Lend a hand

Many years ago, quite a few Unitarian churches (this was long before consolidation with the Universalists) had a “Lend-a-Hand Club.” These Lend-a-Hand Clubs grew out of a story written by Unitarian minister, “Ten Times One Is Ten.” In the story, ten people realize that they’ve all been helped by one man. But what if they, in turn, each help ten people themselves, and all those people help another ten people, and so on? Then perhaps helpfulness and goodness could circle the globe. This fictional story inspired real-life imitations. Hale tells of one such real-life imitation:

“Soon after the publication of ‘Ten Times One,’ with no expectation of mine, the parable of the story took form immediately in actual life. Miss Ella Elizabeth Russell, of New York, in the end of May, 1870, read this story to a class of boys whom she met every Sunday, in a Sunday School. They were of different ages from thirteen to seventeen. She writes of them, ‘They felt that they were too old to go to any Mission School, but the idea of a Club to meet Sunday afternoons seemed a more grown-up affair. I had read them the story of Harry Wadsworth and as the class was ten in number, they decided to call themselves the Harry Wadsworth Helpers, to adopt the “Four Mottoes,” and to see what they could do to “lend a hand”.'” [Preface, Ten Times One Is Ten, Lend-a-Hand Society Edition, 1917]

Many more Lend A Hand clubs and groups formed after the publication of Hale’s story; according to one source, there were as many as 800 of them in the early twentieth century. But they slowly died out, until there were almost none left at the end of that century. When I worked at First Parish Church in Lexington from 1997 to 2002, there was still a Lend A Hand Club there; it was the last one, so we were told, in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. In this century, the “Lend A Hand” legacy continues in the form of the nonsectarian nonprofit Lend A Hand Society, based in Boston.

We Unitarian Universalists have dropped the Lend A Hand Club in favor of the Social Justice Committee; what worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries no longer works for us today. Today’s Social Justice Committee goes much further than the old Lend A Hand Club: today, we understand better how doing good deeds sometimes isn’t good enough; it may not be enough to offer a helping hand, because an unjust system can erase everything your helping hand has done in a very short time.

So I’m not looking to reinvent Lend A Hand clubs, but I do find inspiration in their history. I especially like the “Four Mottoes” that Hale wrote about:

Look up and not down,
Look forward and not back,
Look out and not in;
Lend A Hand.

Social justice work can feel overwhelming. It is often dreary and thankless work. You often feel like you’re making no progress at all. I think that’s why I like the relentless optimism of the “Four Mottoes”; in the face of all the problems facing us, I could use some relentless optimism.