I remember a story told by Bishop David Thagana of Kenya that I think is appropriate for today’s times.
Here the story:
One day long ago there was a huge fire in a jungle that was, limb by limb and animal by animal, destroying what was once lush, green, and alive. All the animals were fleeing for their lives out of the path of the fire – elephants, lions, monkeys, and birds – all except for one bird. A tiny hummingbird was flying down to a river within the jungle, then back up to the sky, flying down to the river then back up. And he kept doing that for some time. As an elephant was hurrying out of the jungle, he noticed this hummingbird doing this strange activity. He stopped for a moment and noticed that the hummingbird was actually wetting his wings once he got to the river then flying up over the fire and flapping the water-soaked wings with the hope of putting out the fire. The elephant went over to the hummingbird and inquired as to why he even bothered with such activity. The hummingbird quickly replied, “I’m doing what I can to put this fire out. If the rest of you would only do the same, we could save this jungle.”
I think that some days we in the human services nonprofit world all feel like that little hummingbird. We see the tremendous need and the growing poverty and we look at what we are doing and we might ask ourselves if we are truly making a difference. I think back to a few years ago when I was honored to attend a talk by Sir Bob Geldof, the former Irish rock star who created Live Aid and has become a world leader in Philanthropy. He commented that after all the years, and all the work, and all the money, people ask him if it was worth it and if he’s made any difference. His answer was that if one person, just one person, was saved from death or suffering than, yes – it was worth it. Because, he added, who can place a value on life?
We are facing great challenges in our country right now as some would tear down the programs and the safety net that has been created in areas such as poverty alleviation, hunger, medical care, disease prevention, and more. They claim they are ineffective, inefficient, and inadequately address the root cause of the problem. They cite fraud, waste, and abuse as excuses for destroying programs that help millions of people every day. Are they all those bad things? Maybe in some cases, yes. Is there fraud, waste, and abuse? Of course there is; just like there is among Wall Street bankers and billionaire business owners.
But that is not a reason to eliminate and destroy. Because these programs help significantly more people than they inefficiently waste money on. Because these programs matter. They are the only thing for many people between a life of hope and a future and one of despair and hopelessness.
We must tirelessly work, like that little hummingbird, to shed light on the good of these programs and fix the problems which exist within them. We cannot falter from our commitment to make sure that if even one life is made better than we are doing something good. We must acknowledge what needs to be fixed, fix it, and help even more people.
Great art is not created with a paint roller; it is created with an artist’s fine brush. So too, great changes are not achieved by wholesale destruction, but rather by making the small, impactful changes that are necessary to turn good to great. Just as water drops from the wings of the hummingbird; collectively with many others, can put out that fire.