Long ago, I quit graduate school to become a political activist. I had been working on a PhD in Early Modern English History-- Tudors and Stewarts and Puritans, oh my! I was totally gung-ho, until I realized that almost the only people who care about Early Modern English History are other Early Modern English historians. I gave up my full Fellowship to–as my parents so eloquently put it– become a professional street walker and erstwhile beggar.
I was filled with a burning desire to fight the Good Fight. I would be Don Quixote; but unlike my hero, I was going to win my battles rather than simply tilt at stray windmills. Five years and several thousand miles later, having traversed the country a dozen or so times, I quit the national poor people’s organization for whom I had been working, a little bedraggled, a lot broke and much bewildered. I kept looking around for all that I had accomplished, all that we, as an organization, had accomplished, and saw… the detritus of really good intentions.
We fought to give people a voice, to find strength and power in numbers. We got a few stop signs put up, a handful of crack houses boarded up or torn down. We got enough press that Mayors and Police Chiefs learned to take our calls and listen to our demands. Mostly though— we demonstrated on bread and butter issues that fed our souls and fired us up. I was so determined to Save The World and Make A Difference, but really, what I was doing was drowning in a sea of windmills and broken lances.
The issues that plagued us twenty-five, thirty years ago, when I was young(er) and rousing rabble eighty hours a week or more— they’ve grown. The rift between the Haves and the Have Nots is wider and more treacherous than ever. Poverty. Ignorance. Hunger. Disease. Global Warming. Hatred. War. Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? I wish! They are legion, these Horsemen, and they spread devastation in their wake. They've had a few millenia to gain in power and scope. Human history is the story of our inhumanity, a desolate and sere desert of indifference and despair. My fear whispers for me to throw up my hands in surrender to the enormity of the task, to just walk away. The need is so great. I could be devoured by this need that grows daily and swallows hope.
It would be so easy to turn away from this overwhelming and insatiable need.
I could, but I don’t. Instead, I do what I can. I light a candle, a flicker of hope in this darkness, the flutter of a butterfly’s wings that becomes a storm. The task may seem insurmountable, but I can’t avoid it. The Talmud tells us: “It is not your duty to complete the work, neither are you free to desist from it.” (Pirke Avot, 2:16,15)
My job, as I see it, as I have been taught, is to light the candles and flap my wings. Again and again and again— because I can, because I must. Because I change the world every time I do. And all those candles, mine and yours and on and on— they light the darkness and beat back despair. They kindle hope: A stop sign. A voice. Hope where there once was none. It is the best of our humanity.
Are we our brother’s keepers? Yes. Having a roof over your head is a right, not a privilege. Access to medical care, or clean water to drink, or food on the table— all of that is a right, not a privilege. And no, before some of you get on that high horse of fiscal certitude: no, I don’t have an answer on how to pay for all this. I just know that we must. It is our humanity at stake, and how could we turn away from that? How could I look into my son’s eyes if I turned my back on such need? How can I not pass this candle flame to him?
And my son, my fourteen year old— he wants to house the poor and feed the hungry and fight for justice. He has learned that he has his own candles to light. He may not solve the riddles of poverty or ignorance or hatred, but he knows, in the face of all that desperate need and billowing despair, he can light a candle or two in the darkness, because he can, because he must, because he, too, can save the world.