A novel idea: part four (help and hope for the homeless)

There was once a con artist, a phony preacher, a wolf in sheep’s clothing: he called himself Tony Alamo. In the 1960s, he said that Jesus had called him to faith and also called him to a street ministry in California. He reached out to prostitutes, drug abusers, and the homeless, developing a commune which operated several businesses for the benefit of Alamo’s so-called ministry. In the 1970s he relocated to Arkansas, where again his church owned several businesses including a clothing factory which sold decorated leather jackets to a number of famous and wealthy individuals.

Nothing is wrong with helping the poor in Christ’s name, giving them jobs and a place to live, while selling the work of their hands to interested customers. But Tony Alamo became a millionaire while those he supposedly befriended remained destitute, hunting through dumpsters for food because he paid them so little. He subjected some of them to verbal and physical abuse. He claimed their young daughters as his wives. Alamo eventually was charged, convicted, and jailed for tax evasion, child abuse, and violation of the Mann act. He died in prison in 2017.

Jason Hero never met Tony Alamo or any of Alamo’s victims. But Jason abhorred the way Alamo took advantage of the poor and helpless. Jason especially abhorred that Alamo misused the name of Jesus to commit his crimes, “for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). Jason had compassion for the homeless; but, until he won the lottery, he was not able to do much to help them.

Consulting with experts in charitable work, including attorneys, Jason established the Jason Hero Foundation and Jason Hero Enterprises. The first act of the Foundation was to open a daytime homeless shelter in the inner city. The shelter included shower stalls and a clothes washer and drier, as well as soap, shampoo, towels, and laundry detergent. It maintained a directory of soup kitchens, food pantries, and overnight shelters in the area. Every day, staff was available to consult with the people who visited the shelter. Jason persuaded doctors, nurses, dentists, barbers, social workers, and counselors to volunteer their services at the shelter on a rotating basis. As incentive for their services, his Foundation offered them financial assistance toward their student loans and other professional expenses. Pastors and Christian leaders were also invited to visit the shelter, pray with the homeless, counsel them, and encourage them. The Foundation kept a small paid staff at the shelter to keep it in good repair, to coordinate the schedules of the volunteers, and to make sure no one was abusing their access to the poor and homeless.

Next, the Foundation purchased an empty industrial plant in a smaller town nearby. It also built an apartment flat near the plant. Homeless people who visited the daytime downtown shelter were advised that they could relocate to the town and work for Jason Hero Enterprises. (We’ll assume that the plant, like Alamo’s, produced clothing.) They would be paid a livable wage, with their money first deposited in a Hero Enterprises account. From that account they could buy meals in the company cafeteria, food in the company grocery store, and lodging in the company apartments. On company property the rules were strict: no tobacco, no alcohol, no marijuana, no illegal drugs. Prescription drugs were handled through a resident nursing staff. Professional security endorsed the rules and prevented violence among workers and among residents. Anyone who was asked to leave for violating the rules, or anyone who chose to leave, was given the balance of their account in U.S. dollars. Volunteers, like those who visited the downtown shelter, made their talents available to factory workers and their families, to anyone who lived in the company apartments. Jason Hero Enterprises deducted taxes, offered health insurance, and fulfilled all the obligations of any business. Any financial losses were covered by the Jason Hero Foundation; any profits went to the Foundation and not to Jason.

Third, the Foundation purchased farmland outside of town and began raising food for the company cafeteria and grocery store. Housing units were built, and people receiving services at the downtown shelter could choose to live and work on the farm or at the factory. The same rules applied at both places, and the same services were offered. Jason’s goal was not to establish a permanent workforce at either Enterprises location, but rather to help the poor and homeless recover their lives, develop useful work skills and good work habits, and be prepared to reenter society as productive citizens.

Once again, I had hoped to develop this history in the form of a novel, with conversations, events, successes, setbacks, and dramatic conflict. But this sketch suffices for the present. Next comes Jason Hero’s political career. J.

A novel idea–part three

When Jason Hero won the lottery, he did spend some of his winnings on his personal life. He bought some new clothing. He bought a new car. He bought a larger house, one on a lot large enough that he would not have to hear his neighbors. He improved his diet, buying more fresh fruits and vegetables that he had not been able to afford in the past. But Jason did not invest much money in unnecessary luxuries. He was not interested in a fancy car or fancy clothing; what he bought was practical and comfortable.

Jason (to borrow a line from the musical Hello, Dolly!) believed that money is like manure: it is meant to be spread around to help things grow. So Jason invested some of his millions of dollars in starting two new businesses.

One of his new businesses was called Green Stealth Lawn Service. The Green in the name was not just a boast of greener lawns; Jason intended his lawn care service to be environmentally friendly. He did not offer pesticides or fertilizers; only grass cutting and leaf and debris removal. The Stealth in the name represented the fact that Jason’s workers were to be so quiet that the homeowner wouldn’t even know they had come. Instead of gasoline lawn mowers, they would use hand-operated reel mowers and hand-held trimmers. Instead of leaf blowers, they would use rakes. With the savings in equipment and fuel, Jason’s company would pay higher salaries than competing lawn care companies. Therefore, Green Stealth could afford to hire the best workers and to keep only those who followed the rules. Clippings and leaves and other lawn debris would be packed in biodegradable bags which the workers would leave on a lot purchased by Jason for that purpose. After a year or two of business, Jason would be able to offer his customers mulch, rich compost, and fill dirt as an additional service. The workers and their equipment would arrive in electric-powered trucks, keeping the theme of quiet and environmentally friendly.

Jason rented an office with a telephone for his company. He hired a manager who was in charge of hiring and scheduling. Jason was a customer of Green Stealth Lawn Service. Twice he had workers fired for breaking company rules and bringing leaf blowers to the job. (This would be described in much detail in the novel I thought about writing.)

Jason’s other business idea was inspired partly by the Disney theme parks, partly by Renaissance fairs, and partly by nostalgic movies such as Back to the Future. Jason purchased several pieces of property around the country and had each developed in a different way. One was built on the pattern of a medieval village, complete with a castle. Another was a western ranch, set around the end of the nineteenth century. A third was a suburban community, with all the houses and cars and stores resembling those of the 1950s. Another was a pre-Civil War southern plantation. In each case, Jason had the developers create dwellings that could be rented that would portray the flavor of the time period depicted, yet would also have modern comforts including heat and air conditioning, and hot and cold running water. Customers could come and stay for a night or two, or for a week or longer. When they made their reservations, they would include their clothing sizes; and when they arrived, they would be given clothing suitable for the time and place. They would be served meals also matching the time and place. All the staff—greeters, food servers, property cleaners, maintenance—would be actors and actresses trained to complete the experience of a medieval village, a 1950s suburb, or whatever else the property was designed to represent. Considering the amount of money people pay for the Disney experience and for Renaissance fairs, Jason figured his nostalgia vacations would also be profitable over the long term. His lottery winnings made the short-term construction possible.

Jason also had a thought about using his money to help the homeless, but that will have to wait for another post. J.

A novel idea, part two

As I revealed last week, Jason Hero won the lottery—the grand prize of three hundred million dollars—without buying a lottery ticket. Jason never received the full three hundred million dollars. He took the bulk payment option, which was roughly half the promised figure (which would have been paid out over twenty years had he favored the other option), and about half of that prize was claimed by federal and state income taxes. Jason was left, then, with seventy-five million dollars, which is still a lot of money.

Jason chose to tithe, to give one tenth of his winnings to the Church and to various charities. Some congregations are so firmly opposed to gambling in any form that they would have refused his gift. Others would say that he should have tithed from the pre-tax amount. But Jason decided that he would divide his tithe among seventy-five recipients, giving each of them one hundred thousand dollars. He figured that was a large enough gift to do some good in seventy-five different places, but not so much that it would be harmful. Jason had heard of congregations that had been torn apart by arguments about how to spend a large gift. He did not want to cause any such disputes.

Jason chose several congregations that he had attended over the years, and a couple of congregations that were led by friends of his. He also sent some gifts directly to the denominational office, designated for foreign missions and for charitable organizations. He gave gifts to secular charities, including the American Red Cross. He gave gifts to the local public radio station and to the local public television station. Jason donated money to the zoo, to the symphony orchestra, to the ballet company, to the community theater, to the art museum, to the county’s historical museum, and to the hospital. He sent checks to the schools where he had earned his bachelor’s degree and his master’s degree.

After distributing his tithe, Jason began investing in his own future. He set up an account that would pay him one thousand dollars a week for the next fifty years, using up $2,500,000 of his winnings. He then took another five million dollars and set up accounts for his ten children, nieces, and nephews. The accounts were trusts to fund their higher education. Until they turned twenty-five, they could spend the money only on tuition, other academic fees, room and board, and normal living expenses such as a car, maintenance of the car, and clothing. Those who had already attended college could use the money to pay off student loans and, if they chose, to pursue additional degrees. Once they turned twenty-five, they were allowed to do whatever they wanted with the remaining money in their trusts. Jason knew that half a million dollars would not be enough for any of them to drop out of life and do nothing useful for the rest of their years. He hoped that the college educations they received would grant them fuller lives that would also benefit the people around them.

After all these sensible plans, Jason still had sixty million dollars to spend in other ways. Some of those will follow in future posts. J.

A novel idea

At times I have thought about taking my fantasies of winning the lottery (or becoming a major league outfielder, either one) and making a novel. By sharing those thoughts with you today, I am breaking one of the cardinal rules of authorship: Never tell anyone what you are planning to write, because you will lose your enthusiasm for the topic once you have shared it. But I am coming to terms with the reality that I will not live long enough to write all the books I have in mind, so I might as well share some of that material here.

I envision the novel as having a character unstuck in time, like Billy Chapel in Slaughterhouse Five. That way I can move back and forth across this life-changing event and show both sides of the character’s fortune, what life was like without all that money, and what life was like with all that money.

We join our hero (who so far is unnamed) in the parking lot of a grocery store, where he is carrying a bag of groceries to his car. He sees a scrap of paper blowing in the wind, and he picks it up to drop it in a trash can, because that is the kind of person he is. Before he reaches the trash can, though, he notices that the scrap is a lottery ticket, and that the drawing for which this ticket is eligible will be that same night. So he slips the ticket into his pocket and doesn’t think about it any more. The next day he opens his newspaper, sees the lottery numbers chosen the night before, remembers the ticket, and pulls it out of his pocket. All the numbers match. He has won the grand prize, more than three hundred million dollars, and he never even bought a ticket.

A few days later the lottery commissioner presents him with a large replica of the check he will eventually receive. During the interview, our hero carelessly comments about finding the ticket in the parking lot. “I’ve never been a supporter of the lottery,” he confesses candidly. “Even after winning all this money, I don’t recommend that anyone buy lottery tickets. Look at all the people who bought lots of tickets and didn’t win a dime.”

More than a dozen people immediately claim that they bought the winning ticket and dropped it in the parking lot. Each wants a share of the prize, up to half the winnings. Hero hires a private investigator who meets with each of the claimants, then reviews security tape from the store. Only three of the people making the claim have any evidence that they actually bought a ticket. Hero pays the investigator and then meets with the three viable claimants. He reminds them that if he gives money to all three of them, he will be rewarding two liars. That he does not want to do. With Solomonic wisdom, he says that he will give a portion of the winning to whichever of them asks the smallest amount from him. One immediately asks for one million dollars, another counters with $950,000, and the next suggests $925,000. After a couple more rounds of diminishing requests, one of the three drops out. The other two have brought their demands down to about ten thousand dollars when the third one says, “Me, I’d be content to get back the two dollars I spent on the ticket.” Hero pays him the two dollars, and the others go away, threatening legal action. None is ever taken.

So how does our hero spend his winnings? I’ll cover that in a post or two next week. J.

On thanking God

In the Bible, Christians are told to be thankful. Sometimes Christians blame themselves or one another for not being thankful enough. More startling, however, are the times when nonChristians complain that Christians are too thankful.

A friend of mine at church has mentioned this situation more than once. When she expresses her gratitude to God for some small blessing, a coworker accuses her of being arrogant. If she has prayed for something—such as good weather for an outdoor event, for example—and what she requested happens, her coworker says it was just coincidence. This coworker insists that thinking that God manages the weather according to our requests shows extreme arrogance and a self-centered nature.

This week a WordPress friend of mine had a similar experience. Authentically Aurora describes in this post how a parking spot appeared to her benefit at the end of a trying day. She regards that event as an answer to prayer, and she expresses her thankfulness to God. That post leads to an interesting conversation in the comment section in which another poster suggests that in a world filled with suffering and misery, thanking God for a parking spot is petty and strange.

I added my two cents worth to the comments there, but I wanted to expand my words to a nickel’s worth of pondering. A nonChristian may struggle with this thought, but God is real, and he has a genuine interest in every human being. God knows everything, he can do anything, and he is eternal, without beginning or end. Unlimited by time, he can pay intimate attention to every human being. Jesus assures his followers that God knows even the number of hairs on each of our heads. If God remembers that number and keeps track of that number—especially for those of us with diminishing numbers that change each day—surely a parking spot or a sunny afternoon is not too small for God to handle.

But sometimes it rains, even upon church picnics. Isn’t a sunny afternoon merely a coincidence unrelated to any Christian’s prayers? Whether or not that is the case, I see nothing wrong with praying about what we want, even about the weather. More to the point, I see nothing wrong with thanking God when good things come our way. Lack of gratitude would be highly inappropriate in a Christian who believes that every good gift comes from God and that we all were created to thank, praise, serve, and obey God.

Why, then, do Christians not solve all the world’s problems through prayer? Why not ask for enough food for every person so that no one would starve? Why not ask for an end to all wars? Why not ask that all people be protected from floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters? Christians do, in fact, pray such prayers. God does provide enough food on this planet to feed everyone living here—if some people do not have enough, that is the fault of people who have more than enough but who refuse to share what they have. Only God knows how many wars God has prevented or shortened, how many disasters God has withheld or reduced in power, or how many ways God provided other kinds of help when he chose to permit poverty and war and other calamities.

I’ve addressed the complex problem of why God allows any problems at all to happen here. In summary, God allows suffering so we see the true face of evil and prefer to turn to the good. Moreover, God has entered the world and endured suffering himself, taking on himself the consequences of evil so he can share with us the consequences of his perfect goodness. As I commented to Aurora, it saddens me when people will blame the-God-in-whom-they-do-not-believe for the world’s problems, and then they criticize believers when we thank God for good things.

I don’t expect ever to win the lottery. Chances of winning are slim for those who buy lottery tickets; they are slimmer yet for people like me who do not buy lottery tickets. I have imagined, though, what I would do should I happen to win the lottery—perhaps one day I will pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery parking lot that turns out to be a multi-million dollar winner, or perhaps a lottery ticket as a gag gift at a workplace Christmas party will turn out to be the winner. I’ve considered writing a novel based on my fantasies of winning the lottery, and in that novel my character would thank God publicly for the blessing. He would do so very carefully, trying not to offend anyone. He would make it clear that he does not believe that he was given a winning ticket because he deserves it more than all the other people who bought lottery tickets. He would regard the blessing of much money as an opportunity and obligation to do good things with that money and to use it to help people in need. But still he would be thankful. He would say, “I thank God when the weather is good. I thank him for green lights on the way home from work. I thank him every day for my wife and for my children. This does not mean I think that I am better than people who endure bad weather, people who are stopped by a string of red lights, or people who are unmarried or childless. I thank God for my health and for the blessing to live in a land of relative peace and safety, but this does not mean that I think I am better than people who are ill or people who live in war-torn lands. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I did not thank God for the good things that I have. In that spirit I thank him for this gift, and I ask him for the wisdom to spend it properly.”

As a Christian, I look to my Father in heaven for all good things. I ask for good things for myself, and I ask for good things for other people. When good things happen, I am grateful. I don’t thank God as much as he deserves for the good things I have received and for the many ways I have been protected from evil. And I confess that I do grumble at times about the problems that I have, small as they are compared to other people in this world. Among the many gracious qualities of God is his loving willingness to overlook my flaws and to accept my tiny expressions of thanks and praise. I await the ability to thank and praise him in a better way when I meet him face-to-face. J.

If I won the lottery

What they say is true: you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket. I bought a lottery ticket once to use as a visual device for a lesson at church; we were talking about coveting and about contentment. God could have made a good joke from my lesson by making that ticket a winning ticket, but in his infinite wisdom he chose not to make me a millionaire. I can still dream, though, that someone buys me a lottery ticket as a joke and it wins the big prize, or that I pick up a scrap of paper in the grocery store parking lot and it turns out to be a winning lottery ticket.

What would I do if I won the lottery? For convenience, we will assume that the prize that week was one hundred million dollars. Instead of accepting the full prize over twenty years, I would ask for the smaller immediate pay-out (Why be greedy, right?) which is about half the total prize. Then federal and state income taxes would claim roughly half of that prize. If I won one hundred million dollars, then, I would have about twenty-five million dollars to spend. Here are a dozen things I would do with that money.

Ten percent would go to churches and to charity. To prevent a large gift of unexpected money to any one place, and the problems that kind of gift can cause, I would limit each gift to fifty thousand dollars, giving me the opportunity to help fifty different groups. I would start with congregations that have been important to me over the years, places where I have worshiped and places where I have benefited from their ministries. I would also support charitable work and mission work through certain organizations in the church. In addition, I would give gifts to museums, libraries, and fine arts organizations like the local symphony orchestra. I would support public television and public radio. I would send a gift to my alma mater. What I would not do is start supporting charities about which I know nothing; and I would not give a gift to some organization that started asking me for money after I won the lottery.

Next I would pay off my current debt, which seems large compared to my annual income but would be rather small compared to twenty-five million dollars.

Afterward, I would set aside $250,000 for each of my children, my nieces, and my nephews. I have chosen that amount very carefully; it is more than enough to get them through higher education (or to pay off their student loans), but not so much that they could drop out of life and not work at a productive job. Until each of them turned thirty, the money would be in a trust. Certain expenses would automatically be approved: student loans, tuition, room, board, and fees at a college or university, and other normal living expenses for a college student, including buying and operating a car. The trust money might also be available for medical expenses, if necessary. Otherwise, the rest of the money would not be theirs until they have begun a fruitful life as an adult.

After all that, I still have twenty million dollars left. I would give half a million dollars to my parents, to help them with their retirement years. Then, before spending money on things I want right now, I would set aside money for my future. I would put two million dollars in a low-risk investment, designed to deposit one thousand dollars in my checking account every Monday. Yes, I would be spending the principal of that investment. On the other hand, I would draw a salary of fifty-two thousand dollars a year, and the fund should last for the next forty years. I would create another account, perhaps half a million dollars, to cover my health insurance and other medical expenses. That also should last at least forty years.

I would set aside $200,000 to replace the family vehicles; that should be more than enough to provide reliable vehicles to replace our aging fleet. I would also spend up to $100,000 to make improvements to our house—flooring, wall-paper, maybe new windows and doors. I wouldn’t want to waste too much money on this house, though, because I want to buy a new house.

I would willingly spend one million dollars to buy a larger house with features that shelter me from the noise of the neighbors. (No more Mrs. Dim!) The house would have enough rooms, beyond the bedrooms and kitchen and dining room and living room, that one room could be for television and video games and jigsaw puzzles, another for musical instruments and recording, another as a library, another as a study, a place someone in the house for woodworking, and a guest bedroom or two. The property would have more flower gardens than lawn, and the house would have porches for spring and fall to enjoy the outdoor weather.

At this point I have managed to spend a little less than ten million of my twenty-five million dollars. What should I do with the other fifteen million dollars? I would set aside one million dollars for a new business to provide needed services and employ other people. One idea I have for a business is a lawn care service that does not use loud machines. Workers would use rakes and quiet mowers and trimming devices—no blowers or loud gasoline engines. I would pay them a little more than the competition and would charge customers a little less, since expenses would be lower given the equipment we would use. If we haul leaves and clippings away, I would find a property where they could be mulched, and then my company could sell mulch to our clients. If someone else likes this idea and wants to start this company, you have my permission. You don’t even need to give me credit or pay a commission for the idea. (I was going to call it Stealth Lawn Care. Feel free to use the name or to change it.)

I am aware of a building project that has closed down due to lack of funds. I don’t want to be specific about this project, but if I won the lottery I would commit up to one million dollars to get it moving again. Whether I became a partner of the original planners or bought them out does not matter; I simply want to see this project come back to life.

For one to three million dollars, I could endow a professor’s chair, either at my alma mater, or at a local college. I would not want the endowment to be named for me—it could be named for someone who has effectively taught at the college—but I would like to support higher education in that manner.

Finally, I would like to get involved in help for the poor and homeless in the area, beyond just giving fifty thousand dollars to some organization. I would like to spend two million dollars or more providing facilities to help the poor and homeless—overnight shelters; and daytime shelters where they could take a shower, wash their clothes, and simply rest somewhere other than the streets. I would encourage a doctor and a dentist to volunteer a few hours one day a week to help the people who come into the daytime shelter. More than that, I would like to begin a business that could provide work for the poor and homeless. I’m uncertain about what kind of work it would be—maybe assembly of machine parts, or sewing a line of clothing—but it would provide work and income for these people. Perhaps the workplace, daytime shelter, and overnight shelter could be linked, along with meals and medical care that they could purchase with the money earned from their work. Tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs would be banned from all these facilities. Oddly, some ventures of this sort have turned into cults and have abused the people they were trying to help. I would establish a board of directors to make sure this did not happen in my organization. Religious counseling and services would be provided, but we would go great lengths to make sure that they remained legitimate and helpful.

After all this, I still have nearly ten million dollars to spend, and I have no fresh ideas to offer. I suppose I could put more than two million dollars into the help to the poor, or I could start up more than one business, or I could endow chairs at more than one college. The point is, though, that I cannot even imagine spending this kind of money if I had it. I don’t know why the Lord has chosen not to give me a winning lottery ticket. I cannot see anything that I want to do being objectionable to him. All the same, I have to trust that he knows what is best for me; and I should do the best I can with what I have.

J.