Real Treasure, Lost and Found
On getting one's hands dirty while sharing wealth
In 2014, I was in discussion with the principal of St. Joseph Academy about my teaching a finance course there. When I happened to mention my brother owned and operated a successful gold mine, that led to an eager invitation for a Power Point presentation at the school. Since Bill would soon be visiting me en route from another of his enterprises ― an oil field ― I phoned him. He reluctantly agreed to do it.
That eventful day arrived, and teachers shepherded about 300 excited school kids into a church lecture hall. When everyone settled down, the first color photo on the screen was Bill riding a donkey to explore a heavily forested region, flanked by two native guides with rifles and machetes. My brother looked like a real Indiana Jones searching for lost treasure.
He showed the remarkable engineering for construction of heavy duty roads so his trucks could travel the steep mountain grades within that Colombian tropical forest. If during the rainy season a truck slipped over the edge, forget any rescue.
Large generators for electricity and pumps for water had to be brought in. Cables and pipes were laid long distances, and metal buildings erected with all the necessary office equipment.
It took a while before excavation drilling discovered gold-bearing veins in deep tunnels. Soon, underground trucks transported the ore to the surface. There it was crushed and chemically processed to extract a few grams of gold from a ton of ore. It was an expensive but profitable enterprise when carefully executed.
Bill made enhancements to the local village with reliable electricity and running water. He hired and trained the idle hands of young men to operate the mining equipment for good wages. They in turn would help build a computer lab in the school house. The social benefits of this mining operation were significant, offering plentiful opportunities to uneducated peasants who had only their farmer’s market to trade goods and eke out a meager living.
However, the local FARC guerillas were ruthless cocaine terrorists who wanted a cut of the action, a chunk of his mining profits, or they’d disrupt the whole operation. They continually threatened and extorted many of the town’s people for money and cattle. But Bill refused to comply and shut down the mine for a year and a half.
In order to restart the mine, he asked for 24/7 military protection from the newly elected Colombian president Uribe, who granted his request. That protection came in the form of two platoons of soldiers who patrolled the areas around the mine. One photo showed Bill disembarking from a military helicopter, flanked by armed bodyguards wearing camouflage gear. Once the soldiers came, all the money extortions and threats of violence stopped.
After his Power Point presentation, he lectured on the importance of converging material and spiritual concerns. His mining enterprise was cultivating the good will of the locals, the opposite of what usually happens with major mining corporations. Eventually, he provided health clinics for dental and eye exams. Then came Christmas and Halloween parties held in the town each year, with gifts for the children.
He said, “It’s hard work to dig up and process tons of ore for a few grams of gold, that untarnishable noble metal. Nor is it easy to unearth and refine noble conduct that by its very nature proves incorruptible to the corrosive trials and tribulations of life. Scripture states how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23). But I believe it’s close at hand whenever I share my wealth with the poor as I would have them do for me.”
All in attendance were inspired by his example of industrial enterprise commingled with social justice. After a long applause, teachers filed their excited students past a small spot-lit display of glittering placer nuggets and samples of craggy ore streaked with yellow flakes.
I noticed how attentive the principal was as the children eagerly lifted and studied those samples. The church vestibule echoed with ooh’s and aah’s. I asked my 12-year-old cousin, Sebastian, attending seventh grade then, his thoughts about the presentation.
“Nothing this exciting has ever come here before. . . . I hope nobody tries to steal the gold,” he said, shuffling his feet as if ready to give chase.
“Look at your school principal over there with that worried look on his face. But no one would ever steal right here in front of us ― not in this conservative Catholic school.”
“Never,” we chorused, both shaking our heads with a knowing smile.
After the long line had ceased filing past, my brother and I walked back to our car.
“I won’t be doing that again,” he said, packing away his laptop and samples.
“Why? I’d have been delighted to inspire young hearts and minds.”
“I felt uncomfortable boasting about my success in gold mining. I don’t know… maybe I’m worried they’d get the impression I’m just another rich fat pig.”
“There it is, hanging over you like Damocles’ sword: the wealth stigma that the Church has foisted upon its laity for centuries. She’s extracted billions in donations for those more lucrative plenary indulgences that Martin Luther railed and nailed about. Grand cathedrals in Europe would never have been built if it were not for all that guilt money.”
“I’m not leaving my estate to the Church to help pay reparations for sodomized victims of homosexual clergy, or for others to rebuild a cathedral or feed a thousand Sudanese orphans. I need to get my hands dirty in the sharing of my wealth.”
“I feel the same way,” I said. “Those rich, hands-off Christians who donate to some remote charity, hoping it atones for all their sins, are in for a rude awakening at the Last Judgment.”
“Or those fat bishops who sip their private stock of vintage wine while boasting of special collections for some far off project. They love to appear generous by spending other people’s money but never once lift a jeweled finger to drive a nail, turn a spade, or ladle soup for homeless indigents on a border’s uncomfortable side.”
Bill had learned how to share the wealth of his mining operations: face-to-face, person-to-person, with rolled up sleeves and hands-on labor, commingling sweat and tears with the less fortunate. By giving fully of himself, he had discovered the heavenly kingdom within― a vast, inexhaustible treasure, long lost and forgotten by ignoble men.