Brad's Blog: Putting a face on generosity

By Brad Kessie - bio | email

NEW YORK (WLOX) - It's 7:30 on the last Monday night in August.  I'm sitting in a restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue in New York City's Upper West Side.  And I'm about to meet an angel.

His name is John Chargar.  He's 64 years old, and he lives in the New York area.

Back in the Civil Rights era, Chargar attended William Carey College in Hattiesburg.  Other than an occasional road trip to Biloxi, he knew very little about the south Mississippi community.

We all know a John Chargar.  We heard from countless men and women just like him in the days, weeks, and months after Hurricane Katrina.

We know the John Chargar of the world by name, because so many religious groups and non-profit agencies received checks from these generous angels.  We know their names.  We don't know their faces.  For me, that was about to change.

Chargar first heard about the devastation in Biloxi from a friend whose son was stationed on the coast until two months before Hurricane Katrina.  That son was Capt. Benjamin Weintraub.

"In this impoverished and overwhelmingly Christian area of the country, Congregation Beth Israel is a beacon of Jewish life that may now be facing the possibility of closing its doors in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," the captain wrote on September 3, 2005.  "This congregation was already struggling to survive before this disaster.  They will most definitely need our help now."

His message got through to John Chargar.  As Chargar said in a 2006 newspaper article, he made his donation to Congregation Beth Israel because "instead of doing nothing, I wanted to help out."

He reached out to his friends at the New City Jewish Center, encouraging its members to send contributions to Biloxi.  In bold letters at the bottom of a Chargar e-mail was this statement, "WE WANT TO HELP NOW."

And boy did they help.

The New City Men's Club sent cash, its students sent cards and gifts, its members sent prayers.  A bunch of anonymous people from Rockland County in New York, and every other corner of the country, were restoring hope to a weakened congregation in Biloxi, Mississippi.

That hope built strength.  And by the spring of this year, that strength helped build a new house of worship.

As the sun set over New York's Upper West Side, a man was sitting at the bar.  When he checked his watch, it became obvious who he was.  I was about to see my friend John Chargar for the first time in my life.

The dinner was tasty.  The stories we shared were amazing. John brought a gift bag and a folder with him.  In the bag were more gifts from the good people of the New City Jewish Center.

"We wish you many years of happiness in your new home," the nursery school students at New City's Jewish Center wrote.

The tokens of love were so unnecessary.  But, just like every other gift we received, the special wishes were greatly appreciated.

In the folder next to Chargar was one of the most incredible collection of papers I've ever seen.  John had a stack of notes that detailed his group's commitment to our rebuilding efforts.  I looked through page after page of e-mails, newspaper articles, flyers and pictures.  They were all about the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Congregation Beth Israel, and Hurricane Katrina.

This wonderful soul documented his community's fundraising efforts, so we could get a better appreciation of just how many people contributed to our rebuilding project.  John Chargar had a passion for a community he didn't even know.  I sensed that passion in his e-mails.  I finally got to see that passion during my visit to New York.

Throughout dinner, John Chargar had a smile on his face, and a gleam in his eyes.  And so did I.  He told me about his softball league.  I talked about my fantasy football team.  He mentioned some of the friends who contributed to our rebuilding efforts.  I talked about the people who received that assistance.

When I invited him to come to Gulfport and join us this fall when we celebrate the opening of our new home, he immediately called his wife and got her okay. I can't wait to see my friend again, so I can show off what he helped us build.

I hope a day comes when you get to put a face on your John Chargar.  And I hope that experience is as meaningful to you as it was to me.

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