Thursday, November 10, 2016

Paying your dues

When I was a boy of four, I would stop by my granddaddy's Sunday school class on my way to my own, and get a coin for the offering.  I already had mine - a shiny quarter to put in the offering plate when it was passed - but I also hit my granddaddy up for an extra.  (Also for the offering, I promise).

Granddaddy would make a big production out of reaching for his coin purse - one of those old-fashioned squeeze-the-edges-to-open-it coin purses, and pull out a nickel or a dime to add to my collection.  During Sunday dinner, knowing that I was fascinated with both the coin purse and the beauty of the money that was inside, he would let me go through his change, looking to see if there were any wheat pennies or silver nickels.

Granddaddy's coin purse was made of leather.  But it was the same principle as this.

One coin was in Granddaddy's change I never could identify.  It looked vaguely like a large English penny, but had worn down from years of being jumbled and tumbled with other coins in his pocket.

Fast forward a number of years, and dad has tasked me with splitting up some silver coins that he had in his collections - dividing up some old coins among the three siblings.  I ran across the worn blank, and asked Dad what it was.
The coin from Granddaddy's coin purse.
The copper one, that is.  The other is for scale.

"That coin?  Your granddaddy always carried that in his coin purse, but I never heard what it was".

Good internet sleuth that I pretend to be, I decided to find out what it was originally.  I looked up coin sites, used every search term I could think of.  I even decided that the faint outline on what I assume was the obverse looked something like a picture of Andrew Jackson, so I looked up coins with Andrew Jackson.

I mean, why not?  Grasping at straws was no less or more productive than guessing.   I found a number of coins, none of which seemed to fit what I was looking for.  They were either facing the wrong way, or had a different bearing, or were the wrong material..

I finally gave up.  But as I did, I put it out to the hive mind of facebook, and asked if anyone recognized the coin.

My cousin Roxana immediately chimed in, saying that she thought she knew.  Followed up with one of the best stories ever.

Granddaddy, just before he left for WWII, joined the Freemasons.  He was inducted to a guild (lodge?) in Boston, and when he did, he was presented with a coin, and left for Europe the day after his eldest son was born - the 12th of February, 1944.  Riding in the largest armada ever assembled by the US, he arrived in England and then went to France.  Once the trains were opened again, he was in the first group to go to Marseilles, and set up the supply depot north of Marseilles on a canal off of the Rhone.  As a sergeant, he was charged with organizing the freight from there to Patton and the rest of the army.

He used the coin to identify and connect with other Freemasons in the European theater, and used those connections to obtain goods and move supplies. As a fun fact, Roxana also added:

 I know the only French word granddaddy told me  he ever learned was when he was in the war. It was the word for "chicken" because he wanted to trade as they walked through towns. He said they were very underfed. 

When he got home - in late 1946 -  he began living married life, raising kids, working to build the moulding manufacturing business, serving in the church....

...and made a very early decision not to continue with the Freemasons.

He felt very strongly about one element, however.  Because he had benefited from his association with the Freemasons during the war, he felt it important to honor his commitment.  For the remainder of his life, he paid the dues.

So much of what we see in society revolves around the benefit side of the cost-benefit analysis.  What do I get out of it?  How much do I get?  What is my portion?  Is that all? When am I due a promotion?  When and how much is my raise?

And maybe it was just a generational thing.  But I look at the men and women of my granddaddy's generation, and I see a different approach.  Instead of looking at what they were owed, they focused on the debts that they owed.  And they were determined to pay that debt.  For as long as it took.  And recognized that some debts you go on paying, even past their due date.

A friend of mine from a previous life got into trouble when his business failed, and he filed for bankruptcy.  It was a rough time for him, and he struggled to have enough money to feed his family and keep a roof over their head. But the whole time, he continued to quietly pay the people he owed.  Every paycheck, he took the first cut - even when it was a small one - and gave it to the people who had trusted him, and who had taken a loss when his business failed.

For decades, he continued to pay on that debt.  And eventually, he paid it all back. Every penny.

The law had told him that he was absolved from paying back the money: filing bankruptcy meant that he no longer owed those debts.  But my friend knew something about debt that the law does not recognize.  There is power in paying.

Stories like that make me suspicious and angry towards people who owe debts and do not pay.  A teacher of mine who decided he did not owe for services his contractor rendered.  The contractor lost everything.  A retirement fund manager who takes, and then watches as the retirees suffer.  The CEO who runs the company into the ground by cutting salaries and staff, then golden parachutes to safety.  the banks that issue predatory loans, and ruin people's lives.

And the businessman who defaults on debts, leaving others to try and pick up pieces of their lives.

But just as I feel that righteous indignation, I have to also look at the other end of that finger pointing outward.

I have been given so much.  I was reared in a family that had enough to provide, and to send me to college.  They bolstered me through the interminable lean years of grad school.  I grew up solidly middle class, with every benefit given to my class, race, and gender.  (Granted, I suffered mightily because I was not popular, a plight I was certain could easily be solved by the purchase of a cool Members Only jacket,)

But I don't know that I ever saw it that way - as a debt that I needed to pay.  That I had benefited from membership in a club, and that I needed to pay dues.

I ave wanted all of my life to be called to a ministry.  But I think just maybe that my calling is to look around me and see the membership that has benefited me all along.

And find an opportunity to pay my dues.  Serving the homeless.  Standing up for those who don't have a voice.  Giving my time, my money, my effort.

Paying the debt that I owe.

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