From Pain to Compassion
There it was. In the darkness of the early morning, she heard someone knocking on the cafeteria door. Carolyn Collins, a custodian at Tucker High School, just outside Atlanta, was about to take out the trash – but the knock at the door stopped her. She put down the full garbage can and cautiously opened the door. There were two Tucker students, a boy and girl, looking at her nervously. “Can we come in?” the boy asked. “Me and my sister are getting tired of waiting outside.”
The students, it seemed, were living with their mother in a car. She’d dropped them off early so they could get ready for school in one of the restrooms. The kids were hungry. Collins found some cereal, milk and fruit for them. And she started thinking. “I knew they weren’t the only kids at school who were struggling,” she later said. “And I thought, ‘I’m going to do whatever I can to help these kids. High school is hard enough without being homeless’.”
On her way home from work that day, Collins stopped at some dollar stores and loaded up on supplies. She spent $200 buying toiletries, socks, underwear, notebooks, pencils and snacks. The next morning she went to the principal’s office and told the administrators she wanted to help students in need. She asked them to provide her with some space. Later that day, she cleaned out an old storage room near the cafeteria, and opened her Giving Closet.
That was almost five years ago. The Giving Closet is still going strong. Any of Tucker’s 1800 students who need food, clothing, soap, school supplies, even something to wear to the prom, can quietly mention it to Ms. Collins, and she’ll open the closet for them. She watches for kids who come to school every day wearing the same clothes, shuffling through the halls with their heads down. She’ll approach them and tactfully invite them to take a look in her closet. They can take whatever they need.
Collins’ job keeps her pretty busy with mopping, sweeping, scrubbing toilets and straightening up, but she still manages to keep the Giving Closet stocked. Many items are now donated by teachers, other students, parents and people in the neighborhood. Kennedy Carroll, a Tucker High grad who is now a sophomore at Savannah State University, remembers when he and his mom became homeless and had to move in with a relative that Carroll didn’t get along with. For several months he found himself living alone in his mother’s car.
“Ms. Collins took me aside a couple of times and made sure I was doing ok and asked me what I needed,” Carroll said. “I basically told her, ‘everything.’ I didn’t have clothes or good shoes or food, or even a toothbrush. She gave me all of that and more….I always knew that Ms. Collins cared, and she gave me hope to keep going. I learned that if I could conquer being homeless, I could conquer anything. Because of her generosity, I didn’t give up. I’ll remember how good she was to me for the rest of my life.” And he added, “I love her with all my heart, she was my angel.”
What goes into making a person like Carolyn Collins? That’s a question that fascinates me. How did she get to be the way she is -- a person who doesn’t just feel sorry for a couple of homeless kids, but sets up a system to help all the struggling kids at her school?
Collins herself says that it came out of a tragedy she and her husband suffered some years ago, when their young adult son, who was visiting a friend, was killed during a home invasion robbery. Collins says she still grieves for her son and misses him every day. “I want to give kids what they need, so that nobody has to go out and steal from anyone,” she says. “I don’t want any other parent to have to go through what I did, and lose a child…for no reason.” [Washington Post, September 4, 2018]
Out of the crucible of her own pain, something beautiful came forth --- a desire to ease the pain of others.
Here’s another story – one that I’ve cherished ever since I first read it in the New York Times, on June 21, 1995:
“Meyer Michael Greenberg, known to the poor and homeless of New York City for a simple act of charity he performed for 30 years on its meanest street, died on Monday at Rivington House, a Manhattan nursing home. He was 67 and had lived much of his life in Greenwich Village. The cause was cancer, said a cousin, Russell Aaronson of Manhattan.
“In the life that obituaries customarily record, Mr. Greenberg worked for many years as a print coordinator on the Revlon account in the media department of Grey Advertising, and later at Bates Advertising, until retiring in 1990. Earlier, he taught English in the public school system.
“But Mr. Greenberg's renown rested not on what he accomplished between Monday and Friday, but on what he shared between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when autumn surrendered to winter, and winter intensified the misery of those who had no shelter. It was at that time that Mr. Greenberg, a small, jaunty man, could be found on Skid Row, the Bowery, giving away pairs of gloves from a canvas bag slung over his shoulder, in an annual ritual that memorialized his father and redressed a sense of loss attached to his own hard youth in Brooklyn.
"Who was that guy?" a man on crutches asked one year. "Gloves," came the reply. "That was Gloves."
He was Gloves Greenberg, and when one man asked what the gloves cost, Mr. Greenberg had a ready reply. "A handshake," he said. Mr. Greenberg knew he could give away his hundreds of pairs of gloves in a few hours if he went to missions, but he said: "I prefer to go looking for the people I want. The ones who avoid eye contact. It is not so much the gloves, but telling people they count."
Sometimes, it took him 15 minutes to persuade someone to accept the gloves. "These are not my gloves," an old man said once. "I cannot take them. No one has ever given me anything. What do you want from me?" Finally, the man accepted the gloves. ‘Happy Thanksgiving,’ Mr. Greenberg said.”
On one occasion, he gave gloves to a man who had been his economics professor at Brooklyn College. Another time, he recalled, “I was handing out gloves in the Bowery and I saw a man who had been a leading baritone at the Met when I was an extra, a spear-carrier. He didn’t recognize me, of course. The lead singers at the Met would never have associated with people like us. I wanted to say, ‘You were so wonderful’.” But Greenberg chose to say nothing, as he feared he would embarrass the man.
“At first, Mr. Greenberg had purchased all his gloves. Later, after his mission became well-known following the theft of a batch of gloves, Mr. Greenberg also began receiving many gloves, sometimes singles, in the mail.
In 1993, his cousin said, Mr. Greenberg became too ill to continue to go to the Bowery.
“Born in Williamsburg, Mr. Greenberg was the eldest of five children of Pinchus Joseph Greenberg, who sold baked goods in a market at Lee Avenue and Wilson Street. As a boy, Mr. Greenberg rose before 5 A.M. to help his father wheel the merchandise in a pushcart to the market. Through his life, after his schooling at a yeshiva and at Brooklyn College, Mr. Greenberg carried with him the memory of those cold mornings.
"One winter, when I was 11 or 12, I lost my gloves," he said. "I felt very guilty about it; don't ask me why. I never even asked for another pair. I don't think I ever had another pair until I went into the Army. Ever since then, for me, being rich is being warm."
When his father died in 1963, Mr. Greenberg decided to honor his memory by giving away gloves. He remembered something his father had told him: "Don't deprive yourself of the joy of giving.”
I see that 11 year old boy, too poor to ask for another pair of gloves, rubbing his hands for warmth on those frigid winter mornings. I honor the man he became, who never forgot how it feels when your hands ache from the cold; the man who turned his grief for his father into a living tribute of love and care.
So here’s a thought to ponder on this dark and chilly night. Because we’re human, we share the experience of pain. If it hasn’t happened to us yet, we can be sure that in time it will. An injury or disappointment; a ruptured relationship or a marriage that goes bad; a parenting challenge, the collapse of a business, a debilitating illness, the loss of someone we love. We may bring it on ourself by behaving badly or be a hapless victim; but whatever the cause, something in nature’s catalogue of sorrows will eventually come our way. The real question is: what will become of our pain?
I’ve lived long enough to know that it doesn’t just evaporate or fade away, despite the comforting bromides about how time heals all wounds. Serious sorrow tends to stick around. We may have to take some deliberate steps to distract ourselves and focus on something else. We may need the help of a skilled counselor or wise friends to get through a bad time and regain some equilibrium. And there’s a third step – I would call it a Jewish step – that is also available to us. If we set our hearts on it, we can learn and grow from our pain.
Please note: I’m not saying that God sends us sorrow so that we can become better people. But God gives us an intellect – the capacity to reflect thoughtfully on the suffering that befalls us. And God gives us a heart – the capacity to feel empathy and compassion for ourselves and for others. Because of those two gifts, sorrow can engender goodness; beauty can grow out of pain.
This week in the Torah the Israelites are summoned out of misery to build something beautiful. Former slaves, beaten down by their masters, almost bereft of hope, they’re called to Mt. Sinai and offered aseret hadibrot – ten commandments to uplift and ennoble their lives. Then, in this week’s portion, Parshat Terumah, they’re asked to bring the best materials they have – precious metals, jewels, fine linen, acacia wood and leather – to build a Mishkan, a portable sanctuary in the wilderness.
A passage in the midrash draws a connection between the Mishkan and the Golden Calf. “The Holy One, blessed be God,” says the Midrash, “said: Let the gold used for the Mishkan atone for the gold that was used in making the Calf [Tanhuma, Terumah 8].“
Based on this midrash, the medieval commentator Rashi tells us that the episode of the Golden Calf actually took place before God summoned the people to build the Mishkan. It’s recounted several chapters later, but that doesn’t bother Rashi. The Torah doesn’t always unfold events in chronological order, he says. The building of the Mishkan was a response to the building of the Golden Calf. The people descended into an idolatrous orgy; they suffered shame and disgrace, and many died in the ensuing violence. Then, as an act of growth and healing, they came together and brought the best they had to construct a beautiful sanctuary.
Painful episodes from our past linger in our memory, but they need not poison our future. Suffering can give us new, more perceptive eyes with which to view the world, and the determination to redeem our tragedy by bringing something good out of it. One of our members, who takes care of a beloved spouse who is very ill, told me: “When this is over, I’ll be a much better friend. If a person I know is going through something like this, I’ll know what to say and do, and what not to say and do.” Another told me that one of the worst episodes of his life -- a time when he lost control and hit his child -- inspired him to get help and become a more loving and patient parent.
“When God began to create heaven and earth, and the earth was welter and waste, and darkness over the deep and God’s breath hovering over the waters, God said, “Let there be light.” And there was light” [Gen.1:1-3]. Robert Alter’s translation of the first verses of Genesis reminds us that the creation story still goes on, even now, in our own brave struggle to live through pain. There is darkness and chaos, and a depth of sorrow that may overwhelm us. But the breath of God hovers over the waters – the spirit of goodness, the spirit that calls forth life; holding the promise that someday chaos may be tamed, tragedy redeemed, and light may emerge from the darkness.
In the darkness of early morning, Carolyn Collins heard a knock on the door, and the light began to dawn. In the winter of grief, Michael Greenberg did a mitzvah to honor a man he loved. The chilly streets of his city became a little warmer, and he left behind a memory that inspires us to this day. In the depths of shame, the Israelites rose up and began again to build a better future. So may we draw in the breath of life, and turn our pain into compassion.
Who is knocking on the door of your heart right now? How will you honor a person you loved and lost? When will you be ready to say: Yehi or – let there be light?