The Grace of Houston                        May
1, 2013

By Leonard Zwelling

            My
wife, Dr. Kleinerman, and I have attended large charity banquets in at least
three separate locations, Washington, DC, New York City and Houston, Texas. The
difference in the customs that seem to be guiding these affairs was striking.
The difference may serve as commentary on the three places.

            During
my year as a fellow on Capitol Hill, I was invited to go to the Health Prom.
This is supposed to be a fundraiser for a political fellowship, but it is really
a venue for the pharmaceutical industry and its lobbyists to ply the
Congressional staff with food and drink under the auspices of the Congress
which sanctions this activity. The funders launder the money in some way that
allows the otherwise unapproachable staff to be wined and dined by the very
people who want political favors. Talk about a conflict-of-interest! Remember,
this was during the earliest days of the health care reform debate and a lot
was at stake for these funders.

            When
we arrived at a large hotel in a Northern Virginia shopping center, the room
was absolutely packed with staffers, company reps and lobbyists. There were no
Congressional members in sight. That should tell you who makes the laws of the
country. After we were seated, we were waiting for the start of the program.
Everyone around us had already started to eat as we sat waiting for the
invocation that never came. Even when the speaker tried to tell the crowd why
they were there and show a video about the fellowship, no one was listening.
The speaker was greeted by a din of conversation and cold indifference as Genie
and I strained to learn about the reason we were there. In Washington, D.C.,
the crowd at a fund-raising gala seemed to be celebrating itself.

            In
New York City it was a bit more civilized. There was a far more polished master
of ceremonies than the speaker in D.C. He brought a distinct Catskills schtik
to his hosting and there was clear acknowledgement from the crowd about why
they were there, even if we were all packed into a ballroom that was not meant
to hold the number of people it did. No prayer or grace preceded the meal.
Celebrities attended and the crowd was glittery and sincere. In New York the
gala was all about the money. There was a transparent acknowledgement that we
were all there to raise cash. At least in New York, the cause wasn’t lost as it
had been in D.C.

            We
have been to many galas in Houston. They always start with an invocation. The
meal is served afterwards and everyone is quite aware of the order in which the
program will go including attention to the podium to hear about the reason the
crowd had gathered, BEFORE eating. Non-denominational religion has a place in
Texas and frankly that sets a tone of respect, decorum and spirituality around
an event for a worthy cause. In Houston at least, the gala is as much or more
about the cause as it is about the money. In other words, it is about something
greater than each individual there.

            I
think these galas and their differences reflect the three places well.
Washington, DC is Hollywood without the good-looking people. It’s all about me,
me, me. New York City is brash and monied. It is lovable with a great deal of
character, but with no connection to the greater community in which humans
operate, for the universe ends at the Hudson River for them. Houston is
respectful of all that is great and good about people and what we can rise to when
we put our minds to it and try to be the very best we can be. Houston even
welcomed Yankees like us.

            That’s
why I came here. That’s why I stay here.

            As
has been said by so many over my years here: “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got
here as fast as I could”.

            MD
Anderson used to be the prime example of the Houston spirit. We were
unabashedly connected to a formal and informal spirituality through our conduct
and through the Lutheran Pavilion. The chapel within is open to all, overseen
by the chaplaincy board on which I sit, which has had some recent rocky
encounters with the MD Anderson power structure that tried unsuccessfully to
strip all religious symbols from a place of worship built by a group of
Lutherans with the active agreement of the institution over 30 years ago.

            At
MD Anderson, we were all in it together, pulling in one direction—“Fighting
Cancer”, as our job in the greater community of Houston, Texas. We cannot
afford to lose that connection or that comportment that so separates Houston
from Washington and New York and MD Anderson from all other cancer care
institutions..

            If
we are really proud of Texas, of our city and of MD Anderson, let’s not lose
track of our unique respect for causes, for each other and for powers greater
than any of us.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.