It’s a touching story, or at least it began that way: When the city closed down some of its key bus routes, a Detroit man, desperate to keep his job in a suburban factory, began walking to the nearest bus stop, now more than 10 miles away. All told, James Robertson walked 21 miles a day, round trip, for nearly a decade. The arduous commute took him much longer than his shift at the factory—so long, in fact, that he had only a few hours to sleep. Still, he never arrived late for work.
Recently Robertson’s story was featured on the front page of the Detroit Free Press. From there it was picked up by national publications, including USA Today and People. ABC News named him its Person of the Week. Touched by his determination, thousands of readers began asking what they could do to help.
A college student put together a web site to collect donations. As of last Sunday, two weeks after the story appeared, readers had donated $30,000 to the fund. By then the story was going viral. The following evening contributions topped $80,000. A few days ago the Free Press reported that Robertson’s fund now holds $350,000. Also, a car dealership has given him a brand new Ford Taurus, loaded with equipment.
Robertson’s life has changed, and not in the way he might have hoped. As his story attracted more and more attention, he began to fear that he was no longer safe in his neighborhood. Fellow residents at the boarding house where he had lived for 15 years began badgering him for a share of his instant wealth.
A few days ago he asked police for protection and was moved to an apartment several miles away, where he will stay until he can settle on a place to live.
This is a great depiction of the best and worst elements of human nature.
We are a people who long to help rescue those in trouble. When we’re touched by a story about someone we don’t know, our immediate impulse is to send donations. And why not? Money solves problems. If James Robertson’s car hadn’t worn out, if he’d had the cash to buy another, he wouldn’t have faced such a difficult commute.
But receiving a windfall can be a mixed blessing. When he asked for their protection, Robertson told police he knew a man in his neighborhood who had been murdered after winning $20,000 in the lottery.
Robertson’s story was given to the Free Press by a banker named Blake Pollock, who noticed him walking to work day after day. Pollock began offering Robertson rides to the bus stop. Naturally, they got to talking. Pollock found in Robertson a man of integrity and dedication. When he took Robertson’s story to the paper, he never imagined it would become a national sensation.
Suppose Pollock had taken a different tack. Instead of contacting a reporter, suppose he had arranged for a group of volunteers to make sure Robertson always had a ride to the bus stop and a ride home. Robertson’s life would not have been disrupted, and a circle of caring people would have had the pleasure of getting to know him.
I can hear the instant protests: Who has time to give a guy a 10-mile ride, even once a week? Good question. But in a more open world, in a less harried existence, such an idea wouldn’t seem so outlandish. And in a society with functioning city governments, the buses wouldn’t have been halted.
Elizabeth Renzetti of the Toronto Globe and Mail raises an interesting point when she notes that Robertson’s former neighbors are still without city transportation. She laments the rise of what she calls misery fundraising. As “the social safety net frays,” she writes, “the needy and desperate have turned to websites such as HandUp, GoFundMe, and YouCaring to meet their most basic needs.” People with enough computer savvy and the skill to tell a compelling hard luck story will attract financial help, possibly much more than they need. Others won’t.
What will happen to James Robertson now? Perhaps you’re thinking, “A new car and $350,000! What’s wrong with that?” Quite a bit, possibly, but for now it’s difficult to know. It will likely take him months to decide if his new wealth is worth the displacement he’s experiencing. My hope is that he’ll land in a community of people who will befriend him—and not ask him for money. That’s what he deserves.
Giving money to worthy causes is a vital part of Seva. It’s my belief, though, that what will save this world is a growing corps of people who are willing to go out of their way for someone else, who’ll take a chance and say, sure, I can give that guy a ride. In return for their loving attention, they’ll receive the satisfaction of knowing they’ve really helped someone. Perhaps they’ll also receive a priceless gift—a new relationship with someone extraordinary, whom they otherwise wouldn’t have encountered in the course of their daily lives.