Our opening words today are a paraphrase and extension of words from a speech by John Fitzgerald Kennedy:

Some look at things as they are,
and ask “Why?
Others see things as they could be,
and ask “Why not?”
Still others take just one look/see,
and say “Why bother?”

When I was approached about doing a summer service, my partner and I had recently started volunteering with a local Sanctuary Church. I’d like to share a few thoughts from that experience:

In the orientation, we were asked not to share many details about the guest the congregation was hosting, so I will not do so today. I will say that the guest being hosted was someone who, when you got to know them, was the kind of person you would *like* to have as a neighbor, to have in your community, with kids you would like your kids to play with. In other words, they were someone who, in everyday terms, showed the qualities of “good citizenship.”

But our citizenship laws, don’t count that. Neither for, nor against, anyone.

Our particular job, was just to take shifts in what was really 24-hour just-being-present. To sit around in the lobby (we could chat with the guest *if* they wanted), to ask people who came in to the building where they needed to go, just to check on things. If Immigration and Customs Enforcement – ICE – came to take the guest away, we were to do no more than be a witness to what happened — not to interfere, not to stop anything, no overt protest. Nothing like that.

When we started, the guest already had been living in the church building for close to two years. The guest had small apartment the congregation had set up in the church building. They could use the parish kitchen, even walk outside on the grounds a bit – always with company, not alone.

Some of their family who had legal citizenship by birth, and members of the guest’s own local church, would visit in person. Other family, who were barred from re-entering the U.S., could visit by video chat. The church building had high-speed internet, but we have all learned the past few months of the COVID-19 pandemic that video chats are *not* the same, as personal contact.

The guest’s accommodations were reasonably comfortable, but the surroundings were institutional: it was a church building. The guest could not leave the property, except under the most dire emergency. When you looked at it, this confinement was was more severe than the white-collar home confinement sentences you might have read about in the news.

In real terms, there were no chances of a parole, no chances of a home leave, no possibility of an early release — certainly no possibility of a pardon, or presidential commutation: the terms of this confinement, had *no* defined end.

This sanctuary thing was a big effort. All told, in different roles, several hundred people were involved. Compared to the magnitude of the overall problem, it was all for one person. Compared to what you wanted to change, what needed to be changed, this effort had pretty much zero chance of changing that at all. Even for this one guest, this one person, we had no concrete prospect of actually changing the outcome: we could only delay.

Was it even worth it?

Technically, whether this effort was worthwhile was a cost/benefit, or “pay-off”, question.

  • Were the likely gains really worth *all* this effort?
  • Was this really a good place to start?
  • Shouldn’t we really find something *else*, something “more effective”, to work on?
  • Wasn’t this all just a fig leaf in a fire storm?

Actual Costs: High effort. So many people’s time and effort.
Actual Benefits: Very limited, and the probability was also very low.

Using technical terms: the “Figure of merit” seemed to be… near zero.

Maybe, in blunt terms, this might make you feel good, but, concretely, you might not be accomplishing much of any good.

Shouldn’t we really be doing something else? Why bother with this?

But, that technical term “Figure of merit” (as any technical person knows) depends on what aspects you measure. Let’s look at a few other aspects.

Maybe it *is* worth the bother. Or maybe it isn’t.

Perhaps, you might look at this as a religious or philosophical practice.

That’s an interesting word — “practice.” You practice something in order to get better at doing it. Nobody pays an athlete, or a musician, just to practice. They practice, to be better at what actually counts, when it counts.

If you practice putting yourself forward, you get might better about not being hesitant, the next time. Doing this little project, might get you off your duff a bit.
You’ll probably be talking to people at times about what you are doing. If you practice talking about why these questions matter, you’ll get better at responding to the people who think very differently about the legal and more aspects involved.

Some of the volunteers we met, said they had been a bit nervous at first about getting involved in something so overt. If you are nervous about things, when you practice being just a little bit brave, you get better at being a bit more brave.

So, it’s “practice.” That’s a good thing.

Perhaps you could see this as setting an example for others — not a dramatic example, but an example. It might change a discussion you have with someone, about what is important, and why. If they ask about it, you are not just preaching, you are — in a small, but concrete way — doing something. Actually doing something, is
sometimes a stronger presentation than just talking. It may be small, but you are giving them *some* kind of example they might follow.

Another thing we found is that doing this sort of thing gets you a bit more connected:
you find out more things you can do. You may see this particular effort as likely having no chance of pay-off, but you are in a place where you run into other people, who are also doing other things. You find out about those things. It is a place to start.

To talk about a personal thing, it is also more interesting than you might have thought. There are other things going on in the space. You might just be sitting around in the entrance-way, but people pass by, on their way to a meeting, or a community event in the building. They see your little ID badge, they ask you what you are doing. You get into conversations with them. If you are sometimes a bit of a shy person, this is an ice-breaker.

Just to be complete, it actually can be quite practical and useful, to be doing this “just sitting around, just in case” thing. The cost in personal terms, is actually pretty low. Several of the other volunteers we ran into talked about how it was a great productivity tool:

  • A great time get paperwork done,
  • A time to study that subject they had been interested in,
  • A time to read the whole news, and not just the headlines,

Since you were doing something “serious,” it was really a great inducement to focus your mind, and get some things done.

Those are some of the thoughts we had, in this project.

If you get bogged down thinking very seriously about whether starting something like this is really worth the while — don’t think so hard about it!

Not every falling rock
starts a landslide.
But every landslide
starts with one rock.

For that cost/benefit question: One of the great things about having no idea where you should start, is that you can start just anyplace.

The pay-off ratio of doing something, even if the probability of much pay-off is very small, to doing nothing, because you didn’t know where to start, … is infinite.

And not many things have an infinite pay-off.

Jean Renard Ward