fully volunteer-led organization we’ve struggled with stamina, focus, and energy over these 40 years,“ admits Gross. “At least twice the steering committee has considered, ‘Is this the time to lay GWP down?’ and the answer, so far, has been ‘no!’ Even though our grants to women-led community projects seem small to us (often $1,500 per year), this money goes far in many places.”

“We have the energy to see this through and continue it beyond 40 years,” concludes Rieman.

Jan Fischer Bachman is the Church of the Brethren web producer and Messenger web editor.