By Jim Hagarty
You think of yourself as a pretty good person. Generous. Kind. Not too gossipy. You don’t steal or commit other crimes. So as people go, you might award yourself a seven out of ten. A six on a bad day. Eight on a great day.
Then the doorbell rings at suppertime.
Two good-looking young men with Amnesty International badges on their jackets and binders in their hands. They start their pitch. They talk about the horrors of torture and worse in other lands. Then mention a woman in Nicaragua or El Salvador, can’t remember which, who is serving a 30-year prison sentence because she had a miscarriage. She was in a car accident and lost her baby. Now she is behind bars for three decades. This is what religious extremism does.
Do I feel at all sorry for her. Maybe even outraged? Yes, of course.
The two men explain briefly the good work that Amnesty International does and ask for help because the organization is not eligible for government money. They want to come into my house – I am alone at the time – and sit down with me for two minutes to sign me up to a pledge of a certain amount each month, whatever I can afford.
I hesitate, then say no.
Now here’s where it gets dicey. Instead of turning away, going back down the stairs from my porch and leaving, the young man who had done all the talking looks at me with a bit of defiance and judgment in his eyes and asks, “Can I ask you why not?”
I hesitate a long time, not sure how to respond. In the past, I have told others who asked the same question, “No you can’t. It’s none of your business.” But I didn’t this time.
“I don’t know you,” I say. “I don’t want you in my house.”
He laughs at the notion that an old man might be a bit fearful of two young strangers he doesn’t know.
“I don’t know,” I continue. “Would I come to your place at suppertime and bug you about something?”
He doesn’t seem to like that.
Finally, I mumble something about charity starts at home and I close the door.
Now descends a wave of self disdain. Am I really so cold-hearted to leave a woman in prison in a South American country for something that shouldn’t be a crime?
But by asking me why I wouldn’t give money to his cause, the young man was serving up a heaping helping of guilt. In that respect, he was like any of the other Bible thumpers who bang on my door. Maybe he doesn’t quote epistles and gospels but his intensity was the same: You are hard hearted and cruel to not feel the same way about our cause as we do. You in your nice warm house with the Christmas lights on the porch.
I am glad there is an Amnesty International in the world. I am glad there is a Greenpeace. I am glad there is a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
And I am glad those two strangers are gone from my door.
I’ll be even happier when the guilt they left me with goes away.
If it does.