Chapter Twenty-Nine of In His Steps by Charles Sheldon – inspiration for the “What Would Jesus Do?” (WWJD) movement
THE breakfast hour at the settlement was the one hour in the day when the whole family found a little breathing space to fellowship together. It was an hour of relaxation. There was a great deal of good-natured repartee and much real wit and enjoyable fun at this hour. The Bishop told his best stories. Dr. Bruce was at his best in anecdote. This company of disciples was healthily humorous in spite of the atmosphere of sorrow that constantly surrounded them. In fact, the Bishop often said the faculty of humor was as God-given as any other and in his own case it was the only safety valve he had for the tremendous pressure put upon him.
This particular morning he was reading extracts from a morning paper for the benefit of the others. Suddenly he paused and his face instantly grew stern and sad. The rest looked up and a hush fell over the table.
“Shot and killed while taking a lump of coal from a car! His family was freezing and he had had no work for six months. Six children and a wife all packed into a cabin with three rooms, on the West Side. One child wrapped in rags in a closet!”
These were headlines that he read slowly. He then went on and read the detailed account of the shooting and the visit of the reporter to the tenement where the family lived. He finished, and there was silence around the table. The humor of the hour was swept out of existence by this bit of human tragedy. The great city roared about the Settlement. The awful current of human life was flowing in a great stream past the Settlement House, and those who had work were hurrying to it in a vast throng. But thousands were going down in the midst of that current, clutching at last hopes, dying literally in a land of plenty because the boon of physical toil was denied them.
There were various comments on the part of the residents. One of the new-comers, a young man preparing for the ministry, said: “Why don’t the man apply to one of the charity organizations for help? Or to the city? It certainly is not true that even at its worst this city full of Christian people would knowingly allow any one to go without food or fuel.”
“No, I don’t believe it would,” replied Dr. Bruce. “But we don’t know the history of this man’s case. He may have asked for help so often before that, finally, in a moment of desperation he determined to help himself. I have known such cases this winter.”
“That is not the terrible fact in this case,” said the Bishop. “The awful thing about it is the fact that the man had not had any work for six months.”
“Why don’t such people go out into the country?” asked the divinity student.
Some one at the table who had made a special study of the opportunities for work in the country answered the question. According to the investigator the places that were possible for work in the country were exceedingly few for steady employment, and in almost every case they were offered only to men without families. Suppose a man’s wife or children were ill. How would he move or get into the country? How could he pay even the meager sum necessary to move his few goods? There were a thousand reasons probably why this particular man did not go elsewhere.
“Meanwhile there are the wife and children,” said Mrs. Bruce. “How awful! Where is the place, did you say?”
“Why, it is only three blocks from here. This is the ‘Penrose district.’ I believe Penrose himself owns half of the houses in that block. They are among the worst houses in this part of the city. And Penrose is a church member.”
“Yes, he belongs to the Nazareth Avenue Church,” replied Dr. Bruce in a low voice.
The Bishop rose from the table the very figure of divine wrath. He had opened his lips to say what seldom came from him in the way of denunciation, when the bell rang and one of the residents went to the door.
“Tell Dr. Bruce and the Bishop I want to see them. Penrose is the name–Clarence Penrose. Dr. Bruce knows me.”
The family at the breakfast table heard every word. The Bishop exchanged a significant look with Dr. Bruce and the two men instantly left the table and went out into the hall.
“Come in here, Penrose,” said Dr. Bruce, and they ushered the visitor into the reception room, closed the door and were alone.
Clarence Penrose was one of the most elegant looking men in Chicago. He came from an aristocratic family of great wealth and social distinction. He was exceedingly wealthy and had large property holdings in different parts of the city. He had been a member of Dr. Bruce’s church many years. He faced the two ministers with a look of agitation on his face that showed plainly the mark of some unusual experience. He was very pale and his lips trembled as he spoke. When had Clarence Penrose ever before yielded to such a strange emotion?
“This affair of the shooting! You understand? You have read it? The family lived in one of my houses. It is a terrible event. But that is not the primary cause of my visit.” He stammered and looked anxiously into the faces of the two men. The Bishop still looked stern. He could not help feeling that this elegant man of leisure could have done a great deal to alleviate the horrors in his tenements, possibly have prevented this tragedy if he had sacrificed some of his personal ease and luxury to better the conditions of the people in his district.
Penrose turned toward Dr. Bruce. “Doctor!” he exclaimed, and there was almost a child’s terror in his voice. “I came to say that I have had an experience so unusual that nothing but the supernatural can explain it. You remember I was one of those who took the pledge to do as Jesus would do. I thought at the time, poor fool that I was, that I had all along been doing the Christian thing. I gave liberally out of my abundance to the church and charity. I never gave myself to cost me any suffering. I have been living in a perfect hell of contradictions ever since I took that pledge. My little girl, Diana you remember, also took the pledge with me. She has been asking me a great many questions lately about the poor people and where they live. I was obliged to answer her. One of her questions last night touched my sore! ‘Do you own any houses where these poor people live? Are they nice and warm like ours?’ You know how a child will ask questions like these. I went to bed tormented with what I now know to be the divine arrows of conscience. I could not sleep. I seemed to see the judgment day. I was placed before the Judge. I was asked to give an account of my deeds done in the body. ‘How many sinful souls had I visited in prison? What had I done with my stewardship? How about those tenements where people froze in winter and stifled in summer? Did I give any thought to them except to receive the rentals from them? Where did my suffering come in? Would Jesus have done as I had done and was doing? Had I broken my pledge? How had I used the money and the culture and the social influence I possessed? Had I used it to bless humanity, to relieve the suffering, to bring joy to the distressed and hope to the desponding? I had received much. How much had I given?’
“All this came to me in a waking vision as distinctly as I see you two men and myself now. I was unable to see the end of the vision. I had a confused picture in my mind of the suffering Christ pointing a condemning finger at me, and the rest was shut out by mist and darkness. I have not slept for twenty-four hours. The first thing I saw this morning was the account of the shooting at the coal yards. I read the account with a feeling of horror I have not been able to shake off. I am a guilty creature before God.”
Penrose paused suddenly. The two men looked at him solemnly. What power of the Holy Spirit moved the soul of this hitherto self-satisfied, elegant, cultured man who belonged to the social life that was accustomed to go its way placidly, unmindful of the great sorrows of a great city and practically ignorant of what it means to suffer for Jesus’ sake? Into that room came a breath such as before swept over Henry Maxwell’s church and through Nazareth avenue. The Bishop laid his hand on the shoulder of Penrose and said: “My brother, God has been very near to you. Let us thank Him.”
“Yes! yes!” sobbed Penrose. He sat down on a chair and covered his face. The Bishop prayed. Then Penrose quietly said: “Will you go with me to that house?”
For answer the two men put on their overcoats and went with him to the home of the dead man’s family.
That was the beginning of a new and strange life for Clarence Penrose. From the moment he stepped into that wretched hovel of a home and faced for the first time in his life a despair and suffering such as he had read of but did not know by personal contact, he dated a new life. It would be another long story to tell how, in obedience to his pledge he began to do with his tenement property as he knew Jesus would do. What would Jesus do with tenement property if He owned it in Chicago or any other great city of the world? Any man who can imagine any true answers to this question can easily tell what Clarence Penrose began to do.
Now before that winter reached its bitter climax many things occurred in the city which concerned the lives of all the characters in this history of the disciples who promised to walk in His steps.
It chanced by one of those coincidences that seem to occur preternaturally that one afternoon just as Felicia came out of the Settlement with a basket of food which she was going to leave as a sample with a baker in the Penrose district, Stephen Clyde opened the door of the carpenter shop in the basement and came out in time to meet her as she reached the sidewalk.
“Let me carry your basket, please,” he said.
“Why do you say ‘please’?” asked Felicia, handing over the basket while they walked along.
“I would like to say something else,” replied Stephen, glancing at her shyly and yet with a boldness that frightened him, for he had been loving Felicia more every day since he first saw her and especially since she stepped into the shop that day with the Bishop, and for weeks now they had been thrown in each other’s company.
“What else?” asked Felicia, innocently falling into the trap.
“Why–” said Stephen, turning his fair, noble face full toward her and eyeing her with the look of one who would have the best of all things in the universe, “I would like to say: ‘Let me carry your basket, dear Felicia’.”
Felicia never looked so beautiful in her life. She walked on a little way without even turning her face toward him. It was no secret with her own heart that she had given it to Stephen some time ago. Finally she turned and said shyly, while her face grew rosy and her eyes tender: “Why don’t you say it, then?”
“May I?” cried Stephen, and he was so careless for a minute of the way he held the basket, that Felicia exclaimed:
“Yes! But oh, don’t drop my goodies!”
“Why, I wouldn’t drop anything so precious for all the world, dear Felicia,” said Stephen, who now walked on air for several blocks, and what was said during that walk is private correspondence that we have no right to read. Only it is a matter of history that day that the basket never reached its destination, and that over in the other direction, late in the afternoon, the Bishop, walking along quietly from the Penrose district, in rather a secluded spot near the outlying part of the Settlement district, heard a familiar voice say:
“But tell me, Felicia, when did you begin to love me?”
“I fell in love with a little pine shaving just above your ear that day when I saw you in the shop!” said the other voice with a laugh so clear, so pure, so sweet that it did one good to hear it.
“Where are you going with that basket?” he tried to say sternly.
“We are taking it to–where are we taking it, Felicia?”
“Dear Bishop, we are taking it home to begin–”
“To begin housekeeping with,” finished Stephen, coming to the rescue.
“Are you?” said the Bishop. “I hope you will invite me to share. I know what Felicia’s cooking is.”
“Bishop, dear Bishop!” said Felicia, and she did not pretend to hide her happiness; “indeed, you shall be the most honored guest. Are you glad?”
“Yes, I am,” he replied, interpreting Felicia’s words as she wished. Then he paused a moment and said gently: “God bless you both!” and went his way with a tear in his eye and a prayer in his heart, and left them to their joy.
Yes. Shall not the same divine power of love that belongs to earth be lived and sung by the disciples of the Man of Sorrows and the Burden-bearer of sins? Yea, verily! And this man and woman shall walk hand in hand through this great desert of human woe in this city, strengthening each other, growing more loving with the experience of the world’s sorrows, walking in His steps even closer yet because of their love for each other, bringing added blessing to thousands of wretched creatures because they are to have a home of their own to share with the homeless. “For this cause,” said our Lord Jesus Christ, “shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife.” And Felicia and Stephen, following the Master, love him with a deeper, truer service and devotion because of the earthly affection which Heaven itself sanctions with its solemn blessing.
But it was a little after the love story of the Settlement became a part of its glory that Henry Maxwell of Raymond came to Chicago with Rachel Winslow and Virginia Page and Rollin and Alexander Powers and President Marsh, and the occasion was a remarkable gathering at the hall of the Settlement arranged by the Bishop and Dr. Bruce, who had finally persuaded Mr. Maxwell and his fellow disciples in Raymond to come on to be present at this meeting.
There were invited into the Settlement Hall, meeting for that night men out of work, wretched creatures who had lost faith in God and man, anarchists and infidels, free-thinkers and no-thinkers. The representation of all the city’s worst, most hopeless, most dangerous, depraved elements faced Henry Maxwell and the other disciples when the meeting began. And still the Holy Spirit moved over the great, selfish, pleasure-loving, sin-stained city, and it lay in God’s hand, not knowing all that awaited it. Every man and woman at the meeting that night had seen the Settlement motto over the door blazing through the transparency set up by the divinity student: “What would Jesus do?”
And Henry Maxwell, as for the first time he stepped under the doorway, was touched with a deeper emotion than he had felt in a long time as he thought of the first time that question had come to him in the piteous appeal of the shabby young man who had appeared in the First Church of Raymond at the morning service.