Call it bad planning. I used the credit card too much, and my husband’s overtime dried up. I’m struggling to make sense of it, but the fact remains; I only have one dollar to place in the collection basket at Mass today. My net worth indicates I should give more, but I find myself in a financial hole, feeling guilty. I haven’t put a lone dollar in the collection for a long time now, and it’s all because of a little Polish boy.
In Krakow during the summer of 1988, the Soviets were in power, and Gorbachev was in town. The exchange rate of zlotys to American dollars on the black market was 12,000 for ten U.S. dollars. We were college students ready for a good time, so we swapped money in back rooms, where average-looking Poles pulled out wads of bills, gladly exchanging Western currency. The zloty was a plaything we used indiscriminately on Russian champagne, warm beer, and vodka mixed with currant juice called sok. We often eschewed the cafeteria at Dom Piast, our dormitory, and ate at the Wierzynek, the best restaurant in Krakow, and at hotels, eating delicacies like Chateaubriand for only five dollars.
I was teased by other American students about my choice of Poland for summer studies. There were other countries, they warned, countries that had things — like bread, for instance. I didn’t care; I was going to Poland to soak up some culture and have some fun. And there was fun to be had; clubbing was not a lost art even under Communism. We danced and drank and danced some more, oblivious to the struggles of ordinary Poles.
It was impossible, however, to escape all the troubles of Soviet rule. Communism made people look older than their years. The faces of most of the Krakowians I passed were stony, gray, half-dead. People didn’t smile in the streets; they didn’t really make eye contact at all, keeping their gaze straight ahead or their heads bent, their eyes lowered.
While I enjoyed taking advantage of the depressed economy, this emotional, societal depression unnerved me. Everything that was bright and optimistic in me looked stupid and immature in contrast. I met a few Krakowians who tried their best to get me to look beyond my bubblegum American mindset, but it didn’t work. I was too self-centered. I wanted to go dancing, not think about political problems.
One Sunday, as I attended Mass in the Kosciol Maryacki in the Rynek, the time came for the offertory. I reached in my pocket and pulled out a buck. Real, American dollar bills were handy in Poland in 1988; singles worked wonders as tips for taxi drivers and bouncers. I once had a nun chase me up the steps of Wawel Cathedral to thank me for tossing a one dollar bill into her wicker donation basket.
As the men started down the aisle for the collection, I became aware of the little boy sitting next to me. He stared wide-eyed, first at the dollar, and then at me. I met his gaze and followed his eyes as they turned to his grandfather sitting next to him. In his hand, he held a 100 zloty bill.
It was a naked moment. Suddenly, I saw myself with new eyes. My gaucheness was vividly apparent. I hadn’t been living a Christian life. In addition, I was being cheap, even by American standards. A buck? What about tithing? In the states, I squelched that voice easily enough every Sunday; I mean, wasn’t everybody else doing the same thing? Besides, I was a “starving” college student. But that little boy wouldn’t stop staring at my dollar bill.
He had exposed me.
I started calculating figures — 1,200 zloty to the dollar, divided by 100 zloty, translated into dollars equaled something like…eight cents! My mind raced. Though I was loathe to do it, I thought about grabbing a ten dollar bill out of the leather purse I had just purchased in the Sukiennice. That would assuage my personal guilt, but… wouldn’t it appear show-offish to that little boy? and… the collection basket had reached me.
I threw in my dollar bill. The man with the boy placed his 100 zloty bill in the collection after me, and then the basket was gone.
That little Polish boy remains with me more than twenty years later; my resolution this year is to get my finances in order and my priorities straight. Tithing, I hear, is good for the soul.