Twelve Full Baskets Left Over
It was a beautiful Colorado summer morning and the sun was slanting through the cottonwood trees and spilling onto the luxurious grace of the meandering campus where I was doing graduate studies south of Colorado Springs. We had a morning lecture on the agenda and the other young students filed into the meeting room to hear an older man talk about caring for the poor. We didn’t know he was going to be speaking on this subject, but that is what it turned out to be.
His name was George Sheffer. He was balding and bandy-legged. He had grey, rather disheveled hair and a piercing gaze accompanied by and ironic and crooked smile and when not glaring….. a twinkle in his hawk-like eyes. He had one of the deepest voices I have ever heard. On other occasions we had heard him sing, and he sang like a terrifying and very powerful angel.
There was something scary and endearing about him. It was a strange mix. He had moved from the comfort of suburbia in the 1960’s to the Lower East Side of New York City. We had heard the stories about him, and frankly we all stood in awe of his courage and determination. On one occasion he had been stabbed and left for dead. He didn’t die and this story increased the size of his image in our imagination. When he had recovered he walked back into the Lower East Side of New York to continue his work. Later, as he aged and “retired” from the non-profit organization he had worked for all his life he did the only logical thing he could think of doing. He moved Africa (Kenya to be exact) and volunteered to work in the poorest ghetto in that country. He died on the day of his return from a trip to Africa in his early seventies.
But on this summer day prior to his ‘retirement’ he was here speaking to us idealistic twenty-something’s hoping to change the world. We were primed to listen to this giant. And he did not disappoint. It is forty years later, as I write this, but I still remember a heart-wrenching story he told about a family he knew in New York who had a baby and had to leave it alone in a room for a short time. When they came in the child was covered by rats gnawing on its body.
Rats. Eating a baby. In the United States of America! I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t remember how that story ended…. whether the child lived or not…. because the thought that there was this kind of poverty in “modern” America shocked and horrified me. I had one of those moments when I knew I had to do something.
But I had no idea what. Tears streamed from my eyes and my heart was racing as I went up to the front of the room to talk with him. I had to wait, as others had gotten there before me. When I stood in front of him I told him what was happening on my insides…. how my heart was wrenched and I wanted to do something….. anything…. but had no idea what I should do.
He turned his piercing gaze on me, and held my eyes for what seemed like forever. His eyes narrowed. His intensity deepened in the silence. I had no idea what he would say. His deep, sonorous voice boomed out with the authority of a prophet, “I can tell you exactly what to do, Bart.” The he repeated it slowing, “I can tell you exactly what to do.”
I don’t know what I had expected him to say. But I know I didn’t expect him to know “exactly” what I was supposed to do. It echoed in my mind as he paused, “I can tell you exactly what to do, Bart……… Do Something! Anything….. but do something.”
He paused and let his words sink in. Then he continued. “Support a child for $10 a month, volunteer with the homeless, help at a psychiatric hospital…… it doesn’t matter how small it is, but do something.”
I went back to our little apartment and told my wife Linda about the encounter. We decided to simply do what George had first suggested….. sponsor a child for $10 a month. It didn’t seem like much, but it was something. But we had no idea where this would lead us.
At that time there were numerous advertisements in magazines for a “Children’s Fund” where you could sponsor a needy child in another country for $10 a month. We signed up. We were “given” an 8 year-old girl in the Philippines by the name of Loretta Ampon. Our meager donation would help her stay in school. She had a family but they were too poor to educate her, and so the “Sisters of Something-or-Other” took her in through donations such as ours. In a return letter of thanks to us, we got a black and white picture of her in a white dress. She looked scared, but determined.
We prayed for her as a family and wrote her hand-written notes often. They were always answered, first in the hand of one of the “Sisters” and later in her own faltering printing, and later in careful cursive letters carefully crafted to fit between the lines…. but not to go over any of them. We sent her presents (or money for presents) on Easter and Christmas and on her birthday.
Time flew by, and all of a sudden ten years had elapsed. We received a startling letter from the “Children’s Fund” telling us that Loretta was graduating, and that our relationship with her through their organization would come to an end. Then the shock came. It was their policy not to give out any personal information on the children after graduation and so there was no way for us to stay in contact. It was like losing a child. I protested, but they would not relent. It broke our heart…..but that is where we had to keep Loretta, in our hearts.
In the meantime our hearts were also opening up to the poor of the world. We knew we might not be able to do much, but we knew we had to do something. So we traveled to many countries staying with nationals in each place…..and a desire to advocate for the poor grew in our hearts. Sometimes we wound up working with the leaders of countries and the “Third World” elite…. but our desire was not only to care for them, but help them care for the less fortunate of their own countries. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t. But our hearts were increasingly cracked open with each attempt.
Fast-forward twenty years. We found ourselves flying to Saudi Arabia, the very week Congress gave the first President Bush the go-ahead to invade Iraq. It was not popular to be an American in Saudi Arabia that week. We had many fascinating conversations about (believe it or not) the spiritual path and the person of Jesus of Nazareth. We conversed about his ideas on how to avoid war (by loving one’s enemies rather than bombing them)…. and many other topics such as forgiveness, reconciliation, building bridges rather than walls. I’m sure many of our hosts there wondered if we were undercover for the CIA. We assured them we weren’t…. but, isn’t that exactly what you would expect from someone who really was undercover for the CIA?
The week before we left on this trip I received a rather odd email from a friend of mine’s administrative assistant. It went something like this:
“Dear Bart…. I was searching your name on the internet [which was a very new invention at that time] and I found an interesting note on a website called ‘Ancestry.com” Here it is.
Then the email continued with a cut and paste version of this message from the website.
“I am wondering if anyone knows of a Linda and Bart who live in California and who have a girl named Angela and a boy named Jason (whom I helped to name)? I would like to get in touch with them to say ‘thank you’ for all they did to make me who I am. I may never get to see them, but I hope this message will get to them.”
I called my friend’s administrative assistant immediately. She asked, “Do you have children by those names?”
I said, “Yes.”
“Who is this?” she asked.
“I’m not sure, but is the note signed?”
She went to her computer and found the site again. “Yes, here it is…..it is signed. ‘Loretta _________”
“Loretta? I wonder if that could be the “Loretta” we supported for so many years? But the last name is wrong. Her name was Loretta Ampon. I guess she could have a different married name. Let’s see…. how old would she be?”
I did some quick mental calculations.
“I think she would be about 38. Does it have an email address?”
She looked again. “Yes! Here it is.”
I told Linda and we wrote this “Loretta” a note explaining the situation and telling her who we were.
A day later I got an email from her.
“Yes! This is Loretta Ampon! I am married now and I live in London! I am so thankful for all you did for me. It changed my life. I now have a 17 year old son!”
She went on to fill me in on a brief sketch of her life and then said something like, “Do you ever get to London?”
I couldn’t believe it! We were flying through London both ways on our trip to Saudi Arabia.
“Yes!” I quickly wrote back. “We will be in London and have a 5 hour lay over. Do you think we could see you then?”
“That would be lovely!” she wrote back.
So it was arranged that we would meet little Loretta Ampon, whom we had sent $10 a month to support for ten years. This was before 9/11 so security was not as tight, but it was still daunting to leave the international part of the airport and go out to meet her knowing that we had to make it back through the security there was to make our return flight home. We agreed to meet in a certain spot and I will never forget seeing her for the first time.
She was a lovely Phillipina beauty, barely 5 feet tall, with beautiful dark hair cut short and framing her lovely face. She had a huge teddy bear in her arms (Pink and white, I think), a sack in her other hand full of gifts for us. And her lanky 17 year-old son was standing behind her. We all hugged and cried and stared into each other’s faces.
After a pause we found a restaurant to sit together in and talked for several hours. She shared her amazing journey with us. She came from a large and very poor family. She was the oldest and since she had received a good education she found work easily. With this work she began sending her 5 brothers and sisters to school. Over the years they all completed their educations. Then she helped her mother in her final illness, caring for her as she lingered before death. Her father had left the Philippines and was living (ironically to us) in a Middle Eastern country as a laborer. He had not been a good father to her when she was little, and the sense we got was that there was rampant abuse. She had deep feelings of hatred toward him. Then she got a letter from him saying that he was dying in that far-off country. She knew in hear heart that she had to forgive him…… and more than forgive, she had to care for him. She flew to the Middle East and brought him back to the Philippines where she nursed him as he struggled and finally died. As he took his last breath, she knew she had done the right thing.
Two parents cared for in the dying moments and the months prior; 5 children educated…..and the young woman before us was the instrument of all this good. In addition, without knowing it, she had changed our hearts forever and the focus of much of our time and energy to come. George Sheffer had been right. “Do something….. anything…. but do something!”
As the time came for us to return to the gate and catch our plane, she got a very serious look on what had been a very joyful face throughout our conversation. “I have to tell you something difficult.” She said. “I have cancer, and it is incurable.” Tears welled up in her eyes. Shock settled over us like cancer itself. Then tears came from all of our eyes.
She said, “I am so happy now that I had the chance to thank you in person for changing my life…. the lives of my family…. and that my son has had the chance to meet you. Thank you for all you did for us. Everything is different because of it.”
We hugged, but didn’t want to let go. It was the first and last time we ever saw Loretta.
I was stunned, because we had done so little…..but she accomplished so much with it. It may be that this was the miracle of the “loaves and fishes” once again. And as we walked down the lonely, airport hallway…..I knew there were twelve baskets full of bread left over.