Let me tell you a story from my personal experience. Only a name is changed. The church I served had joined with several others in running a free lunch program in our city. We provided a hot meal for from 200 to 400 people every day of the year. Most of those who showed up survived on this one meal a day, supplemented with food stamps and perhaps some other government program. Perhaps they didn’t survive well, but they survived.
While it was popular, particularly among good hearted people who were proud that they were doing something that mattered, there were those in the community who continued to complain about how these people who showed up for a free lunch ought to be out working, or at least seeking jobs.
Among the chief critics was a prominent business executive, who ran a significant national corporation in the community. “Work, not welfare,” was his constant theme. Otherwise Arthur was a benevolent faithful Christian gentleman, with this one more critical observation. For some time I puzzled as to how I might bring him around. And then one morning I got an idea.
“Arthur,” I said on the phone, “I know you are not fond of our lunch program, but I’ve got a problem. Three of our regular volunteers can’t make it today. (an outright lie) Could you come on down and give us a hand?” Now Arthur was the kind of church member every minister counts on. He was usually the first one to show up when the call went out. So at 10:30 I picked him up at his office and down to the lunch room we went, with a reminder to me of his dislike for the whole thing.
The meal was served by a line of volunteers passing out various items in the single menu lunch. Arthur was assigned a basket of oranges, which he gave to each person in the line. The rule was that in addition to passing out the item, the volunteer was asked to say some welcoming word to all those who came. Arthur faithfully gave out the oranges, but I noticed he never said anything to those who passed by his post. It was our custom for the volunteers to sit later and have the same meal we had shared with our guests. This was a time for stories, conversations, the detailing of the events of the hour. Again Arthur was mute.
When we had cleaned up for the day, I drove Arthur back to his office. On the way I said, “Arthur, you run a corporation which employs hundreds of people in this community. While you are clear that both of us believe in work, not welfare, which ones of the people who came for the meal today would you consider hiring?” ‘I listened to his profound silence as in his mind he reviewed the faces of those to whom he had offered an orange. They were the faces of the blind, the lame, the halt, ragged mothers with ragged little children, old alcoholics, the city’s mentally ill, the homeless.
At last he spoke. “I’m not stupid”, he said, “and I know when I have been set up. But you got me fair and square, and you know the answer to your question. I wouldn’t hire any of them.”
From that day Arthur became the biggest financial supporter of the lunch program, although he never again made the trip back there at noon. Until his death he continued to argue that work, not welfare was the best answer to the problems surrounding poverty. And about this perspective I agreed. But having seen first hand this slice of the unemployed and unemployable, he now knew that his old attitude had suffered a body blow as he handed oranges to the blind, the lame, the halt, ragged mothers with ragged little children, old alcoholics, the city’s mentally ill and the homeless, whose faces he could no longer avoid.