Gary Percesepe

Notes from Buffalo: On Charity & Justice

There’s a sto­ry that com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers like to tell, about babies in rivers. Like that famous joke, “The Aristocrats,” there are many ver­sions of the sto­ry. Here’s mine.

A church pic­nic is inter­rupt­ed by a woman’s pierc­ing scream, “A baby! There’s a baby float­ing in the riv­er!” A teenage girl runs to the riv­er. Taking off her sneak­ers, she plunges into the murky water. The pic­nick­ers hold their breath and pray. Finally the girl’s head appears above water, and then the baby is seen, held aloft in the arms of the hero­ic res­cuer. From shore, a shout of praise.

A blan­ket is found, and the baby is wrapped tight­ly and passed around from pic­nick­er to pic­nick­er. The lit­tle boy is safe, but no one knows how he got into the riv­er, or where his par­ents might be. There is much spec­u­la­tion on this top­ic, and on the ques­tion of what should be done.

While this debate ensues, anoth­er pierc­ing scream. “A baby! There’s anoth­er baby in the riv­er!” The same strong teen throws off her sneak­ers and plunges in again, this time com­ing up with a lit­tle baby girl, who cries angri­ly as she is blan­ket­ed and passed around.

What to do now? The church folk decide there must be a pro­gram of care for the babies. A sched­ule is drawn up, a phone tree for vol­un­teers, and a list of sup­plies for the lit­tle ones, includ­ing food and dia­pers. When once again the cry is heard, “A baby! My God, there’s anoth­er baby in the riv­er!”

When she emerges from the riv­er this time, the teen res­cuer is angry. While baby care com­mit­tees are form­ing she tugs her sneak­ers back on and mut­ters under her breath. She gets to her feet and begins run­ning upstream.

Where are you going?” the church folk cry.

I’m going upstream to fig­ure out who the hell is throw­ing these babies into the riv­er!”


I think of this sto­ry every time I wit­ness pub­lic dis­plays of con­gres­sion­al stu­pid­i­ty, which seem to be increas­ing late­ly.

Last month, tea par­ty Republicans shut the gov­ern­ment down. Standard & Poors esti­mates that act of mad­ness cost a cool $24 bil­lion. Soon enough, it will be for­got­ten. Last night was Halloween. The $24 bil­lion haunt­ed me all night. It’s like ghost mon­ey. We’ll nev­er know the lives that it might have changed had it been used for good pur­pos­es rather than destroyed in a moment of col­lec­tive insan­i­ty. Meanwhile, every day in America:

  • 2 moth­ers die in child­birth.
  • 4 chil­dren are killed by abuse or neglect.
  • 5 chil­dren or teens com­mit sui­cide.
  • 7 chil­dren or teens are killed by firearms.
  • 24 chil­dren or teens die from acci­dents.
  • 67 babies die before their first birth­days.
  • 208 chil­dren are arrest­ed for vio­lent crimes.
  • 467 chil­dren are arrest­ed for drug crimes.
  • 838 pub­lic school stu­dents are cor­po­ral­ly pun­ished.*
  • 892 babies are born at low birth­weight.
  • 914 babies are born to teen moth­ers.
  • 1,208 babies are born with­out health insur­ance.
  • 1,825 chil­dren are con­firmed as abused or neglect­ed.
  • 2,712 babies are born into pover­ty.
  • 2,857 high school stu­dents drop out.*
  • 4,475 babies are born to unmar­ried moth­ers.
  • 4,500 chil­dren are arrest­ed.
  • 16,244 pub­lic school stu­dents are sus­pend­ed.*

**Based on 180 school days a year. The num­bers for sus­pen­sions and cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment are under­re­ports because they are based on a sur­vey of 85% of all stu­dents, and because they do not take into account repeat sus­pen­sions or cor­po­ral pun­ish­ments in the same stu­dents.

- See more at:


There is now a riv­er of babies. There are babies every­where, as far up and down the riv­er as the eye could see. The church folk find some row­boats. They go out on the riv­er snatch­ing up babies as fast as they can, but they can­not not keep up. Someone finds a motor­boat, and a crew is formed to race down the riv­er and res­cue babies at a faster pace. This seems to work, and a cho­rus of praise goes up. More motor­boats are com­man­deered, and then some­one has a bril­liant idea: Let’s hire a grant writer to write some grants to buy more motor­boats so we can res­cue more babies! This idea is met with wild enthu­si­asm.

There is no men­tion of the teenage girl who had run upstream. Some folks were put off by her angry atti­tude, and oth­ers were dis­tressed because she had been such a strong swim­mer, and could have helped with the down­stream res­cue effort, which was becom­ing more man­age­able now with the motor­boats.

Someone says, “Hey, let’s get the media out here to cap­ture this sto­ry!” So a press release is writ­ten and the media show up. The print media arrive first, and hear the sto­ry of how the church had been hav­ing this pic­nic and then this baby appeared and the teenage girl (no, sor­ry, we don’t know where she is now) had saved the first three babies, but now there were hun­dreds of babies being saved. “Are you tired of sav­ing all these babies,” the reporter asks? “Well yes, it is real­ly strain­ing the church bud­get, and our vol­un­teers are swamped (if you know what I mean), but this is the work that God has called us to, and we are not com­plain­ing. We’re just wor­ried about keep­ing up with all these babies, so we invit­ed you here to tell this sto­ry so we can get some more help.” “I under­stand,” said the reporter, scrib­bling away. “I got the sto­ry.”

Everyone is pleased with the print cov­er­age, and there is an uptick in vol­un­teers the next week, though it’s not long before they are at the same vol­un­teer lev­el as before, or actu­al­ly a bit low­er. Then the TV folks show up, just a local crew at first, but then a nation­al cor­re­spon­dent for the num­ber one cable news sta­tion. The intre­pid reporter sta­tions him­self in the mid­dle of the riv­er, on a sand­bar, using his body as a human mea­sur­ing stick to show the folks in TV land how deep the water is. A storm comes up, and the reporter’s hat blows off, and his shirt bil­lows in the wind, dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Just then a baby comes float­ing by and the reporter reach­es out a well man­i­cured hand and scoops up the baby, hand­ing him to a wait­ing vol­un­teer.

No one asks:

How had the intre­pid reporter become the cen­ter of the sto­ry?

Where was the teenage girl who had run upstream? What resources did she have to work with? Was she able to get to the root of the baby prob­lem? Who was throw­ing these babies into the riv­er?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, we read of baby Moses, adrift in the Nile due to the blind hatred of an emper­or. Christians tell the sto­ry of baby Jesus and the Holy Family, made refugees in Egypt because of anoth­er mad monarch, Herod, who gave an order to kill babies. I think of Catholic social activist Dorothy Day, who had angri­ly denounced the filthy rot­ten dirty sys­tem that gave us babies in rivers. And the Catholic bish­op who had lament­ed, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint, but when I ask why are they poor they call me a Communist!”


Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once had a con­ver­sa­tion about the Good Samaritan sto­ry. They were talk­ing about the Good Samaritan and the Jericho Road and King said, “….Andy, I think the Good Samaritan is a great indi­vid­ual. I of course, like and respect the Good Samaritan….but I don’t want to be a Good Samaritan.…you see Andy, I am tired of pick­ing up peo­ple along the Jericho Road. I am tired of see­ing peo­ple bat­tered and bruised and bloody, injured and jumped on, along the Jericho Roads of life. This road is dan­ger­ous. I don’t want to pick up any­one else, along this Jericho Road; I want to fix… the Jericho Road. I want to pave the Jericho Road, add street lights to the Jericho Road; make the Jericho Road safe (for pas­sage) by every­body….”


$24 bil­lion is gone, and now we are on to talk­ing about web­sites in Washington. Congressional lead­ers who tried to defund the president’s health care law, who shut the gov­ern­ment down because they want­ed to stop the law from being imple­ment­ed, now claim that the gov­ern­ment web site are not work­ing and poor Americans can­not get health care.

I under­stand why Americans give Congress approval rat­ings in the sin­gle dig­its. I get it, how peo­ple can become frus­trat­ed and angry about a dys­func­tion­al gov­ern­ment that doesn’t seem to work any­more, and cer­tain­ly doesn’t seem to work for them.

But the babies con­tin­ue to drown in the riv­er. Every day. While we indulge our out­rage and post com­ments about it on social media, or just look away.

Or, for the hol­i­days, do com­mend­able acts of char­i­ty.

Nothing wrong with char­i­ty.

Except this: char­i­ty by itself leaves cor­rupt sys­tems unchanged.

Downstream char­i­ties are over­whelmed. Charity is not enough.

Pope Paul VI once said, “Never give to char­i­ty what is owed to jus­tice.”

What is owed to jus­tice?

That $24 bil­lion would be a good place to start.


Gary Percesepe is, among many oth­er things, an edi­tor at New World Writing.