John Gfroerer: Moments of action

  • Temporary homes are shown in the Village of Hope of Chanmico in La Libertad, El Salvador on Jan. 7, 2002, following an earthquake on Jan. 13, 2001. On Monday, the Trump administration said 200,000 people from El Salvador who have been allowed to live in the United States for more than a decade following two earthquakes must leave the country by next year. AP file

For the Monitor
Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The event happened many years ago during a brasher time in my life but is remembered with a bit of pride. A call came into my Lacrosse, Wis., office mid-afternoon on the Friday heading into Labor Day weekend. An elderly woman, sounding somewhat distressed, laid out her story.

She was moving into public housing the following week, but with August ending she needed to vacate her current apartment a few days before the new place was ready. During the interim she hoped to stay with her sister who lived 60 or 70 miles away, but didn’t own a car and had no money for a bus ticket.

She had called the welfare office for help, and they told her there was nothing they could do. Now, she was calling the Welfare Rights office to see if we could do anything.

I drove down to the phone booth she was calling from and picked her up. Then together we headed to the welfare department.

Within a few minutes we were sitting in the office of the director along with the social worker she had talked to on the phone. There were several minutes of debate, me saying they should be able to give her a check for bus fare (about $40 or $50 round trip), while they quoted regulations justifying why they couldn’t.

It became something of an impasse.

Then, to everyone’s surprise, the woman broke down and started crying. She buried her head in her hands and sighed, “Just take me to the park, I’ll sleep there tonight.”

An awkward silence filled the room as she began to quietly sob. Then the social worker said, “Well, I go by there on my way home, I could drop you off.”

The stupidity of the statement was for me the end of discussion. I looked at the department director and the social worker and said: “Nobody is going to the park. Either you find a way to get the woman bus fare or she and I will be spending the night in this office.”

There the standoff ended.

Within a few minutes they had found an account from which they could draw a check for the bus.

It’s funny, but my memory of the moment ends there. Did I take her to the bus station? Get her on the bus? I don’t remember. Maybe the social worker also went by the bus station on the way home and dropped her off.

As a moment from my distant past, you could call it a bit trivial. Still, I sometimes wonder about it. I wonder what would have happened if they continued in their refusal to help? Knowing what I remember about me back then, I am sure I would have been ready to spend the night as threatened, or to be carried out by whatever force might have been mustered to expel me and the woman. I was an advocate for people who needed advocacy. Risk was sometimes part of the job.

But mostly, I wonder if that guy still lives in this older body that I now see in the mirror. What would I do now? Am I still capable of being a brash advocate for people who need advocacy?

Things are different today. I have a family, a daughter, a dog, loan payments and a house to keep warm in winter. I wonder if responsibility has become justification for inaction. So, the question lingers. What would I be willing to jeopardize to help someone I just met who was in need?

In America, this kind of question is perhaps just an intellectual exercise. For the most part we need not fear for speaking out or advocating against government policy.

But here’s the thing. Recently I was giving a ride to a friend who is new to this country, a refugee from a war far away. We didn’t talk about the war, the journey that brought their family here, the loss, the homesickness, the relatives left behind and the dangers they may face. And I never asked if they were here legally.

Maybe I didn’t want to know, or wanted to believe they were. There was no reason to suggest they weren’t legal. And for me, it didn’t matter. They were here and safe and trying to make a new life for their family.

Driving along, I started to think: What if police, or immigration, or ICE agents pull us over and want to seize my passenger? An intellectual exercise in my head, but one that in today’s world becomes less theory and more possibility with each day – with each rant against immigrants and each declaration that somebody’s deportation is the way to make America great.

I hope that I might still have the courage to stand up for people who need advocacy. I hope that I would still put myself at risk to support and defend someone against a government and government agents who have abandoned the ability to care. I hope I can still stand up to people who interpret their job as saying “no” rather than “yes” or “How can I help?”

There are scripts throughout history that continually re-appear, and this is one of them. It was the central theme in two movies I have seen recently, Detroit and The Shape of Water. People find themselves in need of help while, behind a window, other people watch in silence and do nothing. Then there are those who step out and act. They intervene, called by some instinct to do the right thing.

You can never really know what you will do until the moment comes. But here is what I hope for all who face the challenge: Once it is over and roles are played out, I hope that years later it will be something you look back upon with a certain amount of pride.

(John Gfroerer of Concord owns a video production company based at the Capitol Center for the Arts.)