Small Efforts

Jim Wallis and Craig Howard at Fourth Presbyterian Church. (Photo courtesy of Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago)

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to interview author Jim Wallis at Fourth Presbyterian Church. At the end of the interview, the audience submitted questions for Wallis to answer. His book, The False White Gospel emphasized the role of voting and participating in the upcoming election. A pointed question from the audience asked, “What difference does one person make?” I admit I did not pass this question on to Wallis because of time. But it is a legitimate question and one that often bothers me. Often, a frustrating duet of questions spins in my mind: “What can I do?” Followed by, “What difference will it make?” The wars happening in the world create heart-breaking horror and cause us to avert our eyes and attention. The gun violence in Chicago and police violence to yet another African American male brings head-shaking denial. Why does this keep happening? What can I do? What difference will it make?

Heather Cox Richardson documents the forces that perpetuate oppression in American democracy in her book, Democracy Awakening. She answers the question of what one person can do and what difference it makes. Cox Richardson writes: “The fundamental story of America is the constant struggle of all Americans, from all races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, to make the belief that we are all created equal and have a right to have a say in our democracy come true. We are always in the process of creating a more perfect union.”

Cox Richardson continues with a list of people, some well-known and some obscure, who made a difference with their small efforts. The list reminds me of the hall of faith in Hebrews 11 — except these are everyday Americans who did what they could with what they had to make a difference. Her point is that we do not know the change our small acts may bring about.

The great mystic Howard Thurman told the story of going to a boarding school because there were no high schools in his community for black children. When he arrived at the train station, he realized he didn’t have enough money to check his trunk. He could not make the trip. As he wept an “anonymous stranger” approached him and gave him the money needed to complete his journey. Thurman later dedicated his autobiography to the man on the platform who “restored his broken dreams.” Thurman would later become a mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The anonymous stranger did what he could, and it made a world of difference.