Wayne Muller: Liberating Our Natural Generosity

Posted by Nipun Mehta on Apr 22, 2009
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For several decades, Wayne Muller has been working to encourage neighborhood philanthropy, support everyday heroes, and write meaningful (and best-seling!) books and articles.  His organization -- Bread for the Journey -- works on principles that are very close to CharityFocus, and has contributed $3 million to grassroot causes in decentralized and distributed ways.  Not only might they go gift-economy with their work, they are looking to explore deep partnerships with CharityFocus (and Wayne even wants to  co-author a book together!).

Below is his own story, from Unity Magazine, titled "Liberating Our Natural Generosity."

Liberating Our Natural Generosity

Bread for the Journey, according to its founder Wayne Muller, “is about starting a cycle of giving and receiving in which everyone benefits.”  Generosity, he believes, grows out of spiritual practice. I believe in the marrow my bones, he said when I interviewed him in his San Anselmo, California home recently, that people are fundamentally generous. When they discover their natural generosity, they want to do something with it. Bread for the Journey, an organization Muller created in 1988, provides that opportunity. It operates on the assumption that there is a relationship between spiritual practice, which develops the inner life, and the generous interaction of members of a community. Muller sees the organization as liberating the natural generosity of ordinary people, so that all members of a community benefit. We gain a better understanding of Bread for the Journey, and its development over fifteen years into an organization that has made grants of over $500,000 to numerous individuals and groups in cities throughout the United States and Canada, by tracing the spiritual path of Wayne Muller.

Muller grew up on Long Island in a middle class Presbyterian family. He loved going to church, even though his parents quit going when he was 13.  Inside his local church, he said, I found people who were in reverence, awe and respect. The space was mysterious and potent. He wasn’t attracted to a particular dogma, or denomination, but felt, he said, that something important happened to people when they connected with something outside themselves in church. Throughout high school he went by himself to church on Sunday. I felt he had a call to do something spiritual, he said, but I wasn’t sure what that was.  I asked my mother about ministers and what they did and how the whole church thing worked, but I pushed it away because I didn’t know what it would cost me.

After finishing high school Muller enrolled in the University of Rochester. Organized religion, however, did not play a big part in his life. I learned yoga and how to meditate, he said, but I did not attend church regularly. He wanted to learn more about how people thought and behaved and chose Rochester because of its strong psychology department.  He switched to English literature after three months, he said, because my English teacher blew my mind and I was bored to tears by scientific psychology. I was much more interested in Dostoevsky than in Freud.  He spent four years reading great literature, and finished with a classical liberal arts major and minors in philosophy and education. During his senior year he taught in a downtown Rochester alternative high school. I loved working with students, he said, but I found myself much more interested in talking with them about what was happening in their families, or finding out how they were managing on the street than teaching them about Catcher in the Rye or The Scarlet Letter. He volunteered in the afternoons and on weekends at a street clinic. I cut my teeth, he said, on dropouts, runaways, drug addicts, alcoholics and street kids. After that experience, he said, I was hooked and accepted a job after college as a counselor at the clinic.

He left Rochester for Santa Barbara, California in 1974 because of a desire to live in a warmer climate. On the strength of his work in New York, he was hired as director of a teenage alcohol treatment center. He soon expanded the program to include juvenile delinquents, gang members, drug addicts, and children of alcoholics.   Recognizing a need for more education he took graduate work in group counseling family therapy and participated in a study program run by the famed and family therapist, Virginia Satir. After seven years of working as a counselor, he said I realized that I was equipped to handle only a part of the needs of the people I served. When an immigrant Catholic family lost a child they weren’t interested in coming to me for counseling. They wanted to say the rosary. If a client’s child was killed in the streets the family wanted someone who could warm their souls rather than psychological advice. It felt dishonorable to me not to have at my disposal the language they needed to feel more whole.

During the years Muller worked in Santa Barbara it was the 1970’s, so he and several of his friends experimented with drugs of all kinds. “When we got together,” he said, “we talked about God. My drug experiences made me feel that my worldview was too narrow, and that my work in the world needed to be expanded.” He again began thinking about the ministry. 

He visited several seminaries in the East and enrolled in the Harvard Divinity School.  He chose Harvard over traditional Christian seminaries because of its center for the study of world religions and its eclectic program. A Christian seminary, he felt, would be spiritually too confining. While completing a three year program, he did community organization work with the Boston City Mission Society and upon graduating accepted a position in the United Church of Christ (UCC) as a youth minister at the Trinitarian Congregational Church in Concord, Massachusetts. Married during his second year in seminary, he was now the father of a baby girl.

His life changed when his wife left him and returned to Santa Fe to live with her parents. Married to a seminarian who was taking a full course load and working two jobs, he said, had not been a pleasant experience. Unwilling to live a part from his daughter, and hoping to gain a reconciliation with his wife, Muller too moved to Santa Fe. He found work as an associate pastor in a local UCC church and in a counseling center dealing with juvenile delinquents. He worked, as he said, with court referrals, people who the judges sent, the kind of people who didn’t want to see me. He decided to work with people of a higher social economic class and set up a private psychotherapy practice. Soon he was seeing clients, he said, who were happy to see me, who were glad to answer questions when I asked them. 

It was in this milieu that Bread for the Journey began. People handed him checks and suddenly he was making more money than he ever had before. “It felt off,” he said, “for people to give me money and then leave.” He began telling his clients: “In order to make myself more comfortable, let us take part of the money you give me and put it in a jar, and at the end of the year we will give it to people in the community who need it. Then your suffering and your healing will not be just about you, but tied to the healing of the community at large.” At the end of the year he had about $1,000 dollars so he invited clients and friends to dinner, “people who knew the community better than I did”, to decide how to use the money. He said, “We decided to look for the hidden saints, the ones who are on fire and have as lot of compassion, people who are giving things naturally out of who they are. The idea, he said, was to find the right people, and get behind them. The project fit into the spiritual perspective that long motivated him.  “It contained,” he said, “every one of my theological prescriptions about right mindfulness, right action and right effort from the Buddhist perspective.”

During the early years of Bread for the Journey the work consisted of meeting annually to decide how to dispense with the money.  Soon several of his friends began setting aside money for Bread for the Journey and an informal organization developed in Santa Fe. Muller had no idea that it would grow beyond Santa Fe, but this changed in 1996 with the publication of his second book How Then Shall We Live. “I put Bread for the Journey stories in the book,” he said, “honest, honorable stories about how people lived their lives. What a life well-lived looked like.” Soon he was getting letters and telephone calls from people around the country asking, “How can I do this in my neighborhood? I’ve read those stories and I want those stories to be my stories. I want those stories in my community.” Muller and the Santa Fe Bread for the Journey group put together a packet of materials telling people what we did and how we did it. They also organized as a non-profit organization named Bread for the Journey International. This group with two paid staff members, funded for by foundation grants, now helps new groups get started and provides assistance to those already in existence.

Muller believes that for those who want to get involved in changing things at the community level, Bread for the Journey provides a model a venue and form where, with relatively little amounts of time, you can watch your generosity manifest in the world in a tangible way that is extraordinarily satisfying. He finds that the most difficult problem chapters have is not raising money, but deciding how to give it away. “People raise money and then they sit on it. It is hard to get people to trust their intuition,” he said.  People don’t want to make a mistake. It is hard to convince people that it is not a mistake to trust their heart. Even if it doesn’t work, nothing bad is going to happen. It doesn’t have to be the perfect person, or the perfect story. You just have to get the ball rolling.”

Muller believes that if people only understood how simple this process is, more would get involved.  You don’t need a lot of money - grants have ranged from $300 to $3,000. If you get a thousand dollars from three people you are off and running. Then, there is an instant feedback system. You watch your generosity manifest.

Muller believes that spiritual communities, church groups in particular, are ideal locations for chapters of Bread for the Journey. “Church members not only want to develop their inner spiritual life, but want to bring their natural generosity to the community. Spiritual practice then takes place in a practical way.  Bread for the Journey,” Muller said, “starts the natural cycle of giving and receiving where people are in generous interaction and all people benefit.”

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Comments (4)

  • guri wrote ...

    Great article...looking forward to hearing more when you return. :-)

  • Richard wrote ...

    Nipun, this is quite a story. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Linda wrote ...

    Ireally enjoyed meeting Nipun and hearing about the amazing emergence of the gift economy.I am hopefulBread for the journey can find a way to support your work.I have a BFJ chapter in Denver,

  • Pancho wrote ...

    BAAM!  :-)

    Forming the "organ of gift-economy" in the "body of the Earth Community"!

    Collective Intelligence baby!

    Now the communication will come bacteria-like ;-) 

    http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/bonnie_bassler_on_how_bacteria_communicate.html