THE CRUMPLED DOLLAR
The man reached into his wallet and I glanced down and saw clearly two crumpled dollar bills between the creased and dirty folds of worn leather. I wondered what he was going to do.
A college student younger than my years, and somewhat naive and uncomprehending, I had responded to a call for volunteers to go door-to-door on behalf of some well-known charity whose name escapes me now. My assigned area was a mixed neighborhood of HoIland, Michigan, with the south side of lovely and prosperous-looking homes merging into a north side with a lot of rundown apartment buildings. The reaction of south side people coming to the door reminded me of when as a boy I went around selling Christmas cards and stationery. Most opened the door just a crack and said whatever they felt they needed to say to get me off their stoop.
Some, however, did greet me warmly, and a few $5 bills nestled in with the one-spots and coins in my official envelope. And then, finally, I came to the poor north side neighborhood and this one very ramshackle building facing the coal dock. I knocked on the door, and it was opened by a slender unshaven man dressed in a pair of old baggy pants and a rumpled t-shirt. Behind him I caught a glimpse of a woman and a toddler.
I proceeded to explain to the fellow why I was there and for what wonderful cause the money would go. I don't know if he had any idea what I was talking about, but still he reached down for his wallet and for just a moment stared at the crumpled dollar bills inside. Then he took out one of the bills and handed it to me, and he said, "Here, "I’m sorry, but this is all I can give you.” I took the dollar and muttered, “Thank you." Then I turned and walked away. I knew something had just happened but I wasn't sure what.
All I knew was that I didn't want to go to any more of those homes on the north side. I didn't want anyone else to reach into a dirty wallet and give me half of all the money they had!
This little event took place about 40 years ago but I think about it often, especially around Christmas. I think about it when I open my own wallet and see all the twenties inside. I think about it when I read how many billionaires and multi-millionaires we now have in the world, and I wonder if the thought ever crosses their mind, to give half their wealth to some worthy cause.
Are the rich stingier today than they used to be? I wonder. Studies of charitable giving consistently show that of all the income groups the nouveau riche tend to give the lowest percentage of their income to church and charity. Studies also show that those who give generously to a church are also much more likely to give generously as well to other charitable causes.
Many of the very wealthy belong to Christian churches. But the worst thing their pastors could do is to preach sermons haranguing them for being rich. The very best thing they can do, however, is to challenge them to practice an abundant liberality, and to learn the art and the joy of radical philanthropy. The old saying was, "Give until it hurts." Then we came up with a better one, "Give until it stops hurting."
But here is surely the best one: "Give until it becomes sheer joy."On occasion, we hear of someone who literally astounds us with an act of sheer magnanimity. In the wake of 9-11 a young boy in our town got all his money he had saved in his piggy bank, something like $130, and brought it down to the Red Cross for the relief fund. And of course it reminded me once again of the man with the crumpled dollar.
Raven is the pen name used by the previous Universalist Herald editor.