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United Way Kickoff

     Thank you, and good morning, ladies and gentlemen, volunteers and supports of the United Way of Laredo. As I look back over the names of persons who have in the past decade spoken at the annual kick-off breakfast, I am both humbled and honored to have been invited to speak. My own vivid memory of United Way reaches back to the early and middle ‘70's when my father was United Way president. I well remember those little family discussions about United Way, and most of all, his anxiety about whether or not the goal could ever be reached? Would it be possible to raise as much as $150,000? We were all truly worried. And now, today, Jorge, you will succeed in bringing in almost 1.5 million dollars.

    The horrendous tragedy of this week pounds our hearts, our minds, and our conscience with the age-old question: Why are our resources, our talents, our opportunities, and even our chances at life itself so unevenly divided, so whimsically offered to some, cruelly denied to others? Why were some Americans suddenly thrust into a valley of pain and death? Why wer none of us among those unexpectedly caught and required to render up their lives? These events only illustrate once again that the world is for some a glorious blessing, for others a daily struggle to rescue human dignity from beneath a crushing load of privation and pain. For some, one terrible moment awaits in wich without warning life is finished.

    Our holy books take on this dilemma without resolving it. The Jewish answer, articulated in the Book of Job, comes as God responds to Job’s demand to know. God answers his creature: Who are you to ask me? Where were you when I created the heavens? My ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. The Christian answer to the question of Why? also comes in the form of a response, not a solution. Several years ago, Pope John Paul II, while visiting in this country, during a stay in San Francisco, asked to meet with victims of AIDS. A friends of ours, of Patricia’s and of mine, was with his party and she related how all were in suspense as they Holy Father approached these striken men. Would he remind them that the Church condemns the lifestyle that in all probability caused their suffering? His words were simple and direct: “I have but one message for you: God loves you absolutely and forever.”

    But it should not be necessary for us Laredoans to hear of national tragedies to remember that life can be unfair and unkind. No more than a 10-minute drive from this comfortable ballroom and this warm food, we know live people who will struggle today to satisfy basic human needs. The beginning of the United Way’s annual campaign is a fine time to reflect for a moment on the oldest of all human dilemmas: how can we understand and then how can we respond to the vast inequities, the uneven distribution of resources among the human family? What part, if any, of life’s bounty rightfully belongs to any of us?

    The great teacher-scholar, Mortimer J. Adler, in a discussion of how to approach this ethical dilemma, distinguishes between our needs and our wants. I NEED oxygen, food, clothing, shelter, rest, relief from pain, love. And I think we would all agree that among the many advances of modern society, we, for the first time in human history, would another need: a university experience, for every child. At the same time as I work to secure those needs, I want any number of other things. I want to live a long life, or to have ample material blessings, or be admired by those who know me, or to enjoy successful children. But those are wants, not needs. No one would dispute that these are very good wants, but they are not needs. What we want may or may not even be good for us or for our fellow human beings.

    A friend of mine recently made me understand about needs and wants. Having seen an announcement of his only daughter’s upcoming marriage, I congratulated him. “Yes,” he said. “She’s going to get married.” “What about the boy?” I asked. “What is he like? What are his plans?” “Oh,” my friend replied, “he’s not too interested in schooling and doesn’t have any clear career goals in mind. What he really likes is his little ole pickup.” Sensing that this wasn’t going quite as I had expected, I tried to raise the conversation to a higher and more significant plane. “Well,” I asked, “does he love your daughter?” “Oh, my, yes, he love her more than anything else in this world,” my friend replied. “Well, then,” I said, “you couldn’t ask for more than that.” “Oh, yes, I could,” my friend shot back. “I could ask for a whole lot more, in every direction!”

    Adler demonstrates his point very clearly: every human being, without exception, is entitled to have his or her needs met. To separate needs from wants in the history of human relationships, what is necessary for life, and what is desired but certainly not required—this is the central preoccupation of philosophers and social historians. What do we need to live, and what do we want to live? How much of what we pursue is truly necessary, and how much is simply something we want? And finally, the ultimate morale question: are we responsible to help our fellow humans secure either their needs or their wants?

    The United Way of Laredo exists because the citizens of this city believe that it is the responsibility of us all to help every human being secure his or her needs. If we look over the list of organizations included among this year’s beneficiaries, the list of human needs those organizations satisfy is a rather short one: food, health care, rehabilitation after disease or accident, shelter for children, educational opportunities, clothing, a safe environment for young people to develop social and physical skills, responsible parenting.

    To fulfill United Way’s mission, we must make gifts—our time, our resources, our energy. But the full meaning of our work for United Way goes far beyond assuring ourselves that we “Choose to Care,” that we strive to satisfy the needs of our fellow human beings. Two of life’s greatest mysteries concern the act of giving: first, we can never know the full power or reach of a human gift. Second, we can never be sure to whom it is we give the gift. To illustrate the unexpected power of even a meager gift, Dostoyevsky in his great novel, “The Brothers Karamazov” tells the following tale: “Once upon a time there was a peasant woman and a very wicked woman she was. And she died and did not leave a single good deed behind. The devils caught her and plunged her into a lake of fire. So her guardian angel stood and wondered what good deed of hers he could remember to tell to God: ‘she once pulled up an onion in her garden,’, said he, ‘and gave it to a beggar woman.’ And God answered: ‘You take that onion the, hold it out to her in the lake, and let her take hold and be pulled out. And if you can pull her out of the lake, let her come to Paradise, but if the onion breaks, then the woman must stay where she is.’ The angel ran to the woman and held out the onion to her: ‘Come,’ he said, ‘catch hold and I’ll pull you out.’ And he began cautiously pulling her out. He had just pulled her free of the fire when the other sinners in the lake, seeing how she was being drawn out, began catching hold of her so as to be pulled out with her. But she was a very wicked woman and she began kicking them. ‘I’m to be pulled out, not you. It’s my onion, not yours.’ And soon as she said that, the onion broke. And the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.” The onion would have saved the old woman had the gift been genuine. But she tried to take it back, to assert violently where the onion had come from , and the power of the gift was broken.

    Second, we never know to whom we are giving our gifts, or what opportunity a gift given to another might offer us, the giver. In the Middle Ages, people believed that angels went about, disguised, checking up on their human charges, offering opportunities for us to show or to deny our humanity as we extend or withhold a warm hand, an embrace, a gift. Emily Dickinson immortalized this mystery, the possibility that when we least expect it, the needy person who suddenly enters our lives offers us the opportunity to become fully human as we reach out to help. Emily Dickinson wonders if God’s angels, “shining courtiers,” she calls them, might not walk about among us, asking for our help, knowing that our response will reveal who and what we are. They smile now when they ask, and later will smile when we stand, not on our floor, but on theirs.
                                    In rags mysterious as these
                                    The shining Courtiers go—
                                    Veiling the purple and the plumes—
                                    Veiling the ermine so.
                                    Smiling, as they ask an alms—
                                    At some imposing door!
                                    Smiling when we walk barefoot
                                    Upon their golden floor!
The face of each human being is our own, the face of all humanity.

    We in America are living out what may be history’s most spectacular experiment. Can diverse people, from every culture, race, ethnic group, and language under the sun come together to form one durable, humane society? During the sad events of the last week, I am sure many of you have thought of previous moments in our collective experience, moments that have shaken our sense of who we are or of what life should be: Pearl Harbor, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Or of Robert Kennedy. Or of Martin Luther King, Jr. And further back, the sinking of the Lusitania, a ceremony on a battle field at Gettysburg. If the great leaders of our nation’s past were with us today, would they tell us that the American experiment is an easy one: George Washington, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Juan Seguín, Jane Addams, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson.

    This American experiment has always been a precarious one, and I am sure each of you can remember a moment in our history when the city set on a hill seemed destined to fall. Today, I leave you recalling another frightful scene in our history, another moment of uncertainty and violence, of resistence and of strength. A young man stands upon the deck of an enemy vessel, watching as that enemy pounds his homeland, wondering if this bombardment might not end his way of life. The poem he composed as he watches asks a frightening question: What has happened in the night? When the light comes, will my country still be visible? Is the flag still there?

    The story comes to us in a poem of four stanzas. We sing only the first, perhaps not noticing that this first verse ends with uncertainty, fear, a question. Will we survive? The fourth stanza answers with a loud “Yes!” We have and we will. Listen as I read for the question, and then the answer:
                        Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
                        What so proudly we hailed at the twilights’s last gleaming?
                        Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
                        O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
                        And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
                        Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
                        Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
                        O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?
                        Oh, thus be it ever when free men shall stand
                        Between their loved homes and war’s desolation;
                        Blest with victory and peace, may the Heav’n rescued land
                        Praise the Pow’r that hath made and preserves us a nation!
                        Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just;
                        And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
                        And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
                        O’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.

    We in American will bind up the wounded, comforted the bereaved, honor the dead, and live up to our calling. And today, in Laredo, we will, through the United Way, ensure that the American dream includes the basic, human needs of all our people.