A Wealth of Opportunity

Last week, I went in Dayton, Ohio, on business travel with my good friend, Ken.  It was a lot of traveling for a one-hour meeting with a U.S. Air Force official.  In our down time, Ken took me to Carillon Park, a beautiful, wooded walking park filled with buildings and artifacts telling the story of Dayton’s rich heritage.  A stroll down the sidewalk took me past a replica of the Wright Brothers’ Bicycle Shop (complete with the “B” flyer–the second airplane built by Orville & Wilbur after Kitty Hawk), a section of a lock from the Erie Canal, a portion of a 100-year-old clock tower, a train car from the early 1800’s, an electric trolley, and much more.

One spot that caught my interest was the exhibit of the Great Dayton Flood of 1913, the greatest natural disaster in Ohio history.  Being from Cedar Rapids, I know a thing or two about cities flooding, so I was curious.  

Israel Ludlow, Dayton’s founder, failed to heed the advice of local Native Americans, selecting for the city’s downtown an area that was subject to recurring flooding.  In March 1913, a series of winter storms marched across the Midwest, dropping 8-11 inches of rain in the Great Miami River watershed, saturating the soil and filling its floodplain.  An estimated 360 people died and damage to the city eclipsed $100,000,000.  

But the real story of the Great Dayton Flood of 1913 was the saintly heroics of John Henry Patterson, founder and president of National Cash Register (NCR), headquartered in Dayton.  As the waters rose on March 25, 1913, Easter Sunday, Patterson turned his employees into rescue workers, ordered the construction of over 300 flat-bottomed boats, and organized rescue teams.  Thousands of trapped residents were rescued from the roofs of their homes.  Patterson turned his NCR factory into an emergency shelter and offered his 5000 kW generator to power the city, which had lost all electrical power.  Patterson’s selfless acts saved thousands of lives, and brought hope to the devastated city.

The actions of John Henry Patterson suggest there is a positive way to view wealth in America.

There are some who presume that the upper 1% of wealth-owners in America are greedy and evil.  There are some who demand they pay their fair share.  It is a reverse prejudice, as ironic as it is malicious. It is a spirit that fuels envy, discontentment, and entitlement in the hearts of American people.  What’s wrong with a society where some are rich and some are poor?  What if some people have more wealth than I–should that automatically ruin my quality of life?  We need to beware of greed and envy.  No amount of wealth distribution will ever cure a society of these two blood-sucking leeches.  Contentment in Christ is our highest aim, our most noble calling.  As Paul said (1),

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

We would all do well to discover Paul’s secret of contentment–clinging to Christ who satisfies our soul like nothing else can, sustaining it over long stretches of drought.

Some would say there should be no poor, that wealth should be distributed equally.  A noble thought perhaps, but God says, “the poor you will never cease to be in the land” (2).  He has done this intentionally.  In the world God created, there are always opportunities for those who have to be generous and share with those who have none.  

In fact, God established many laws that provided for the poor.  For example, farmers were always to leave a portion of their fields unharvested so the poor could glean after the reapers had passed through (3). The biblical story of Ruth is a beautiful and romantic illustration of how the rich landowner, Boaz, demonstrated the generosity and compassion of God by allowing Ruth to glean in his field (4).

Perhaps a more perfect answer to the problem of poverty is to fight the proliferation of greed in our country.  Those who are rich, consider the instruction Paul gave to Timothy, his young apprentice and pastor of a church (5):

”Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed.”

Call me idealistic, but don’t call me presumptuous, because I will not presume that all wealthy people are greedy and tight-fisted.  Like John H. Patterson, there are wealthy men and women who can be sparked into action, who understand the value of generosity.  As NCR president, Patterson would begin every staff meeting by asking, “Why are we here?”  Without waiting, he would proceed to answer his own question, replying, “To do good!”  In a time of crisis, and throughout his time leading NCR, Patterson did just that.  His innovative glass-walled factories were a stark contrast to the sweatshops of his day, allowing in daylight and fresh air to the factory floor.  He created parks for his employees, complete with a swimming pool and horseback riding.  He lived his life according to God’s simple recipe for treating people rightly: “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God” (6), a verse that is fittingly inscribed on Patterson’s gravestone above Carillon Park.

Do we have no wealthy among us willing to follow in Patterson’s footsteps, to be generous, compassionate, and kind to those in need?  I think not.

Notes:

  1. Philippians 4:11-13
  2. Deuteronomy 15:11
  3. Leviticus 19:9
  4. Ruth 2
  5. I Timothy 6:17-19
  6. Micah 6:8

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