ALEXANDRIA, Minn. — You don’t need to travel far in Alexandria, Minn., before coming face to face with The Shirt.

The T-shirt, in a variety of colors, says “Live Generously,” next to the shape of a heart with a cross.

You can be almost guaranteed to see one any time you hit the grocery store, a work Zoom meeting or a walking trail.

But where do they come from? How do you get one? And are the wearers perhaps a touch kinder than the general public?

Laurie Lee from Evansville, Minn., a member of that city’s fire department, said she has gotten her shirts during the department’s annual pancake feed fundraisers. The shirt’s creator, Thrivent, gives them away at events it sponsors, and it supplies the pancake mix for the fundraiser.

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Thrivent began giving away the shirts five years ago and has so far distributed 7 million, said Samantha Mehrotra, a Thrivent corporate spokeswoman. It holds contests to pick each year’s color.

“I’ve got every color,” Lee said.

Laurie Lee from Evansville earned her T-shirt while helping with the Evansville Fire Department's annual pancake feed. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)
Laurie Lee from Evansville earned her T-shirt while helping with the Evansville Fire Department's annual pancake feed. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

The message resonates with people, making the T-shirts a marketing tool for Thrivent, a nonprofit Christian organization with more than 2 million members and also a Fortune 500 company. The company was named Thrivent Financial for Lutherans before dropping “for Lutherans” in 2014 and the “Financial” this year. This year’s rebranding also includes a new logo that eliminates the cross but keeps the heart. So although the 2020 T (in sun-kissed scarlet) includes the heart with the cross, the 2021 shirt will have just a heart above a hand.

People get their T-shirts the way Lee did, by volunteering or otherwise taking part in a Thrivent-sponsored event.

“One of the things that makes our T-shirts truly special is the fact that they are earned through acts of generosity,” Mehrotra said. “Behind every T-shirt is the story of someone who was affected by generosity — by being on the receiving end of a generous act, or giving their time, finances or talent to make a positive difference for someone else.”

Ted Haar, a Thrivent financial consultant in Alexandria, said he has encountered The Shirt in multiple places around the United States.

“We were hiking in the remote high hills in Alaska and met an entire family of six hiking and all had Live Generously T-shirts,” he said.

Another time, they ran into an elderly couple hiking in an Arizona park with the same shirt.

“They lived in Arizona but had visited Alex numerous times in the 1960s,” he said. “We visited about 20 minutes.”

Each Live Generously shirt can be dated by its color. (Contributed)
Each Live Generously shirt can be dated by its color. (Contributed)

One of his most memorable encounters with The Shirt was meeting a former Hells Angels leader whose life had been changed by Jesus. The man was wearing the Live Generously shirt. Haar sent a photo of the man to then-Thrivent CEO Brad Hewitt. Hewitt replied, “You made my day!”

A quick #livegenerously search online turns up stories of people leaving big tips in restaurants, raising awareness for heart disease, providing bead making kits to hospitalized children, serving meals, stocking food shelves, collecting school supplies for kids and kids making blankets for a pregnancy center, among others.

Online, multiple people have written about lessons learned while wearing the shirt. Trish Cozart of Colorado wrote on her “Crossing the Midline” blog that when she was wearing her shirt, she couldn’t walk away from a couple begging for help for rent and food or, on another occasion, a woman with a baby seeking help.

“This ‘free’ T-shirt has cost me,” she quipped.

Concordia Theological Seminary instructor Rosie Adle wrote in the October 2019 Lutheran Witness magazine about how a woman complimented her on her Live Generously shirt. Adle thanked her, and the woman elaborated, “Live Dangerously. That’s so cool. More people should live like that.”

Momentarily befuddled, and then amused, Adle went on to reflect on the connection between living dangerously and living generously.

She noted that the Book of Ecclesiastes encourages people to share even with disaster imminent.

“These verses teach the kind of extravagant generosity that most of us would find risky,” she wrote. “The point is this: If we have the means to be generous, we should be about it while we have the opportunity. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?"