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Street-level Generosity

Christina Darnell

In 1997, Earthlink went public, and employees with stock options saw their net worth explode. One of those employees was Tom Hsieh.  Overnight, he became a multi-millionaire.

While his coworkers began pulling into the company parking lot with Mercedes Benz and other luxury cars, he continued driving his ‘91 three-cylinder Geo Metro. He didn’t upgrade until 10 years later when he bought a used Nissan Sentra.

Tom and his wife, Bree, have chosen to find wealth in things other than possessions. Since they were first married, they committed to living on the national median household income. They opted to live in Pomona, Calif.—at the time, the second poorest city in Los Angeles County—and focus on investing in the people and community around them.

“Isaiah 58 convicted me of God’s love for the poor,” Bree explained in a testimonial for Generous Giving, an organization dedicated to helping Christians become more generous in the ways they give and live. “I felt like I didn’t understand His heart for the poor—and I wanted to, because I wanted to understand God’s heart. So I moved to Pomona to the inner city to work with the poor and see how God worked and what His love was like.”

When the couple first committed to a “capped lifestyle,” living on an income they had intentionally capped, they realized they would need to let go of their grand honeymoon plans. A year later, a representative from Target called and said they’d won a honeymoon giveaway sweepstakes. That Calphalon pan they’d registered for when they were engaged—the one they still own—had automatically entered them into the drawing for a seven-day, all-expense-paid trip to Tuscany, Italy.

Tom and Bree saw it as confirmation that God would take care of them, that “He will be generous, and He will give us more than we can imagine,” Tom remembers Bree saying. “And that’s been true.”

Growing up in the suburbs, Tom said neighbors barricaded themselves behind their garages. But in Pomona, people are walking the streets. One day, two boys stopped Tom and Bree on the sidewalk and asked if they knew the Bible, and would they teach it to them. Tom and Bree agreed, and when the boys showed up on Wednesday at 5 p.m., they brought a half dozen of their friends.

“I’d never had that happen to me in the suburbs,” Tom said. “But in this place where there’s a lot of darkness, even the kids know there must be something more.”

The couple invited Jenny, a struggling teenager, to live with them for 12 weeks. In that time, she transformed from an undernourished, depressed girl to “coming alive.” She gained 10 pounds in the first month from eating regular meals. She raised her failing grades to As, Bs, and Cs.

“We continued to live on the median household income, which was about $45,000 that year,” Tom said. “But we probably spent another $30,000 on Jenny.”

In a 2018 interview, Bree said Jenny was working, in college and doing well.

“We have to believe, as people who follow Jesus, that our lives can make a difference when we follow him in what we’re called to do,” Bree said.

When neighbors Jerry and Irma Reulas had to move out of their apartment, they were forced to live with family—where there were heroine needles in the living room and the TV blaring all night. So the Hsiehs invited the Reulas’ and their three kids to live with them. Tom helped them start a business, and in the 2018 interview, said they were saving up to buy a house.

Reflecting back, Bree said the full house presented some challenges to their daughter, Cadence. “She did lose some of her space, her toys. I asked her, what did you learn?”

Cadence said, “It was hard, but if you let it happen, your heart gets bigger and there’s room for more people—so it’s really worth it.”

Since then, Tom and Bree have continued to invest deeper in Pomona. Bree volunteers on the library board, opened an art studio for youth and runs a placemaking workshop. Tom got involved in local politics.

“In a distressed neighborhood like ours, corrupt political leadership has been sabotaging the future of our community for decades,” he said. He managed the campaign for mayoral candidate Tim Sandoval and helped unseat the long-standing incumbent, despite being out-fundraised three to one. “We organized a grassroots campaign, and we won by a landslide,” he said of the 2016 election.

Tom and Bree are also part of the education nonprofit Pomona Hope. Together with other parents, they planted a community garden in a crime-ridden area. It wasn’t long before the chief of police visited. “I had to see this place for myself,” Tom remembers him saying. “I keep a map of all the top crime locations in the city, and this was a big red dot. Now, it’s like nothing.” Crime had dropped by 40 percent, Tom said.

“In the inner city, what you walk past—every corner, all of those buildings, how they’re painted, how they’re landscaped—matters. And the place matters because you live in it,” Bree said. “Our lives are impacted by what streets look like and buildings and gardens, and so it’s good to invest in that.”

Pomona is no longer the second poorest city in LA County. “We’ve been working hard for the economic (and spiritual) revitalization of Pomona for decades,” Tom told me. “Praise God that he has allowed the city to improve.”

Bree said people ask her how they can live radically as believers. “There’s no formula for what kind of life to live. All you have to do is ask ‘how’ with what God has given you.”

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Christina Darnell
Christina Darnell

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

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