Pillar or Pest?
Pillar or Pest? By Steve Clemens. May 4, 2009
On Friday evening, my brother Phil was honored at a banquet/fundraiser by the Harleysville Senior Center as a “Pillar of the Community”. It is a well-deserved honor for someone who has donated his “time, treasure, and talent” [Phil’s words] back to the local community. In his gracious and eloquent acceptance speech he hit most of the right notes. He observed that the honor really belongs to the entire team that embodies the Clemens Family Corporation and that he was accepting this on behalf of the “team”. His speech was peppered with the words generosity and stewardship. He acknowledged the role that family and faith has played in his economic and social “success”.
One thing that struck me was the courage Phil showed in addressing the crowd that certainly included some of the “movers and shakers” of the community. He cited statistics about some of the economic realities affecting our world. Paraphrasing his remarks, he told us that more than 50% of the world lives on less than $2 per day – the “poor” and among that group, many live on $1/day or less – “the extremely poor”. The people populating the middle include the middle income group making the equivalent of $4,000-6,000/year and the Middle Class earning up to $11,000/year. The balance of us, including most of those often labeled as “poor” in the U.S. are the affluent. In this context, Phil called on us to be good stewards of what we have been blessed with by God and to, in turn, be generous to others with our time, treasure and talent.
On the table before each of us was a piggy bank inscribed with a quote from Phil calling us to “live to give”. He asked us to place it on our dressers at home and every night to empty the change from our pockets and put it in that piggy bank. When it gets full, we are to take it to a charity and donate it for their work. It could be a start for each of us to put into practice Phil’s challenge to us. We could follow that small cash donation with offering to volunteer at that charity, sharing our talents and time as well. Phil’s remarks were well spoken and were received well as evidenced by the standing ovation at the end.
But I left with conflicting feelings. I have a lot of pride and gratitude for what my older brother has done for both the family business as well as the broader community. But the question that nagged at me was the recurring question, “why?” Why is more than half the world’s population living in abject poverty? Why does Phil identify even the “poor” in the U.S. as affluent? I don’t quarrel with his facts but I think we need to ask another question beyond the call to stewardship and generosity. What about the call to justice?
Charity is both good and necessary but it doesn’t challenge the structures which insure its own continuation. It reminds me of the famous quote from Catholic Archbishop Dom Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil in the 1970’s: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint; when I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist!” Of course to ask these kinds of questions when one is being honored by one’s home town would be considered in bad taste. But Phil at least had the guts to even remind us of the global reality. For that I give him credit. But if you ask Dom Helder’s question, you quickly move from being a pillar to a pest.
The Harleysville Senior Center is a modest attempt to help rebuild “the commons” and the community. In years gone by, one’s immediate family or neighbors took care of the elderly. Today, our society seems to promote greed, individualism and privatization. Even though this state is known as the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the idea of holding wealth in “common” has long been dismissed as quaint and old fashioned – if not down right socialistic. So while the “affluent” within our society entertain themselves with the latest electronic gadgets and toys or go on “get away” trips, the less affluent Harleysville seniors depend on their Senior Center. It is great that it exists and has a staff that really is committed to serving those who use it. But how many neighborhoods have such a center, supported by ever-in-demand tax dollars?
I hear the complaints of many about the burden of taxation without the corresponding analysis of what should be commonwealth for all. While many industrialized countries have universal healthcare, Americans are told to fend for themselves. Many are fortunate to have jobs which help cover those costs but a growing number do not. It is not a matter of some are “lazy” and others “industrious”. Do you think most family farmers are lazy? Yet many of them have no ready access to affordable healthcare. The amount of physical energy expended by the local roofer, house or hotel cleaner, or even restaurant waitress is certainly greater than the corporate executive yet one has health insurance with all the bells and whistles while the other often goes without, hoping to survive the next medical crisis.
It isn’t simply a matter of greed although the recent reports of hedge fund managers and banking executive bonuses exhibited quite a bit of what could only be seen by others as avarice. When the economic system we are in seems to inevitably lead to a growing gap between the rich and the poor, charity becomes a Band-Aid when surgery seems to be more the need.
When we start honoring prophets instead of those who make profits (justified or excessive) as pillars of our communities, maybe we’ll have less need for charity and instead all share equally in the benefits of justice. The Clemens Family Corporation’s companies have practiced “profit-sharing” with its employees since 1951. That is certainly a step is the right direction. Healthcare has been an additional benefit for those who work for it. Terrific! But notice that word: benefit. Why is it not considered a right? Why should ones ability to get medical care be tied to ones employment?
Charity encourages generosity, and that is good. Justice demands we don’t leave others behind, and that is better.