Whenever I’m feeling sad, I go out and find someone worse off than I am, and I help that person.
— Jane G. Wilhelm (1914-2002)
I might call the sage who spoke those words the Bodhisattva of Wise Old Women. I had the honor of calling her a friend over the last decade of her life and leading her in weekly Buddhist meditation, bringing back her memories of living for years in Burma.
Her body was frail, as was her bank account, when I knew her. She used a walker and depended on kindness and public transportation to get around, her home an apartment in a subsidized assisted-living facility. She had suffered with dignity through the death of her daughter and her grandson, whom she considered her best friend. He was 11 when he died of leukemia, and at his request at his funeral she read the lyrics to his favorite song: That’s What Friends Are For.
You could often spot Jane, making her way slowly, around the Lake Anne section of Reston, Virginia, with a smile and a friendly greeting for anyone she saw. Her generosity had depleted her bank account, but she had time and wisdom left, and she gave both freely to those in need and to her church and community organizations.
If you knew her only by sight, you’d be in for a surprise if you learned that she had graduated with high honors in classics from the College of William and Mary in 1935, received a masters degree in psychology and religion from Duke University in 1937, and did graduate work at the Yale University Divinity School, Radcliffe College, and George Washington University. In her professional career, she was an educator and community planner.
She and I were members of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston, and in any discussion, when Jane spoke, everyone stopped and listened. Jane loved church, and one service on Sunday morning was not enough for her. After she attended the UU church, she’d get a ride to the nearby predominantly black Baptist church.
I’m telling you about Jane because of one story I’d like to share. It happened when I was president of the Reston UU church in the late 1990s. We brought in a consultant one year to help with our annual church canvass, and he encouraged us to use a “fair share” formula — setting percentages of income members could use in deciding how much to pledge.
Jane always volunteered as a pledge canvasser, and I got a report back from a canvasser-training session that Jane was unhappy with the fair-share concept. I understood, of course, that Jane had very limited financial resources and would never want to be embarrassed or see anyone else embarrassed by their poverty, so I called to reassure her.
I called and said I’d heard she was unhappy about fair share. I started to explain that the idea was entirely voluntary and up to each individual whether to pay any attention to it at all, but Jane interrupted me. “Oh, no,” she said. “It’s not that I think the amount is too high. It’s just…well, the term, fair share…. How could any amount be fair for what you get from a church?”
How could any value be set on what you get from spiritual wholeness, or from having known a woman like Jane G. Wilhelm?
— Mel Pine (Fearless Lotus)
Copyright 2016 © Mel Harkrader Pine