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Featured Philanthropy

A Handful of Rice

Great generosity does not require great wealth

Many of the stories we’ve featured as part of our Generous Living series have highlighted people and families with wealth who have chosen to live well below their means in order to give radically and creatively in the name of Christ. They are gifted businessmen and women—often entrepreneurs.

But generosity is not reserved only for the wealthy. As Milton Buehner, a successful businessman who made it a goal to die having given all his money away, said before he died, generosity is more about obedience than dollar amounts. “I believe that you can be a generous giver without having much to give,” he said. “If you have a heart to follow God’s directive for you, I believe you are a generous giver. You’re the winner if you obey His commands.”

That’s the idea embodied by the Christian women of Mizoram of North East India. When they heard of a “Bible woman”—or evangelist—who needed financial support, they took the need personally. They didn’t have much to give, but they began setting aside a handful of uncooked rice at each meal. At the end of the week, they sold the rice in the market and gave the proceeds to the evangelist.

That was in 1910, but the practice continues to thrive. Women with babies strapped to their backs and laboring in makeshift village kitchens scoop out cups of rice into buckets labeled Buhfai Tham, or “handful of rice.” They don’t have much to give, but they give what they have.

“Rice has been the staple food for the people of Mizoram—the main life of the people,” said Roger Gaikwad, principal of Aizawl Theological College. “You are giving what is basic, essential, and fundamental to your life. You are sharing that with God.”

Now, instead of selling the rice at market individually, women give their rice offerings to the church, and the church sells it, discounting it for the poor. The money is used primarily to support missionaries and also the work of the church. It’s a widespread practice in the area and has been passed down through multiple generations.

“There are many ways for serving the lord,” said Zomuani Gaikwad of the Mizoram Presbyterian Synod. “Some people do great things. Some people are good preachers. Some people contribute lots and lots of money. But when you talk about this ‘handful of rice,’ it is very humble. The service is done in the corner of the kitchen where nobody sees. But God knows and he blesses it.”

That blessing has included growth for the Mizoram church over the years—Mizoram is one of just three states in India where the majority (87 percent) claim to be Christians. The largest network of churches is Mizoram Presbyterian Church, which in 2010 had more than 500,000 members spanning 1,300 congregations. Baptist churches make up another denominational majority.

In 1914, the handful of rice collection generated a mere $1.50 in U.S. currency. In the 2009-2010 fiscal year, it produced $1.5 million—or 12 percent of the Mizo Presbyterian Church’s $13 million income.

“Mizoram state is the most backward state in India, and we are the poorest of the poor, but still we can raise funds for the ministry of the Lord,” said Zosangliana Colney, executive secretary of the Mizo Presbyterian Church. “We can support 1,800 mission workers and in the meantime we can also send overseas missionaries.”

The church members also give of their firewood and other crops. It’s a beautiful reminder that we all have something to give and something to share. “We Mizo people say that as long as we have something to eat every day, we have something to give to God every day,” Colney said.

For more on the Handful of Rice offerings from the Christian women of Mizoram, watch this video.

Christina Darnell

Christina Darnell is a freelance writer who has contributed to WORLD, The Charlotte Observer, and other publications.