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.

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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.