Re-discovering the value of the widow’s mite

We are getting a lesson in sacrifice here in my corner of the world. Friends and neighbors have lost a great deal in the past couple of weeks, and while the destruction all happened on one day, the tragedy is no less two weeks later. Much of what was lost is irreplaceable, and it is yet to be seen whether some will be able to continue their lives as they have. Meanwhile, on the national stage, the destruction of American values continues unabated.

And, yet, from the ashes both local and national, two things have arisen to make me realize yet again that America doesn’t need to be made great because it already is great, and it has achieved this greatness, not by the rhetorical efforts of a monumental con artist or the largesse of a faceless government but by the sacrifice of its people. It occurred to me, then, that maybe we, as a people, have become not soft, really, but indifferent to the suffering of our fellow Americans. Maybe it’s time we all re-learned the lesson of sacrifice.

Here in northeast Colorado wildfire swept across parts of two counties for two days this month and when it was finally out, generations of work and whole families’ hopes and dreams lay in smoldering ruin. The fires were greater in Kansas and Texas, but the suffering was the same. And yet, before the ashes were cold, relief was pouring in. Food, clothing, shelter, vehicles, fencing supplies, equipment, fuel, even seed – everything a farming community needs to survive was being shipped in. Before governments could even recognize the need, people were meeting it. Tax dollars were not spared in the effort to extinguish the flames, but private enterprise and human compassion supplied everything else, and continues to do so.

The relief effort was exemplified when truckloads of hay for hungry livestock rolled into Colorado from South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and other states. For those unfamiliar with agriculture, giving away a truckload of hay is no small matter to the farmer who grows, harvests, bales, and stores it, and then trucks it himself 900 miles so another farmer’s cattle can eat. Never mind the tax write-off; it’s peanuts compared to what he could have made on that truckload of hay. When it’s all said and done, hundreds of those truckloads will have been delivered at between $600 and $700 a truckload, and that’s just the cost of the hay.

Imagine a car dealer driving a car for 24 straight hours only to hand it over to someone he’s never met just because the car is needed.

Meanwhile, back east in the Great American Swamp, the so-called president was suggesting the slashing of funds for all manner of social programs including, of all things, Meals on Wheels. At first I didn’t make the connection between federal funding and that particular program, but then I realized that our local Meals on Wheels is the rare animal that relies solely on local funding. People in our community dig into our pockets to buy the lunches that are sometimes the only square meal a senior citizen gets on a typical day. My wife is a MoW volunteer and refuses to claim the mileage on our tax returns.

What if, I wondered, social programs really were pared back dramatically? Would we really let people go hungry and naked if the government refused provide for them? Would Americans in the cities learn the lesson delivered these past two weeks by their country cousins? Gutting social programs would be an urban catastrophe akin to the conflagration that has swept across the prairies recently, but I’m wondering whether urban America would step up to assuage the pain of the urban poor the same as rural America stepped up to ease the suffering of farm and ranch families.

Sometimes it takes tragedies like these to remind us, the givers, the taxpayers, the ones fortunate enough to be able to pay taxes, that helping one’s fellow human beings requires sacrifice, requires effort, requires us to get off our butts, dig into our pockets, and help someone in need. It isn’t enough to give leftovers, to give what we won’t miss. Like the hay farmers helping their fellow producers, we need to give what we can ill afford, the widow’s mite, the pint of blood to save the bleeding. We need to share the pain of those to whom we give, to feel the needle stick, feel the ache of giving up something precious so someone else can escape from misery, and in doing so be grateful that we have it to give. In the process, it makes us better people.

I don’t mean to suggest that private donations can house the poor or provide the massive day care needed, or even pay for training and education needed to improve someone’s chances of escaping a life of poverty. Taxes are very much needed to provide those things the people need but cannot or will not provide for themselves. On the other hand, relying on taxes to constantly rescue our fellow humans from hunger and misery is spiritually lazy and it fails to engender any sense of community. Besides, as we’ve seen, it leads to resentment by the taxpayer and alienation of the recipient.

But give up a new pair of shoes and two meals a week so you can afford to deliver a basket of groceries to a needy family and you’ll quickly learn the meaning of the word sacrifice. You’ll probably learn something about humility, gratitude, compassion, and maybe even a bit of stoicism as well.

There is still a big role for government to play in American life, and it remains to be seen whether the government moves to help the stricken on the streets and in the countryside of this great country. But sometimes it gets too easy to let the government do it all.

It is my sincere hope that, should the demagogues in Washington decide to deny basic dignity to the poor, the elderly, and the disenfranchised, that the urban liberal base will take a cue from rural America and put their money where their politics are.

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