Misguided Generosity

Misguided Generosity It was 1992. It was 4 p.m. on a cold Christmas Eve. I was pastor at the First Congregational Church on Main Street in Riverhead, New York, a town usually known for its full jail or its farmers who major in potatoes and minor in cauliflower. Dusk was settling in, along with Christmas Eve calm, when an inebriated farmer backed his truck up the alley, which acts as an ineffective border between our church building and the adjacent methadone clinic. After backing into the alley, deftly, the truck maneuvered mysteriously to our front lawn, where the farmer opened its rear and dumped its full load of fat, dirty turnips. The truck was neither a pick-up nor a tractor-trailer; it was just the right size to slip through the skinny alley. “I want to help the ppppoooooorrrr,” the farmer mumbled, while swaying from left to right on his well-booted if insecure feet. I happened to be outside, checking the wreaths, or I might not have noticed the shepherd who had stopped abiding in his field and was now abiding in mine. Quiet is Christmas Eve’s middle name. All of a sudden, it was no longer feeling a lot like Christmas. It was feeling a lot like a traffic jam of vegetables, caused by a truckload of turnips. unceremoniously dumped on our church’s front law at an inopportune moment. Next to Easter, Christmas is our biggest day. Nobody wants to bypass turnips on their way to the baby Jesus. The turnips covered most of the small lawn and the entire sidewalk. The farmer used a shovel to complete the job after the first dozen or so bushels landed with a thud, sliding down the back of the truck as if they were having fun. You could almost hear them singing jingle bells as the hatch opened. The farmer was jubilant and about to break into “Joy to the World, the turnips have come.” I was not singing. I don’t know if you have ever called your head deacon on Christmas Eve to get him to come to the church immediately for an interesting sidewalk emergency but now I have. I have also added this expertise to my pastoral resume. Emergency turnip removal specialists are hard to find. Luckily there are windows to the cellar on the front of the church, making our unlikely task easier than it might otherwise have been. Carrying them down the stairs would have made us dirtier than we became by our tosses into the cellar. There the turnips stayed till after the holidays, when an interesting odor came through the church building. It was the smell of rotting turnips. Soon after the smell came the idea for the turnip cook-off. Anybody who wanted to, rich or pooooor, could come to the church, haul a lot of turnips out of the basement and create a turnip dish. In exchange for the good ones, they also had to haul out a few smelly ones and throw them away, far away. The Peconic River, down from the methadone clinic, kept coming to mind. On January 25th we had the turnip cook off and invited people who had either a good recipe or a decent sense of humor or who had carried turnips up and out. The cook book we finally published featured turnip cake, turnip casserole, baked turnips, fried turnips, stewed turnips, as well as turnips with garlic, cabbage, apples and poppy seeds. The entry fee for the contest was 5 dollars, the cookbook also 5, and we gave the proceeds to the local shelter for people to buy diapers. It is very hard to clean a baby’s bottom with dirty turnips. The winning entry was my husband’s “Turnip Fries.” News 12 Long Island covered the event, and a good time was had by rich and poor. I have never eaten so many turnips before. We also served hot dogs and coffee. I later personally explained to the farmer that he had a good idea, gone bad, and that next time, he dumped a load of turnips on our front lawn, I was going to have him arrested. I understood how his Christmas Spirit(s) was trying to assert itself on behalf of goodness. I even knew the turnips were all he had, echoing the gifts from the Magi. His act was close to virtuous, if intention counts. In reality, it proved to miss its mark, imitating all the cranberry jelly cans my Manhattan church got after Sandy. He wanted to help the poor and ended up helping the foodies in Riverhead as well as a few underemployed mothers. Diapers are really expensive. Our total take was around $250. after expenses, which included the hot dogs and coffee in case people came who didn’t eat turnips. The Sandy people had less success than the turnip people. The Sandy people had good intentions, which didn’t even amuse anyone. They weren’t even drunk, and it was not Christmas, a blanket excuse for misguided generosity if there ever was one. Regifting comes to mind. During Sandy, people who no longer had cupboards were being given canned food, as well as used clothing, not in their sizes. Have you ever tried to use dozens of cans of cranberry jelly, the round kind? They don’t lend themselves well to cook-offs. I have nothing against the Magi, or most turnip farmers. I also have an extraordinary collection of jellied cranberry sauce, and during every disaster its bounty increases. I am even willing to get flawed generosity advertised on local TV and recruit volunteers to clean up moral misguidance. I like a good joke as much as anyone, and we still occasionally have turnip fries, often on Christmas Eve. But, finally, turnip farmers and their fat trucks acknowledged and ever so slightly appreciated, and cranberry charity cajoled, why not just give the pooooooor some money?