This year has been like the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life” – the part that brought George Bailey to the bridge in despair. He was despondent over a little financial trouble. That’s nothing next to what happened in 2016.
There were senseless terror attacks in Orlando, Brussels, Nice, Turkey, and too many other places. Civil war dragged on in Syria, producing images of buildings bombed to smithereens and shell-shocked children. Just when Ebola seems to be gone, we have a scary new virus, Zika. Then there were the elections that shook the world – Brexit and our own tumultuous, mud-slinging presidential campaign.
But watch to the end of the Frank Capra movie, and you’re rewarded with a joyous scene: George’s friends and neighbors crowd into his living room, piling cash on a table to offset his debt. The spontaneous generosity renews George’s faith in humanity – and mine too, every time I watch it.
So how about this? Let’s make the end of 2016 like the last scene of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” In the remaining days of this difficult year, let’s help others have a better life.
If you choose to give financially, you’re in good company. According to a new World Vision survey, three in five Americans donate to charity in the last two weeks of the year.
For many it’s a last-minute chance to get a charitable tax deduction, but whatever the reason, organizations are grateful. Most nonprofits rely on booking a disproportionate amount of their total revenue in the last three months – and they need it to tackle some of life’s toughest problems: cancer, homelessness, human trafficking.
World Vision, the organization I lead, brings in more than 30 percent of cash revenue in that period, allowing us to help lift millions of people out of poverty around the world.
There are other ways to give, of course. Give blood – a direct way to give life. Volunteer at a food bank or a soup kitchen; donate gently used toys and clothes to a homeless shelter.
Every gift of time, treasure, and prayer makes a difference for someone on the edge of survival. Millions of people around the world felt the blunt force of the bad year, far greater than we did. It was a particularly harsh time for refugees, as we know from news reports from Aleppo and Mosul.
I’ve met many of these refugee families. In Bekaa Valley, Lebanon, I sat in a 10-foot-by-10-foot tent with a grandmother and her three small grandchildren. As they fled Syria, the woman’s husband and the mother of the children were killed, and her son – the children’s father – is missing. She told me her story through sobs, mourning her loved ones and dreading her future as the children’s sole support.
If only this woman’s life could magically go back to normal, as George Bailey’s did in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But the Syrian war is far from over, and unfortunately, Americans’ compassion is going in the wrong direction, as World Vision found in a recent survey. Only 33 percent of Americans have done something to help refugees in the past two years, four percent fewer than in 2015. Sixty-four percent say they are willing to help – a seven percent drop from the previous year.
This is disappointing, and perhaps it’s indicative of how Americans are feeling lately.
But if “It’s a Wonderful Life” teaches us anything, it’s that our lives touch others. It doesn’t take a second-rate angel like Clarence to save someone on the brink of despair. You don’t need to be a millionaire, either. You can feed a refugee for a week for just $10; give a child clean water for life for $50; spend just $75 to provide a goat to a family in places like Zambia.
Consider the cheerful hearts of George’s neighbors: the bar owner who raids the jukebox; the lovelorn beauty who gives the money she intended to use to start over in New York; even the Baileys’ housekeeper Annie, who has been saving up to get married. They gave what they had, and it felt good.
See if the same thing happens for you. Close out this crummy year on a note of hope, knowing you gave someone in much worse shape a shot at a wonderful life.
Richard Stearns is president of World Vision US and author of "Unfinished: Filling the Hole in Our Gospel," (Thomas Nelson 2014) "The Hole in Our Gospel: What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World" (Thomas Nelson 2010) and co-author, with his wife Renee, of "He Walks Among Us: Encounters with Christ in a Broken World" (Thomas Nelson 2013). Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichStearns.