Who would refuse to help a woman in labor?
I found out one cold, December night
When I read the Christmas story, I always wonder: How was it that Mary came to give birth in a barn?
The Gospels say simply: “There was no room in the inn.”
But could it be that the real reason was there wasn’t enough room in people’s hearts?
Ever since I was a boy participating in church Christmas pageants, I’ve wondered: Why didn’t someone just say, “Hey, Mary and Joseph, just stay at our house?”
After all, what kind of person would refuse to help a woman in labor?
I found out the answer to that question when I was a young man working in Iowa.
I had just taken a job with a newspaper and the staff was excited to soon be moving into a new building. One cold December night, a desperate woman called the newsroom. She was in labor, and in that era before cell phones, she couldn’t get ahold of her husband who was working construction in the building we were moving into.
It was past midnight and she wanted to know if we could reach him. I told my boss that I was caught up with my work and could drive the three blocks to the construction site to get him.
The night city editor gave me a look of complete contempt. He ordered me to tell her we couldn’t help. She was on her own.
At that point in my career, I’d worked at that newspaper for all of six weeks. No sooner had I taken the job than I was frightened that I would lose it.
I must have given him a look of dismay because he responded by shouting, “It’s not our problem!”
My millennial friends like to talk about “trigger words” that resurrect past traumas. I’ll be honest, I’ve long thought that was New Age nonsense. But whenever I hear the words, “It’s not our problem,” I’m triggered with indignation.
I wish I’d had the moral courage to stand up to that editor. But to my shame, I didn’t.
I knew what the right thing to do was. I should have helped. I should have defied my boss and walked out of the newsroom and told that husband that his wife needed him.
Instead, I picked up the phone and told the woman I just couldn’t help her.
Thirty-three years have passed since I made that statement. I’m still ashamed.
That night, I sat at my desk until 1 a.m. knowing I had betrayed not only my own values, but those in which I had been reared. I grew up in a home where I never heard the phrase, “It’s not our problem.”
The most offensive part of that statement is “our.” It identifies a person with a group, a clan, a race, an employer — that sets itself apart from others. The inference in the statement is if the person was part of “our” group, they’d deserve help. But otherwise, “It’s not ‘our’ problem.”
The Bible story about the Good Samaritan isn’t just about helping others, it’s about reaching across racial, cultural and economic boundaries to aid those from groups other than our own.
Today, I carry two gallons of gasoline, a jack and a host of tools in the back of my pickup to assist stranded motorists.
Sometimes I’m able to help change a tire or give someone enough gas to make it to a service station. One time, I just sat with a young man while his car was engulfed in flames alongside Interstate 55. I couldn’t help him much, but at least he knew someone cared.
When I think back 33 years to that woman whom I didn’t help, I’m haunted by my inaction. A sin of omission is as bad as one of commission.
Early on, my parents taught my siblings and me that we are our brother and sister’s keeper.
I remember when I was a teenager, my dad was driving through a rough neighborhood in my hometown of Galesburg. He saw an older woman lying on a sidewalk. Cars were buzzing by her prone form. He stopped and found she had fallen and broken her hip.
He took five pairs of clean coveralls from his truck and created pillows for her to be comfortable and had someone call an ambulance. He stayed with her until the paramedics carried her — and the coveralls — away.
Helping others means making sacrifices and getting your hands dirty.
It would be easy for me to just shrug and say, “I was just following orders.” That’s the banality of evil. Hitler’s henchmen pled that at Nuremberg. King Herod’s soldiers could have made such a claim as they killed the male babies of Bethlehem.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, “It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.” He was right of course. And he certainly paid a price for doing the right thing.
While we may disagree on how best to help someone, we should never delude ourselves that we don’t have such an obligation.
Sometimes we have to say “No” to those in authority and pay the price. I should have done that decades ago, but I didn’t.
How did things end for that woman in labor? I have no idea. That’s what happens when you look away. You don’t see how the story ends. As for the editor who said “It’s not our problem,” he was out of journalism within a year.
So why do I mention this today? Those who don’t learn from their past are condemned to repeat it. I don’t want my children to grow up to ever hear me say, “It’s not ‘our’ problem.”
Scott Reeder is a staff writer for the Illinois Times and a veteran journalist who has worked for newspapers in the Midwest, Texas, and Nevada. He lives with his wife, three daughters and a menagerie of pets near Springfield, Ill. This column is republished from Iowa Capital Dispatch under a Creative Commons license.