I SPENT the afternoon of Thanksgiving Day in Bea Gaddy's tent serving turkey stuffing.
It was a heartwarming experience. The giving and loving spirit of one woman energized hundreds of volunteers and moved the hearts of as many others who donated food, money and all the utensils and equipment needed.
The feeling of community was all pervasive. The guests often helped, and the helpers partook of the meal. Old men joined the gospel singers; children went around dragging huge plastic garbage bags to pick up trash. A bouncy teen-ager kept coming back for more and more food. "You must be hungry," I said. "Oh, no," she answered, "I'm bringing these plates to families with young children." Even the weather cooperated. The sun shone benignly, and people sat in the sun enjoying the music and the crowds after a good meal. "Baltimore, the city that cares," I thought.
And yet . . .
For all that good feeling and the sharing and honest warmth that was present, radiating from Bea Gaddy, I felt uncomfortable. I had been ladling a big spoonful of stuffing onto each plastic plate, trying to get it to the guest, who'd pass his plate on to the mashed potato server next to me, then to the green bean server and last of all to the server who poured a ladle full of rich hot gravy on it all.
As I handed the plate back to one guest, an elderly, toothless man, I heard him mutter, "Thank you for the turkey. Thank you for the stuffing. Thank you for the potatoes . . . " I was suddenly embarrassed, ashamed.
Whom was he thanking? Me? I simply gave a few hours of my time and received so much more in return. The Perdue and the Leedmark companies, which donated much of the food? Or whomever donated the paper products and drinks? We all gave out of our abundance. And, I am ashamed to say, many of us were there because it "made us feel good." Don't misunderstand me: I do not wish to imply that we should not help the less fortunate or that it is wrong to "feel good" when we do share. But on that Thanksgiving afternoon while serving the turkey stuffing, I felt that there is something very wrong with our society.
Bea Gaddy had planned on serving 17,000. Kitchens and shelters throughout the city were serving thousands more. And that was good, because without these efforts thousands would probably not have received a hot and nutritious Thanksgiving meal.
But why do we live in a society where so few have so much and so many have so little? I cannot believe that most of those thousands of men, women and children would not rather have had a modest meal in their own home. I cannot believe that most of the men and women would not rather work than rely on the kindness of others. Why is there no work? Why are there so few affordable homes in our city (and most others as well)? Why is most routine medical care almost unavailable to the poor? Why are drugs and alcohol and disease rampant in our cities? Why is there so little hope?
Let us be honest. Is it not easier for us to bring some canned goods to our church or synagogue or a charitable organization than to say to our elected officials, "I shall gladly pay higher
taxes so that the unemployed can work, the sick can get medical help and the homeless can afford to live in a decent place."
Is it not easier to bake a cake or make a donation than to speak out publicly for low-cost housing or a halfway house in our neighborhood? When did we last bombard the White House with letters urging the president to raise taxes so that all the citizens in this wealthy country can live in dignity? Do we feel no social responsibility?
We do. Bea Gaddy's huge tent and the thousands and thousands of "points of light" throughout the country testify to DTC that. But the charitable work makes us, the "haves," feel good and robs the "have-nots" of their dignity. There is something drastically wrong with our values. Other developed nations also have recessions, unemployment, homeless. They deal with those problems, not always perfectly, but more efficiently, more humanely -- by paying much higher taxes.
In the meantime the hungry have to be fed, the homeless housed and the sick healed. And so we are grateful to Gaddy and others who activate and inspire us.
Sibylle Ehrlich writes from Towson.