This week my work took me to the Manhattan office of a non-profit, environmental group. Since I will be working with them, I wanted to get a first-hand look at their fundraising campaign. Part of the campaign includes canvassing neighborhoods throughout the city for individual donations. So, I went with them. I think the last time I went out on the street to do that was Little League, when, donned in my baseball uniform, I asked passers-by and store owners for contributions for a new field.
This was different. For one thing, I am no longer fourteen and cute. Secondly, it wasn’t a baseball field I was asking money for but an organization dedicated to protecting the environment by restricting deep-sea drilling, mineral extraction, and commercial fishing. Not everybody can get behind those causes. But I try to be open-minded about these things, having lived long enough to know that black and white applies to classic movies but not much else. So, I wanted to talk to people in a rational way about what they thought and then get them to become members through a monthly contribution.
Here’s what I discovered. Nearly everyone cares about the environment and the world we leave our children. These issues are important to them, but they are so pressed for time and money that their lives seem out of control. How out of control? Getting them to pledge an amount that worked out to a dollar a day wasn’t easy. I can honestly say that I am not a bad salesman. I know how to close a deal. It’s just that people are overwhelmed.
I read a statistic the other day about millionaires. Apparently, there are almost 400,000 of them in the city. That’s one in every 25 New Yorkers. I don’t know how many I met this week, but I talked to an investment banker from China, a financial analyst from Bulgaria, and a wealth manager from Park City, Utah. They all live here now. None became members, but the guy from Park City told me he’d get back to me. I hope he does, although I am not waiting by the phone.
I met somebody else. It was on East 14th Street between Second and Third Avenue, not far from New York University. You know this guy. He’s everywhere. He was dressed in army fatigues, a heavy jacket, boots, and a hoodie. He had bushy, red hair with a beard to match, and he led a pit bull by a heavy, chain leash. I don’t know how he managed it, but he also carried a cup of what looked like chicken noodle soup that he slurped every once in a while. Just as he passed me, he stopped.
Now, there may be 400,000 millionaires in New York, but I’ve come to the conclusion that there are at least as many crazies (there are even more strollers, but that’s another blog). I figured this guy was another one. He started talking. He was homeless, hungry, tired. He wanted a job. Was the organization I worked for hiring? How much? How could he go about applying? He didn’t have a computer but he could get to a phone. I answered his questions, hoping he would move on. He slurred his words, and I wondered if he was on medication. I didn’t smell booze. Finally, he left. I breathed easier.
Later, it occurred to me that I could have been the only person he had spoken to all day, maybe for a few days. I could have been the only person to take him seriously and respond to him. The only problem is I did neither. I did not take him seriously or respond in any real way. I wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible, even after seeing that he posed no threat.
I am writing an article on business ethics in light of Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si. In the encyclical, Francis writes about the poor and how helping them out of poverty is not just an act of mercy for them but an exercise of freedom for us. Why freedom? Because helping the poor lifts us out of isolation and individualism. It puts us in touch with our humanity.
I had an opportunity to do that this week. I missed it. Actually, I missed it three times. There was also the woman with two children living in a shelter who asked for help and the girl whose wallet had been stolen on the subway. I gave to neither. But this is the struggle of living in New York today. It may be the struggle in a lot of places across America. When I give, I feel like a sucker; when I don’t, a hypocrite. Sometimes I am one, sometimes the other.
Often, I am both.