This particular night, not too long ago, I had plans to attend the yearly meeting's executive committee session since it's taking place in town. I wanted to provide spiritual support to the clerk, and to catch up with a few Friends who I had missed over the summer.
Yeap, those were my plans alright. But God needed me for other things that night.
When I arrived at the meetinghouse ahead of most of the committee's members, I saw Barbara, the Friend in Residence, sitting in the library with a man who I didn't know. He clearly wasn't dressed for the chilly November weather.
I introduced myself and started to hear Peter's story: lost his wife two years ago; lost his son last year to gang violence; out of work; holding onto his faith in God, even though he's been religion hopping; maybe Quakerism could be for him.
At different times, either Barbara or I would interrupt Peter to find out what he wanted or needed just then, but we also worked in tandem to provide an unspoken form of spiritual hospitality to him. At one point, I offered that we settle into a few minutes of Quaker worship--he wanted to know more about what we were like, so why not show him and include him?
Barbara and I used that worship, too, to consider Peter's very specific request: that he be given some paid work that night so he could pay to stay for a few days at something akin to a short-term, low-rent facility that also provides meals.
Peter wanted to maintain his dignity by doing paid work, and he refused any sort of handout.
"How much money would you need for where you want to stay tonight?" we asked.
- Twenty-seven dollars, he said.
- Eight o'clock.
We worshiped some more.
Out of the worship, Barbara identified a task that needed to be done, and here was someone willing to do it. Maybe it was a way for all of us to save face: Peter could help with the task; we could pay him for his time and labor, light as it was; the task could be crossed off of a long to-do list for care of the meetinghouse.
While Peter was working, I went to where I had left my things, including my money clip in my coat pocket. I recalled I had a few bills left over from an event I went to the night before, for which I had to pay for parking, in cash. "Maybe somehow I can ask folks who are here for Executive Committee to chip in for Peter," I thought to myself.
While still wondering about this to myself, introductions at Executive Committee were going around, and before I could grab my coat and scoot out the door, I was asked to introduce myself. "Uh... Sure," I said, and I offered my name and where I worship.
Then I jumped in a bit deeper.
"Actually, I have to leave unexpectedly. There's a gentleman in the building, his name is Peter. He's homeless and out of work. He's looking for paid work tonight so he can rent some space and have some hot meals for the next couple of days. The Friend in Residence here has found a task or two for him to help with, and I'll be giving him a few dollars for that work. Then I'm going to drive him to where he'll stay for the weekend, so please keep Peter in your prayers a little while, and I'll keep this gathered body in mine."
I took my coat into the hallway and pulled out my money clip, wondering how on earth I'd be able to go back to the room and ask for more money to help cover what Peter needed...
I pulled out the money clip, and to my surprise was not the ten-dollar bill I thought was there the night before, but a twenty. I opened that up, and inside of the twenty was a five. I opened that up, and inside the five were, of course, two singles.
I shook my head and probably turned my gaze heavenward before I went looking for Peter and Barbara. I found Barbara first and told her we were set for the twenty-seven dollars and that I could drive Peter. Barbara ended up coming along, and we dropped Peter off at the address he had given us.
Twenty minutes later, I was sitting with the yearly meeting's executive committee for their last 45 minutes of business that night.
During the closing worship, I stood. "I want to close the loop on what ended up happening with our friend Peter..." Their reaction to when I got to the part about the contents of the money clip were similar to my own: some gasps, some chuckles, some headnods.
I closed my sharing with this awareness:
- "The more I give up the privilege I have," I said, "the more Light I am given."
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The morning after all this happened, I woke up and found myself thinking about the story of the woman (or man) walking along the beach and throwing stranded starfish, one by one, back into the water.*
A seemingly useless task, since the beach was covered with starfish, and each subsequent high tide would leave so many more starfish stranded all over again. But when asked by a passerby what difference it makes, in the long run, to toss the starfish back to the ocean, the starfish thrower simply picks one up, tosses it into the sea, and replies, "Made a difference to that one."
But my mind was blending the starfish story with the babies-in-the-river story: So many of us are focusing on helping the down-on-their-luck individuals who we meet by giving them a dollar, a hot meal, a few extra bits of winter clothing. We seldom stop to think that maybe, in addition to that work, we should work to change the system that puts so many people--and especially people of color--"out on the street" to begin with.
In the case of the "babies in the river" story, we need to go upriver to see who is throwing the babies into the river, and intervene there, at that stage, which in turn will eliminate the need to pull out the babies downstream, since the babies won't be thrown into the river anymore.
Sometimes, tossing a starfish into the sea, or giving a man twenty-seven dollars while he is down on his luck, is enough. But more often, there is a larger system that is in play, and sometimes that system is exploiting or institutionalizing racism, xenophobia, sexism, and more.
*This and similar versions of this story are shortened, popularized versions of the Loren Eiseley essay Star Thrower.