Jerry had chosen his spot strategically. Every car entering the grocery store’s parking lot passed within a couple of feet of him. As drivers turned in, they would spot him and his hand-made sign.
Etched on a bit of cardboard large block letters announced, “NEED HELP.”Several shoppers ahead of me slid down their passenger-side windows and passed over some change or a few bills to him. I pulled into the nearest parking spot and strolled over to where he stood.
“I’m Jake,” I said as I stuck out my hand. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “I’m Jerry.”
We talked for a while, interrupted from time to time by passersby offering money. Jerry told me that he and his wife live on the banks of the Red River. Gathering discarded bits and pieces from trash piles and old construction sites, they had built a structure they called home.
“We found a tarp for the roof. It keeps the rain out. It’s real nice.”
I asked, “Do you have any tools for the work?”
He said, “No. But our neighbors helped us put it up. Everybody helps each other like that.” By neighbors, Jerry meant the other residents of a make-shift village of shanties on an undeveloped stretch of the river.
Jerry’s story was familiar. Working class, he and his wife had met their bills week by week with hourly wages. She fell ill. Then he fell ill. They got behind on their rent and their utilities. The landlord evicted them.
As Jerry talked, I listened as carefully as I could. But my thoughts kept coming back to two things he had said. He described a flimsy shelter as “real nice.” And he told me that everybody helps each other.
Mind you, everything Jerry told me reinforced my commitment to change a system that throws hardworking people to the curb. And my own memories of childhood homelessness moved me to compassion for his particular situation.
And yet, the way he had described his home and his community had stunned me. Jerry was grateful.
In her latest book Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, Diana Butler Bass teaches us that gratitude is an attitude. But it is also a way of living in the world and a way of organizing ourselves as a community. Grateful people are giving people precisely because we know ourselves to be recipients of unwarranted gifts.
I perceived that Jerry’s community of people down on their luck was a grateful community. Everybody helps everybody.
The Hebrew Scriptures contrast a grateful community to a community of individuals who scratch out a living. You’ll find that contrast in the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
God formed a garden and placed the primal couple within it. They could eat the fruit of any tree save one. Life was a gift. Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree. In other words, they couldn’t live as gift recipients. They chose to live in the world by grasping what they could take for themselves.
So, God gave them exactly what they sought. They exchanged a life as a gift for life as toil. From that point on, they would spend their time scratching out a living instead of receiving life as a gift. (Genesis 3:17-19)
They could no longer be grateful in the deepest sense. Instead, they would feel entitled to whatever they could accumulate and justified in doing whatever it would take to keep it for themselves. To borrow from the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, instead of paradise they opted for a state of war of all against all.
This dreadful vision is not God’s dream for the creation. Endless competition for consumable goods is a human all too human distortion of what the Author of all things has in mind. Life is a gift. All life. And gratitude is the attitude, the individual posture, and the communal dynamic that receives life as such.
We Americans celebrate Thanksgiving each year. We recognize that we should turn our hearts, our actions, our communities toward gratitude. May it be so. Everywhere. Not just down by the river.