This week the pope is visiting America and Passover is about to begin. It is the perfect time to tell you the story of the rabbi and the rosaries.
Recently, in my newspaper God Squad column, I answered a question from an elderly Roman Catholic woman of modest means who tried her best to send a contribution to every charity that wrote to her. Her problem was that nearly all of the charities in America now had her on their mailing lists and some of them were sending her things like printed address labels and rosary beads in advance of her even sending them a contribution. She was upset at not being able to send more money, and she did not know how to dispose of the extra rosaries she was receiving in the mail. My tongue-in-cheek advice was that she should change her name and move, but I was stumped by her question about what to do with her extra rosary beads. I must have missed the class on rosary disposal in my rabbinical seminary, so I checked it out and was told by my local priest source to tell her to dispose of them in a spiritually proper way. I suggested burying them in a cemetery (this is what I do with any Jewish book with God's name on it).
In the middle of my unique rabbinic distress about disposing of unwanted rosaries, I received an e-mail from two angels who live in Bethlehem—that's Bethlehem, Pa. Their earthly names are Bill and Margo Lawless. They told me of a wonderful project they had begun. They decided to collect unwanted rosaries and send them to Catholic soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. I was thrilled and put their e-mail in my next column urging the woman in Connecticut and others to send their extra rosaries to Bethlehem. A week later Bill and Margo told me that as a result of my mentioning them, over 1,000 rosaries had been sent to them with notes of thanks and even contributions to help them pay for the mailing costs. I spoke to Bill today, and the number is now over 2,000 rosaries and growing daily. They have also developed a daisy chain of addresses of Catholic soldiers so they can send rosaries directly to the soldiers with a note of thanks and a prayer for their safety. Rosary packages are also being sent to Catholic chaplains in the war zones.
Bill and Margo Lawless are not alone. All over this country ordinary people are simply deciding that they don't have to be rich to do good. These low-key philanthropists, some moved by their faith, others moved by an equally powerful secular compassion, are changing the moral landscape of America in ways that the movers and shakers and talking heads who fill the airwaves cannot yet comprehend. I also recently met Shannon Hickey from Lancaster, Pa. (there must be a high density of angels in Pennsylvania), who at age 11 decided to collect socks for the homeless in New York City. Now, with the help of her family and others, she delivers thousands of pairs of socks as well as hope and a smile to those who sleep in the dust. When you talk about working people in Pennsylvania who cling to their religion, these are the people I know.
This week Passover marks the ancient Exodus from Egypt, and there is an old rabbinic legend about why God really split the Red Sea. The rabbis imagined that it was not Moses who parted the waters, but rather an ordinary man from the tribe of Judah named Nahshon ben Aminadab. In the chaos and panic of the people at the edge of the waves, with the pharaoh's army bearing down on them and with no hope in sight, Nahshon decided on his own and without any special revelation from God to just walk forward into the waters. He walked until the water covered his chest and then his neck but he kept walking forward. When the water just reached his face, God suddenly split the sea so that Nahshon would not drown. One ordinary person making a decision to do something for freedom and hope changed everything. I always think of Nahshon at my Passover table. This year I will think of Bill and Margo and Nahshon. I always invite Father Tom Hartman, my dear friend and the other half of our God Squad team, to our Passover seder. This year I asked him to bring a rosary and I told him the story of Bill and Margo Lawless. Then Tommy smiled, put his arm around my shoulder and said, "Does this mean I don't have to bring the macaroons?"
Happy Passover, and God bless Bill and Margo and Shannon and Nahshon and everyone who has decided that no matter how bleak things look, our job is to just keep on walking forward into the waters of freedom and hope.
(If you have some extra rosaries, and you want to help Bill and Margo Lawless, just send them along. They live at 2812 Santee Dr., Bethlehem, PA 18017. Their e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.)