Someone asked me today whether the Endowments was making some kind of political statement in issuing a grant to support relief efforts in Puerto Rico.
I answered that, no, we were not. It has been the practice of this foundation for decades to reach beyond our usual regional giving focus when major catastrophe strikes another American community, which, lest we forget, Puerto Rico emphatically is.
The grants we make in these instances are typically tiny compared to the scale of need – $50,000 to the Community Foundation of San Juan, for example, and the same amount to a relief agency in Houston. But we make these grants to alleviate some degree of suffering and to express solidarity with another community in its hour of extraordinary need, just as we hope they would do if disaster were to strike the place in which we proudly make our lives.
Nothing seems more fundamentally American than that. We help each other. We come to the rescue of each other. We stand by each other. And sometimes we even march and kneel with each other, in prayer and in protest, in sorrow and in joy.
On a day when the president seemed once again to attack Puerto Ricans for the audacity of their suffering and reporters for exercising their First Amendment rights, I suppose I understand why someone might wonder if our grant for Puerto Rico was some kind of a political statement.
In this era of demonization as official policy, of leaders plucking at our biases like ugly strings on Hell’s own guitar, what defense of the vulnerable, the poor, or the non-white, what protest of police brutality, what rally for the planet and its people, what basic act of understanding and compassion, cannot be conveniently cast as political?
What aspect of our essential human decency cannot be consumed by the voracious, constant targeting of enemies?
But what a sad indictment of us all if that is allowed to stand, if this dark fantasy of us-against-them is who we truly become. Fundamental values of kindness, morality, civility, empathy, responsibility and respect for others are not partisan. They are human. They are only political in the mad fantasies of would-be tyrants and partisan hacks.
To care for your neighbor, regardless of how distant or how different, is the cardinal American virtue. It is also the core of this imperfect but noble thing we call philanthropy.
Fred Rogers famously advised children in times of calamity to “look for the helpers.” He believed there would always be helpers in the neighborhood he called America, and I believe that too. But we cannot take them for granted, nor the impulse they embody. A society of helpers rests on attitudes of love, trust and shared responsibility, without which there will be no helpers left to save us, be it from disaster or from ourselves.