A little ago I was driving along the New Jersey Parkway and I came to one of the inevitable toll booths. So, I got my money out, rolled down my window, pulled up and reached out to hand the toll collector the money. She grinned at me, shook her head and said that the person in the car in front of me had already paid my toll. I was kind of mildly stunned. I mean you hear about people doing that kind of thing, but it doesn’t happen to me! So I drove off surprised and smiling. I smiled most of that day and into the next. Then, of course having strong and deep Catholic roots, I woke up and thought, “You damn fool! You should have paid for the car behind you! You should have kept the joy rolling. Damn what a dolt I can be!” And my overdeveloped Catholic guilt crept in and threatened to trash the glow I still had from the gift. And so I resolved to pay it forward the next time I’m on the parkway – and I even put a note in my car in the coin box to remind myself!
Then I remembered a day when I was driving along route 57 in New Jersey on my way to a graduate class at Marywood College in Scranton, PA. There in this small little town that I drove through every week were some guys alongside the road holding white plastic buckets and taking up a collection. Now, I don’t know about you, but where I come from the local volunteer fire departments do this once or twice a year. So I dug down deep into my pocket and pulled out a quarter (this was in the 1970’s and I was a graduate students, so that was big money for me) and I plunked my money into the man’s bucket. As I dropped the quarter into the bucket, I saw the KKK patch on his shirt. UGH. What had I done! I had just given money to a hate group, a hate group that I very much hated. UGH. Double UGH. I felt angry with myself. I felt deceived. I felt like I wanted to, needed to, take a shower. But I kept on driving, went to class, came home, and wrote a check for $5.00 to the United Negro College Fund (remember it was still the 1970’s and I was still a graduate student, so this was really, really big money). I figured this was one time when Martin Luther and his protest against the Roman Catholic practice of buying indulgences could be set aside.
Then I remembered a group in a gay bar that organized a fund raiser concurrent with a picketing event by Fred Phelps and some of his people from the Westboro Baptist Church. Fred Phelps and his people were our carrying their virulent anti-gay signs, demonstrating against something or other as they were wont to do. The group in the bar got people to pledge money, so much per quarter hour that Phelps and his people demonstrated, kind of like you do for people who are participating in a benefit walk, only in this case all of the money raised would go to a local pro-gay advocacy group. So, there was this beautiful ironic paradox – the longer Phelps and his people demonstrated against gay folks, the more the local gay group would benefit! Nice.
And then today I was surfing the internet and I found this story about some people who walked into a coffee shop, and as they were standing in line, they heard the folks ahead of them order five coffees, two for them, and three suspend. As they waited in the line, a few orders later a small group of women ordered eight coffees, one for each of them, and four suspended.
When the new comers placed their order, they asked the barista what ‘suspended’ coffee was. The barista chuckled and asked if there coffee was for there or to go. They said they would be drinking the coffee there. The barista said, “ok, take a table close to the counter and watch.” So they did.
The new folks took a table that was near the counter and had a view of the stream behind the café. They enjoyed their coffees and some conversation for a while. People came, placed their orders, some sat and drank their coffee, some took their coffee to go, quite a few place orders that included suspended coffee, and occasionally a suspended sandwich or soup.
Then just as they were about to leave, wondering what they were supposed to be waiting for, a man dressed in shabby clothes who looked like he could be homeless came in and asked, “do you have a suspended coffee?”
And it dawned on the two visitors, people paid in advance for a coffee or sandwich or bowl of soup that they intended to be held in reserve for someone who could not afford a warm beverage or a meal. Nice.
It is not a solution. Maybe it is not even a step in the right direction. It surely does not address any of the systemic, structural problems that cause and perpetuate poverty. But it does give some comfort and nurturance to individuals in the moment. And that is both necessary and nice too.
Four little stories about money and what we do with it, about what we can do with it. How we spend our money can make a difference, it can bring unexpected joy to someone, it can advance justice, and it can bring comfort. Or not. Think before you spend. Frivolous spending can be a good thing if you do it in the right way, at the right time. Planful, intentional spending can be a very good thing, if you do it in the right way, at the right time. And I don’t know when there is a wrong time to invest in a good cause (as long as you have paid the bills and have purchased enough food to stay healthy and enough books to keep your brain alive).