“We are the telephone company. We are omnipotent.”
—Ernestine the operator, as played by Lily Tomlin
I’ll call him Joe, because that wasn’t his name. Every other year or so he would pass through town and call various ministers for help. His demands were modest. He was pleasant and straightforward, but after several years the pastors concluded that he wasn’t all that needy. He was simply an unemployable single man who would leave his home in nice weather and take a vacation by traveling from town to town. He was confident that the churches would care for him; if he were persistent in his asking, one of them would. Finally, one of the pastors took him aside and told him gently but firmly that he was stealing from God. Then he stopped coming around, at least to that town.
Joe was “stealing from God” because the limited funds set apart by the churches were for people in desperate need. He was not. But I was reminded of Joe’s story by a pastor who recently accepted a collect call from an out of town stranger whose car had broken down, she said, on the way to our community. Some of my sensible readers might say that it was dumb to accept the call, but as the house ethicist at TPO I will rule it Ethically Responsible. Sometimes a collect call is the only lifeline for someone who is truly broke.
The call came to nothing, however. After staying on the line over half an hour, the pastor trying to figure out how necessary help could be arranged, the line disconnected. The caller did not reconnect, and the pastor couldn’t because the call was from an unidentified pay phone.
Maybe the caller was trying to steal from God. Some are not as straightforward as Joe. They work out elaborate stories designed to tap the sympathy of Christians who control the charitable funds of local churches (grant-writers could learn from them). They often succeed. So the pastor doesn’t know if the need in this case was genuine or a scam.
Whether or not the caller was stealing from God, the Phone Company was. The call came to $28.38 eventually, down from a confusing (and erroneous) bill of $51.06.The good news is that the message did not come to $1.46 a minute after all. The bad news is that the call still came to seventy four-cents a minute.
In today’s communication market, no message is worth seventy-four cents a minute. The phone companies advertise cheapo rates for long distance, but they don’t apply to a helpless stranger calling collect from out of town.
In one of Edwin O’Connor’s novels one character refers to another as “as fine a man as ever robbed the helpless.” In this case, the Telephone Company is as fine an outfit as ever robbed a church.