Part 6: Practicing Stewardship


Excerpted from “Finding Work: When There Are No Jobs.” Copyright 2010 Roger Wright.

Part Six: Practicing Stewardship
Chapter 1: Finding Unity: Dr. King Tosses Me the Baseball

Remember—Stewardship means taking care of something bigger than you. And UNITY can be an idea that leads you to Stewardship.

How?

Unify ANYTHING. A family. A company. A fleet of cars. A herd of cows. And there is more to take care of. A need for more stewardship.

And if you can take care of MORE—-you can show more value.

The MORE you take care of—the more opportunity for stewardship. The more the opportunity for taking care of something larger than yourself. For Practicing Stewardship.

Examples of “Unity” run all through this story. The unity Dr. King advocated in leading the struggle for civil rights. The unity of parents and children. The Unity that can come from sharing a sport like baseball. And there are other examples.

In the story, the Unity is illustrated in grander, world changing terms like civil rights. But unity can also be a very concrete, pragmatic driving force when it comes to finding work. For instance, “I used to take care of one building. Now I take care of two.” At the Food Pantry we used to serve 30 people. Now the need has grown, so we serve 90. And the reason the need grew? The UNITY between the newly hungry and those whose struggles have been going on for years.

So as you read this selection, start thinking about UNITY in your own life. How unity can produce a larger need. And how practicing stewardship can help you fill that need.

What if you could somehow promote Unity in some specific situation? What if you could take care of more? And more? And more?

How might that help you find work?

THE STORY

I was 8 years old. Dr. King still had about three more years of work to do before he’d be shot on the balcony of a motel in Memphis. Gun shots that would set angry fires blazing and police sirens wailing pain in almost every big city in America and then land him squarely in the history books forever and a day.

He would be speaking in our village. And this was really different from anywhere else he had ever done his work.

My family and I were walking to the “Village Green” to listen. A square block of open green near the downtown section of town where I walked with my Dad every Saturday morning to do errands. But this walk was different. It all seemed in slow motion. Nothing even close to this had ever happened here before. The population of the village was 13,000. By days end the crowd to just see him was put at 10,000.

I keep saying “Village”

Back then you could almost call it a village. Just 100 years before that day he spoke; it was a General Store on the Green Bay trail. A sprinkling of cabins in the woods, next to the giant, wild inland Lake Michigan on a road just named for Philip Sheridan, the Union General, friend of US Grant, who not too many years earlier had told his boss Abraham Lincoln: “Give me the troops and the guns,” and then had gone off hell bent after Robert E. Lee.

Into the 20th century when the river of money began flowing north from Chicago; and the big F. Scott Fitzgerald houses came to own the Lake Michigan Shoreline; the cabins and the trading post gone now—and you had to go even further north up towards Milwaukee, up to where the author Ray Bradbury staked out the overgrown deep green ravines and dandelion wine summers of his childhood to find the traces of wildness that once roamed the woods of our little village.

Bradbury called the little town he came from—about 10 or 15 miles due north of our village—he called it Greentown, Illinois. And from Greentown Illinois, Ray Bradbury would say “Give me the pencil and paper. Because I can tell a story.”

Green Town Illinois just up the road from us where Jack Benny would first hone his craft saying “Give me a microphone. Because I can make you laugh.”

Benny and Bradbury off to larger stages; but there was still a feel of a village on that slow motion July day when the families all walked hesitantly, almost gingerly, up to the green to hear the speech. Looked at from an aerial view filtered through the lens of a sociologist; at that point in time: this was a middle class awakening suburb with a string of massive wealth that ran along that same Lake Michigan shoreline. These weren’t homes. These were estates. Everybody else—like us—had a house. And everybody else was—like us—very, very white. As Caucasian as could be.

Now the town is just another suburb where kids, some of color, drive their own BMW’s and Mercedes to high school.

But back then it still had echoes of the small town village it once was. Walking up to the town square that day could have been something lifted straight from a Frank Capra movie with Jimmy Stewart coming home from the war being the featured speaker.

And not the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.

There wasn’t a lot of talking in our family as we walked up to the Green. My Uncle Frank, a true Chicago, new deal, Stevenson should have gotten it, intellectual guy who was a college administrator AND an old line liberal Democrat who also had a Purple Heart from WW II—did most of the talking. (This is back before the idea that liberals could be war heroes too had been erased from our collective national consciousness.) Uncle Frank was pretty excited. So was my Mom. My Dad, who was often mistaken for a CIA agent when my parents went to anti-war rallies—was quiet—preferring to wait for some facts.

I was a skinny, crew cut, big headed kid in a wide stripped t-shirt tossing a baseball up and down who looked a little like an extra on the set of “Leave it to Beaver.”

And so because this was a village. And because I’ve always had this curiosity about the way things work —when we got to the Green and my Mom put down a blanket—it was no surprise when I said, “I’m going to go look around!” And my Mom said, “Make sure you’re back before he starts to speak! And I said, “OK Bye!”

The afternoon had started to build to this sort of cautious festival feeling. There were folk singers. A warm-up speaker or two—all of whom Uncle Frank had talked about or knew. The crowd was building steadily

Perfect for the little stripe shirted, story telling boy, me— to go practice something he still does: being invisible.

Quiet children who don’t want to be seen have ways of blending into the background so that even the most observant of adults would have to do a double take to make sure they saw a kid over there.

So that’s what I did.

Being invisible does not mean being still. “Still” prompts suspicion. (“How come that kid over there ain’t moving!”?)

So what I would do to keep moving but still stay invisible was to toss my baseball up to about face level, and let it plop down in my mitt. All the grownups would see the baseball; but I was invisible. I could watch and hear everything they said.

Up near the front of the crowd, behind the podium and microphone was where I felt drawn. A thicker, deeper crowd there. Easier to get lost. More policemen than I had every seen so it had to be safe. My Dad and Mom wouldn’t mind.

Everyone seemed to be waiting for him. For “Martin Luther King.” Everyone said the name as if it were all one word. “MartinLutherKing.”

I stayed there in the middle of all this waiting part of the crowd. And the longer I stayed, the more invisible I became, I began to hear a word repeated I hadn’t heard at all from Uncle Frank on the walk up to the big show.

I’d catch the word at the end of sentence—because the emotion of the sentence was put on the one word. The word was “arrogant.” I thought I knew what it meant. But I didn’t hear the word a lot—if ever—so I wasn’t sure.

I’d hear the word, laden with some sort of emotion. Then I’d see the same kind of look my parents would give each other when they wanted to communicate something unpleasant without using words. That knowing arch of the eyebrow.

“Arrogant.”

I might have even heard somebody say “uppity.” That, I understood.

I was about to go back to our family blanket, when I saw the cars. And the cars held me riveted. There were SEVEN of them. All the biggest, blackest, shiniest Cadillac limousines—bigger than any car I’d ever seen driven by the rich people who lived on Sheridan Road. My eyes rounding up to become as big as my head. Cars were almost as interesting as baseball. I knew I supposed to be back with my parents—I was a kid who pretty much did what he was told—so I knew I probably should go back. But these were really, cool, cars! And I could slip back through the crowd like lightening once this enormous parade of black sheet metal rolled to a stop. I could not get my little 8 year old brain wrapped around the questions:

“Why does MartinLutherKing need so many cars? How did he get so many cars? Which car is he in?”

The cars rolled to a stop. And then what happened next held me in absolute awe. Out of each car came this parade of large black men, all dressed in the sharpest suites I had ever seen—all of them: looking every where. Scanning everything. Every face. Every sound, every nuance of movement. I had never, ever seen that kind of attention to ANYTHING as this strange little throng of maybe 20 African American men: set down right here. Right now. In the middle of 10,000 Caucasians’ moved as one to the podium.

Still as a rock now—the only movement the toss of my baseball—I then had my very first moment of sheer, overwhelming, breath stopping, heart pounding, stomach tightening panic: when I realized that this flying wedge of terrifying men—unlike any I had ever seen up close: was coming straight towards me.

I was standing right between this rolling thunder of men in suits and the microphone. I wondered if this is what it felt like to die. . . . .

With the first battalion of this wave 3 steps away—they were not moving fast—they were being very, very cautious as they rolled eyes always in motion; with the first man so close I could see the jagged shape of the red handkerchief in his breast pocket—it flashed into my 10 year old soul: that I understood what these men were doing.

They were looking around like that, staying so close together, never smiling, they were doing all that because all 20 or 100 or however many had gotten out of those cars were protecting someone,

They were guarding the man in the middle. The one I could see now. The one who looked so tired. I looked at that man and even I could see: that man is very, very tired. And I remember thinking, I wonder if he’ll take a nap when he gets home like my Dad likes to do sometimes on Sunday afternoons. That man with the tired eyes in the middle of the crowd. It did not occur to meat that instant that the man was MartinLutherKing. I was too scared for a thought that rational.

And then, just then my fear ratcheted up to yet another level that was totally new when I realized that the man in the middle of all this—whoever that man was: was the single, lone adult who —in the last hour of my wanderings—had actually seen me! He looked right at me! He looked right at me!

About 6 steps away. I was frozen. Even the baseball was hidden in the mitt.

Then here’s what happened.

The man at the very center of all this put up his right hand. His palm in my line of vision. Framed against an open, blue summer sky. And as he did this, as he raised has palm: everyone around him stopped moving! They just stopped. Right there. Like he had pulled some sort of magical brake that held them all.

Then that man with those bone tired eyes looked at me in a way that made me know that he had kids too.

Could that be how “arrogant” people look at kids? I sure didn’t think so. Of course I was only 8.

And while all those men in suits kept looking everywhere, surrounding him, protecting him, he said, “You play ball son?”

I nodded. Speech had totally left me.

Then he held out his hand—the one that that had stopped the parade—and here’s what he said:

He said, “Son. Give me the ball.”

I nodded. Handed it to him. He took it. Rubbed it in his hands, the same why I did, the players did, the same way anybody would. He closed his tired eyes for just a minute, I saw the faint lines of a smile when he said, “Got to make some time to play some catch.”

Then he tossed the ball back to me.

And thank God I caught it.

CONNECTING TO ACTION

1. Where do you see a need for UNITY in your life? With people? Organizations? Communities? Business? The exchange of goods and services.

2. If you were to pick one of those needs where you could add value, what would it be?

3. If you were to make that need for unity 10% less; what would be the result? For others? For you?

4. What exactly do you need to do to make that happen?

MY PERSONAL ACTION PLAN NOTES:

What do I need to do now to promote unity? Not in grand abstract terms. But concretely. What could I join together? Make larger?
What in my life is larger than me? And how can I help take care of it?

3 Responses to “Part 6: Practicing Stewardship”

  1. Paul Haider Says:

    Roger, the good news is that you didn’t drop the ball. However, as Americans, we have “dropped the ball” when it comes to practicing stewardship. Somehow, we have done exactly what Jimmy Carter warned us against doing in his “Crisis of Confidence” speech of July 15, 1979: “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.” President Carter also identified how idealism died in this country: “We were sure that ours was a nation of the ballot, not the bullet, until the murders of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.” Allow me to end my response on a hopeful note: “Come back to us Malcolm X and Martin Luther King/We’re marching into Selma as the bells of freedom ring. Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now/And tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow.” -Steve Earle, 1997

  2. Ted Schneider Says:

    Roger,

    Powerful story of a time that seems so long ago. I mentioned to my son the other day how the world has changed – but the world hasn’t changed, human behavior changes. I look at UNITY as making every contact count – every human encounter meaningful. You connect on a human level when you relate to those you come in contact with versus “one upmanship” OR a good example I see every day during my commute, I have a bigger, faster car that burns more precious fossil fuel so I am cutting you off and passing you by. You promote UNITY by real conversations with those you know and those you don’t know. I have been in a leadership type position for over 30 years, and I believe you promote UNITY in this capacity by removing obstacles for others, putting those that report to you before yourself and listening to what they need. Lastly, I promote UNITY in my life as a “connector” both at work and outside of work – connecting people to others and to resources.

  3. Paul Carpenter Says:

    Roger,

    This is a very compelling story. It is very different and causes pause which I know was your intent.

    Slight disconnect on your age…………….”it flashed into my 10 year old soul” “Of course I was only 8.”

    It might be helpful if you gave your response to the questions along with the questions so the reader can be pointed in a “thought-direction” and help with connecting personally to the story.

    Just my 2 cents worth………..ahh……….do pay it……….I will write it off!

    Paul

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