Reflections of a man who sold everything and gave it to the poor

On 5 December 2012, 34-year-old international aid worker and artist, Aaron Moore sold everything he owned and gave it to the poor. ‘One thing you lack’ was a performance based on two texts regarding the poor, one theological and the other philosophical. The first was Jesus’s command to the rich young man, found in the book of Luke 18:18-23, to ‘sell everything you own and give it to the poor’. The second was a challenge by utilitarian, Peter Singer, who believes ‘if we can prevent something bad, without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.’  Aaron said the performance challenges our right to retain wealth when faced by the needs of those in extreme poverty.

Here, Aaron writes a reflection for Eternity on what it was like to give up all he had and whether he thinks it made any difference:

Strangers sat on my bed and rummaged through my bedside table drawers; a woman placed a bid on my university degree; a flatmate handed over a few dollars for my beard trimmer; a man tried on my suit; someone inspected my half eaten boxes of cereal; people pointed out paintings and drawings they wanted to purchase; hundreds of my personal photographs were emptied out onto a table being carefully perused by a small crowd; a middle-aged man flipped through my tax records and other files to find an old X-ray, withdrew it from its envelope and held it up to the light to get a better look.

‘One thing you lack’ was my first solo art exhibition and opened to a few hundred people in Kudos Gallery, Paddington, just before Christmas. That was a matter of months ago when at the age of 34 I sold everything I owned in the space of one week. I emptied the contents of my bank accounts and, along with the proceeds from the sale, gave it to charity, moving me to financial and material ground zero in the hope of moving others out of poverty.

The artwork was based on two texts regarding the poor, one theological and the other philosophical. The first was Jesus Christ’s command to the rich young man, found in the book of Luke, to ‘sell everything you own and give it to the poor’. The second was a challenge by utilitarian Peter Singer who believes ‘if we can prevent something bad, without sacrificing anything of comparable significance, we ought to do it.’

In practical terms: if the value of an item in our possession (like pair of shoes) could be used to save a life, such as paying for the immunisation of a child in a developing nation, then we are morally obliged to use it for this purpose. Overall, the performance challenged our right to retain wealth when faced by the needs of those in extreme poverty by undertaking the simple act of selling everything and giving it to the poor.

As you might expect, selling everything you own in one week is not necessarily an easy task, but it’s by no means impossible. All my major items – motorbike, laptop, iPhone, surfboard, wetsuit, paintings – I placed on a seven day auction, with no reserve, and opening bids of one cent. They all sold. The rest of my possessions were set up in a gallery space that closely resembled my home with a study, bedroom, art studio, bathroom, kitchen and garage, and sold by a small team of volunteers.

I assumed that some items wouldn’t sell – old clothes, linen, worn books – so I organised to deliver and donate what was left to the local Salvation Army store. But I actually thought that even the Salvos wouldn’t take much of what remained. What about used underwear for instance? Since the aim of the artwork was to help the poor, not simply pass items to someone to throw in the trash, I questioned the manager as I dropped the boxes off, “Do you really want my personally inscribed under 12’s soccer trophies and marathon medals?” “Oh yes,” he said, “we’ll mark them at one dollar each and people will buy them for an Olympics dress up party.” When I returned to deliver the second load of goods, my medals were already in the bargain box, my boxer shorts were hanging on the rack.

Some predicted that selling all would leave me stuck in the gutter, lost in squalor, indefinitely destitute, keenly awaiting another more ‘sensible’ person to stoop down and rescue me. And that, they said, was exactly why they refused to do it. Others felt it would have little effect.

“Let’s face it,” one mate said, “if you really want, the day after the exhibition, you can pick up a free iPhone 4 [on a phone contract] and within a few months you’ll have new clothes and be back where you started.”

“Yeah,” quipped another mate “you’ll be back to the rich man who should be selling everything he has.” Which begs the question; if it is so easy for all our wealth to return to us, why are we so opposed to letting it all go, even when faced by the needs of those languishing in extreme poverty? When Jesus gave his original command to sell all, the rich young man walked away sad. I guess I hoped I might learn something that he didn’t.

I emceed a friend’s wedding the same day I closed the exhibition. The bride and groom were married barefoot in an open-air service and no one seemed to mind that I also wasn’t wearing any shoes. For a few weeks I slept on the floor, using a beach towel for a blanket. Then I went camping for New Years and sleeping on the ground didn’t seem so out of place.  My flat mate even lent me his inflatable mattress to use on my return.

About a month later, the couple that purchased my bed to accommodate their relatives during the holiday break were moving house and said they were throwing it out. I picked it up along with an antique roller desk and beanbag. They were getting rid of their couches too but I said I didn’t need them. I generally lived simply, for example I didn’t buy new clothes, but these few larger items made it appear like at least I was no longer squatting.

My break from pocket technology was even more fleeting. After only two days of freedom, my mother fished partly-operational cellphone out of the house junk draw and handed it to me under the instruction that even if I didn’t need to contact others, they (meaning my Mum) would still like to contact me. Whilst I accepted the phone, I didn’t replace my laptop but began devouring books instead, particularly during my now regular rides on public transport.

The artwork moved a private conviction into the public sphere. I originally hoped to do it in secret, but selling everything requires you to show people everything. It’s basically impossible to sell all and not have others notice.  The very act demands a level of public disclosure, and undertaking the act as an artwork provided greater opportunity for open dialogue throughout that process.

I was tempted to hide items and there were moments I pretended items weren’t mine in the hope of keeping them in my life. When I revealed my internal struggle to sell an old watch my father received at his graduation and then gave me as a child, one person called the act of selling it an ‘insult to your own heritage.’ Yet another labelled the same decision a ‘mind blowing’ demonstration that encouraged her to purchase this year’s Christmas presents from a charity gift store.

‘One thing you lack’ wasn’t really a solo show; in the same way John Donne said ‘no man is an island.’ In order to sell everything I needed people to buy everything. Those that recognised this irony came up with their own creative means of dealing with it.

Some decided to abstain from the consumerism of buying my possessions and simply demonstrated their support by donating directly to Global Concern, the charity my funds supported. Others demonstrated their solidarity by buying items and then giving them back to me. In the days leading up to Christmas, I unwrapped several possessions purchased at the exhibition and gifted back. I guess it was handy that they could be guaranteed it was my size and style.

There was an obvious tension that I might be supporting the plight of the poor at the expense of my family and friends and I tried in vain to protect them from this. I stated that I would accept neither food nor shelter from them. If need be, I would sleep on the street. But these self-imposed rules soon became untenable. When people began buying things with the intention of giving them back at a later stage I gave up. What did it matter if I kept all my rules but had no room for love? The exhibition was possible because the people around me helped me to move, buy and sell everything I own in the hope of making a difference in the lives of the poor. The end result was strengthened relationships with friends and family as we bonded together in greater solidarity to help those less fortunate than ourselves.

Thus the real stories of life change belong to those in the poorest regions of the globe. Every day 19,000 children die of preventable diseases. Over the past six months, funds raised from ‘One thing you lack’ supported numerous social development programs throughout Africa and Asia. Enough to cover the full operational costs of a rural Togolese medical clinic, which delivered tens of babies, treated hundreds of patients from life threatening conditions like malaria and cholera, and immunised thousands of children.

It was enough to provide further funding to food security programs in Malawi and Zambia, training poor farmers in conservation farming methods, nutrition, gender and HIV/Aids, all of which is enabling them to become self-sufficient and feed their families all year round. And enough to further support sewing classes for impoverished women in both India and Bangladesh, providing them an opportunity to secure work, increase their incomes and pay for necessities like food, toiletries, medical costs and school fees for their children. As Global Concern’s Overseas Projects Manager, I was able to visit some of these communities after the exhibition and see, hear and confirm their stories of change first hand.

The vast majority of my possessions are gone forever. Whilst I could have, I never returned to the Salvo’s store to buy the items I left. In my head I’d already cut ties with them. My father bought the watch and gifted it back to me at Christmas.

Loving your family, loving friends, loving strangers and loving God are all encompassed in Jesus’ two greatest commands, but living them out involves continuous tensions and often-uncomfortable reassessments of key aspects of our lives. Whilst relational tensions are not easily resolved, it’s my experience that love can stretch deeper and broader than you think, and embracing and living in the tension may actually be the healthiest place to be.

Eternity spoke with Aaron the day before his art exhibition in December last year. Read that interview here.  

Featured image: courtesy of Aaron Moore