What To Do With Wealth

Sudhir Vekatesh posts insightful thoughts as to “What Should South Asians Do With Their Wealth?” on the Freakonomics blog.

Here are few excerpts to sketch out his thoughts:

Young South Asians living in the U.S. (Pakistanis, Indians, and Bangladeshis are the majority). Some moved to America after college, and others (like me) were raised here. They are coming into significant personal wealth.

So, what are young South Asian philanthropists struggling with? Three things:

1. Should we give it away or turn money into power?

“You have to have power, because right now, we’re just a bunch of people who are not connected. I say we find each other, then give our money away strategically. Yes, we have money, but it doesn’t mean anything. You can’t do anything. Who will listen to you unless you get power? I think we should be looking at African-Americans. They finally got some power because they stuck together. Then people listened.”

2. Should we change perceptions or attack issues?

“We still don’t feel like Americans. I know the recipe: you come here and only when you participate — vote, protest, all of it — you become part of this country. I think we should be focusing on changing our approach to living here; we don’t see ourselves as Americans, and I wonder how we can make ourselves more a part of this country. How can you do that with money? I’m not sure, but we should be working on it.”

3. How can we work across the class and ethnic divide?

There was growing sentiment in the room that South Asians should use their education to reach across ethnic and class lines — helping spread the gospel of education and technology (i.e., closing the digital divide). They suggested bringing South Asians to New Orleans, to rural communities in Appalachia, to soup kitchens in downtown L.A., to anywhere that collective help could be provided across the ethnic divide.

Shuba invoked a popular acronym that pokes fun at people like me who lack deep connections to South Asia: American-Born Confused Desis (A.B.C.D.):

“I don’t want to use my money to help these A.B.C.D.’s become better Hindus. I mean, that’s just worthless. Our money should be used to educate other people.”

These questions Venkatesh brings up are intriguing to me as I feel most Asians can relate to South Asians in this orientation around wealth. Although we may not be in a position of philanthropy per se, I think the questions are certainly applicable before the point we feel we have so much as we’d like to give it away. Also, I think this begs questions of Asian American Christians who have come into wealth and yet should have an alternative narrative from which to operate in terms of charity. What does it mean for the our churches to prosper as well? Do our churches give money away or turn it into power? Do we change perceptions or attack issues? Or do we work across ethnic lines?

Perhaps even more convicting was the last comment – “I don’t want to use my money to help these ABCD’s become better Hindus. I mean, that’s just worthless.” I wonder if wealthy Asian American Christians would say the same thing about their children. And did you notice the use of the word “gospel” under the last question? – “The gospel of education and technology.” The gospel.

What does mean for us to spread a different gospel? If many Asian Americans see faith as fiscally irrelevant, what would it look like for us as individuals and as churches to begin to put our money where our mouth is? or rather, where our heart is? which is where our treasure is? which is not where it should be?

And one last thing, it shouldn’t take an economist to so clearly parse out these questions for us. Asian American Christians and churches need to be doing more than covering our overhead or planning our next building out in the ‘burbs. We need to think about and envision what it is we’re doing with wealth and whether or not the kingdom of God moves through us or away from us. Our churches should not be seen as tax shields or a place where ethnocentric Christians sermonize, moralize, and pontificate on Sunday morning–on that note I quite agree with the person who might say that helping people become better Christians is worthless – because becoming a better Christian needs to mean and be something different than what it does today and it should not be worthless to society, it should be a light to it.

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