God’s dream is that you and I and all of us will realize that we are family, that we are made for togetherness, for goodness, and for compassion.
-Desmond Tutu, retired Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town
In the song, Being Green, Kermit the Frog laments his green coloration, expressing that green “blends in with so many ordinary things” and wishing to be some other color.
The song’s signature line “It’s not easy being green” is a phrase that has since appeared in many contexts in pop culture. The song is associated with questions of identity and individuality, also with themes such as self-love and celebration of diversity, especially in terms of race, which was at the forefront of social debate within American culture at the time of the song’s debut. I see the phrase as an expression of being an outsider, as being one who is “different.”
The sad thing about being an outsider is that it does not take very much to be an outsider. For instance, being the new student who enters a school after the term begins can make that person an outsider. Being a Protestant in a heavily Roman Catholic area can make the non-Catholic feel like an outsider. Further, being a person who is “different” – “being green” – can make that person an outsider. There are insiders and there are outsiders. I suspect that there are probably more outsiders than there are insiders. Frequently, the reason for this disproportion is that the insiders do not want the outsiders inside. Of course, it is natural for a person to want to be on the inside and not on the outside. However, it is the unhappy truth that most people will have the experience of being an outsider in one way or another sometime during their lifetime.
Tony Campolo, a well-known pastor, author, sociologist, public speaker and professor is a person knows from personal experience the truth of that statement. Here is his story.
It so happens that Campolo was wandering the streets of Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning looking for a place to have some breakfast, but everything was closed. Finally, he found a little “greasy spoon” diner still open. This place was up a side street in an area that would only be frequented by tourists if they had somehow stumbled into the area by mistake. It was small and dirty. In fact, it was so filthy Campolo would not even touch the menu! He sat on a stool and ordered coffee and a donut from Harry, the fat guy behind the counter.
As Campolo sat there munching his stale donut and drinking his luke-warm coffee, the door suddenly opened and much to both his surprise and to his discomfort, in marched several “outsiders” in the persons of provocatively-dressed and boisterous prostitutes! And – they sat down right beside Tony Campolo! Their talk was loud and crude and vulgar. Campolo felt completely out of place and was just about to make his getaway when he overheard the woman sitting beside him say, “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be thirty-nine.”
One of her friends responded rather nastily, “So what do you want from me, a birthday party? You want me to get you a cake and sing ‘Happy Birthday?’” The girl replied, “Aw, c’mon. Why are you so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I was just telling you it was my birthday. I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”
When Campolo heard that, he made a decision. He waited until the women left. Then he asked Harry, the fat guy behind the counter, “Do these women come in here every night?”
“The one right next to me, does she come every night?”
“Yeah. That’s Agnes. She comes in every night. Why d’ya wanna know?”
“Because I heard her say tomorrow is her birthday. What do you say you and I do something about that? What do you think about us – the two of us – throwing a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night?”
“That’s great! I like it!”
Then calling to his wife in the back room, Harry shouted, “Hey, Gert! Come out here! This guy Tony here has got a great idea. Tomorrow’s Agnes’s birthday. This guy wants us to go in with him and throw a birthday party for her – right here – tomorrow night.”
Gert came out all bright and smiling: “That’s wonderful, Harry! Agnes is one of those people who is really nice and kind to everyone. But nobody ever does anything nice and kind for her.”
“Look,” said Campolo, “If it’s okay with you, I’ll return tomorrow about 2:30 and decorate and even get a birthday cake!”
“No way,” said Harry. “Birthday cake is my thing. I’ll bake the cake.”
At 2:30 the next morning, Campolo was back with crepe-paper decorations and a cardboard sign reading “Happy Birthday!” in bright, bold letters. He decorated the diner from one end to the other. Somehow the word must have spread out on the street because at 3:15 every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place! There were wall-to-wall prostitutes – and Tony Campolo!
And then at 3:30 on the dot, the door swung open and in came Agnes and her friends. Campolo had everybody ready on cue as they screamed, “Happy Birthday!” Agnes was stunned, flabbergasted, and shaken all at the same time. Her mouth fell open and her legs buckled. She sat down on a bar stool. Agnes became misty-eyed. But then when the birthday cake came out, she lost it completely and openly cried. Harry gruffly mumbled to her, “Blow out the candles, Agnes! Come on! Blow out the candles! If you don’t blow out the candles, I’m gonna hafta blow out the candles.” He did, finally.
“Cut the cake, Agnes. Yo, Agnes! We all want some cake.”
Agnes wailed, “Is this really my birthday cake?”
Agnes said she wanted to take the cake home! “Okay. It’s your party.” She carried the cake like it was a Ming Dynasty vase and walked slowly toward the door. Everyone just stood there motionless, and then she left.
When the door closed, there was a stunned silence in the diner. Not knowing what else to do, Campolo broke the silence by saying, “What do you say we say a prayer for Agnes?” Looking back on it now, Campolo says that it seemed more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning, but it just felt like the right thing for him to do. And so Campolo and the assemblage of these “ladies of the evening,” ahem, these “working girls” had a birthday prayer for Agnes.
When everyone had left, Harry leaned over the counter and said to Campolo, “Hey, Tony! You never told me you were a preacher! What kind of church do you belong to?”
Well, it was one of those moments when just the right words came and Campolo said, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at 3:30 in the morning.” Harry waited a long moment as if mulling this statement over in his mind, and then finally sneered: “No you don’t. There ain’t no church like that. If there was, I’d join it. I really would!”
Harry was right, you know. We all would join a church or a synagogue or a mosque or a temple like that. I think compassion is the fundamental religious experience and unless compassion is there, you have nothing.
Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, the noted Spanish existentialist philosopher was correct when he wrote “Warmth, warmth, more warmth! For we are dying of cold, and not darkness.” We die when love, acceptance and warmth, so necessary for life, are missing.
We exhibit that love of which Unamuno spoke whenever and wherever we respond to the needs of those who do not belong, of those who do not seem to fit in, of those who are the outsiders in society, of those who are “green.” We see that response in the compassionate hospice volunteer at the bedside of a person dying of AIDS; in those unsung heroes who help at a soup kitchen, at that help-up mission, at that AA meeting, at that homeless shelter, in that responsive colleague comforting a homosexual friend who has just broken up with his partner of many years, and, of course, with Jesus, nailed to a cross, inviting the thief on a similar cross to be in heaven with him. We will even find that same spirit at a dirty “greasy spoon” diner in Honolulu at 3:30 in the morning in the persons of Tony, Harry, and Gert throwing a thirty-ninth birthday party for Agnes, a prostitute.