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: http://www.childrensdefense.org/child-research-data-publications/each-day-in-america.html#sthash.cpB0XIwG.dpuf
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.