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As he walked to the Men’s Breakfast Fellowship last Wednesday morning, Pastor Walter Mitty was in a self-pitying mood. Ash Wednesday always made him feel down. “Remember that you are ashes and to ashes you will return” never did make him feel perky.

Down deep, however, he knew that it was because three days earlier at their annual meeting, the members of Poplar Park Community Church voted not to give him even a symbolic 3 percent raise for the first time in 15 years. They rationalized their lack of generosity by arguing that the economy was bad and that everyone was tightening their belts.

“From the look of their bellies,” thought Mitty as he trudged through the slush, “if anything they are loosening their belts.”

Ash and Eric Anderson were already drinking coffee as he slid into their regular booth at the Mainstreet Cafe.

“Is that a ‘Mitt Romney for President’ sticker on Dominique’s car?” Ash asked while he watched through the window as the white Prius pulled up to the curb. “So you’re not voting for McCain?” he said as the banker in the Brooks Brothers suit slid in beside him.

“No way, even though he seems to have the nomination locked up,” Dominique replied. “Not since the economy has gone south for the winter. Have you seen the fluctuations in the stock market lately?”

“You mean you were for McCain earlier?” Mitty asked.

“Sure. When the war was the big issue. But now that the economy is so unstable,” Dominique paused for his first sip of coffee, “now that the economy is so shaky, we need a president who understands the markets.”

Eric jumped into the conversation. “I hope Congress passes that rebate, or whatever they call it, soon. With kids at home, the bills always seem to be more than my paycheck.”

That the other three men stuck with the economy for the whole breakfast didn’t make Pastor Walt feel any better, so after they said goodbye, he decided to stop at the Retro on his way home. Seeing Zaphne almost always perked him up. He kicked the slush off his boots as entered, and in a valiant attempt at being chipper said in his most cheerful voice, “How are you?”

“Are you kidding, Rev?” replied Zaphne. “Business was off before the holidays, but now with all this economic doom and gloom, the last thing people want to buy is nostalgia from the ’50s.”

Seeing that Zaphne wasn’t going to lift his mood, he made some small talk then started out the door, only to bump into Fr. Bob Sullivan.

“Hey Walt,” said the Franciscan. “Nice to run into you.”

“You seem to be in a good mood,” Mitty replied, his self-pity having turned into grumpiness. “Why are you in such a cheerful …” Mitty cut his sentence short as he realized that he was talking to a man who had taken a vow of poverty. The man didn’t have a salary to even vote on.

“Cheerful mood?” said Fr. Sullivan in an attempt to finish his friend’s sentence. “Actually, I’m angry, not cheerful.”

“Angry?”

“Of course I’m angry. For God’s sake, Walt, it’s Ash Wednesday, a time when we’re supposed to think about how fragile and brief life is, and all of a sudden the economy has become more important to voters than the war. People around this country seem to be more worried about their 401K plans than the hundreds and thousands of people getting killed in Iraq.” Fr. Sullivan paused and took a deep breath. “Hey, Walt, I didn’t mean to go off on you. You’re not the problem.”

As Mitty listened to his Franciscan friend, he felt the grumpiness that had replaced his self-pity turning into something close to shame, and as he walked the rest of the way home the image that stuck in his mind was that of a camel trying to squeeze through the eye of a needle.