Monday, December 13, 2010

How do we help?

Sunday at Stillwater, a man who had never attended the meeting before stood and told a disturbing story. When he'd first come in, I'd assumed he was a plain dressing Friend because of his white shirt and suspenders; however, he was a Pentecostal who had recently gotten interested in Friends. He told us he'd been working in a barber shop in Pennsylvania, cutting hair. If I understood the gist of his story correctly (this, at least, is how I pieced it together), he was laid off some months ago after his employer learned that he done prison time.

The man lost his apartment next door to the barber shop, and he and his wife and three young children headed for help to Pentecostals they knew of in the deep south. The man said he'd been credentialed as a Pentecostal minister but that the Pentecostals in the south could do nothing for him. He then left with his family and stayed with someone in North Carolina, who eventually took him to the Eastern Shore of Virginia, where he and his family stayed with yet another person. Somewhere in the narrative their vehicle--I'm not sure what kind--broke down, and they eventually borrowed a van to come to Ohio. But before that, the wife earned some money picking tomatoes.

The man said, having researched Friends and discovered Stillwater, he came to Ohio, thinking he and his family might settle in the Barnsville area. The man spoke of his criminal past, of a crime he committed at 19, and for which he served five years in prison –in part, because, if I understood, he couldn't afford a private lawyer. He indicated that the past was the past, and mentioned that God transforms hearts. He said he was already in trouble here in Belmont County with child protective services for letting his children sleep in the van in the cold. He was now using his wife's tomato-picking savings to room the family in a motel.

I had to leave before he was finished, but his story has stayed with me, for the following reasons:

Right before he spoke, a meeting member, a very lovely and distinguished woman, had talked about the injustices in the criminal justice system. Public defenders, for whatever reasons, often don't have the time to prepare an adequate defense for their clients, and thus the system, which is supposed to serve the poor, is often stacked against the poor.

I don't think God acts by accident, and I can't believe it was simply chance that caused a man, poor and with problems related to the criminal justice system, to arrive on our meetinghouse doorstep the same morning a member felt moved to speak of her concern about the plight of the poor in the legal system. What we are supposed to make of this, I don't know, but it is on my mind.

Next, this man's story stays with me because of my mixed reactions to it. Part of me thought, "It's the Joad family from The Grapes of Wrath, displaced by the economy and forced on the road, living hand to mouth out of their (borrowed) car. This is a story of our times, a story of how the most marginal are the first to be fired and thus the first to suffer the brunt of the recession. Where can he get a job? Will anyone hire him with a criminal record?"

However, another part of me said: "This man is a con artist. Why was his wife picking tomatoes? Why wasn't he? Of course he could get a job... so why is he forcing his children to wander around? What kind of education are they getting? Why are people constantly "pushing him on" down the road?"

Then, I thought, why am I so judgmental? Do I know anything, really, about his situation? Perhaps there's some good reason he can't pick tomatoes. And with jobs in short supply for everyone, it's not such a stretch to imagine he really can't find any work. Where is my heart?

The man, with his wife and children in our meetinghouse, made a strong emotional impression on me: they raised my compassion and my alarm. I kept weighing: should we help him? Shouldn't we? As Roger said, the decision is, do you help people regardless, even if you know you might be getting conned, or do you not? Most of me says, yes, of course, you help people, and you don't ask questions. But on the other hand ...

I keep thinking too, of the larger debate in our society now about who should provide the kind of aid this family needs: housing, food, a job. Should it be the government or should it be churches, meetings and other faith-based organizations? The argument, and I hear it from people I respect, is that the aid should emanate from the church and local community, one on one, based on developing relationships with the people in need. This family, by singling out our congregation, represents exactly the right model. We see their faces, we hear their voices and press the flesh of their hands as we help.

But I shy from this because inevitably, if charity is based on a personal relationship, even a brief one, in essence, I--or my meeting--is sitting in judgment on another person. Who am I (the "I" standing for my meeting) to judge? How can I judge? And yet, inevitably, in this situation I have to judge, because in the real world, our meeting lacks the resources to meet every need of every person. And maybe we don't need to meet all needs--maybe only as many as we are able to help will come to door. But it's hard to trust in that.

My impulse is to want to direct this family, these strangers in our midst, to the government social service agencies, even frayed as they are right now. I feel the agencies have more know-how and more resources than our meeting. I also want to turn to them because I believe they are objective--that they are not evaluating each person individually or emotionally, but by applying a set of standards that are used universally to determine need. This family may not get their every need met by the government, but they will be treated impartially.

I fear a system in which how much help a person receives is haphazard and dependent on his or her ability to convince my faith group that he is of the worthy poor, that he deserves aid. This is what I fear--know--will happen if we dismantle government services. People who are personable--or able to grovel sufficiently--or seem enough "like" us or enough lacking in the vices we disapprove--will receive our help. Because we can only help so many, we'll help the favorites. Then the outcast, as they always are, are left to the too few saints. I don't wish for that.

I fear it already happens in our broken health care system. As a journalist, I would sometimes cover local silent auctions or other fundraising events to help a family needing money for cancer treatments for a wife or a child's operation that wasn't covered by insurance. These were warm and bonding events for the communities involved, but in every case, what was emphasized to me was what good people we were dealing with. Good people. How much Jane Doe had contributed to the church over the years! How well-liked the parents of little John Doe who needs an operation! Always, without a fail, it was this way, and I would often wonder, what happens to the people who don't help out at church or who are disagreeable or disliked or simply not known? Do they die or go bankrupt? I don't know.

So I am troubled. I would prefer to pay taxes and have the government impartially take care of people's basic needs. Then I can develop relationships with the people who come to my church or cross my path without them on their knees, begging.

What would you do in this situation? Give money? Send the family to social services? Something else?


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

My first thought was that the good Samaritan of the parable didn’t just wring his hands.

In the meetings I’ve belonged to, there would have been an immediate meeting of whichever committee was seen as most pertinent — Overseers, or Peace & Social Concerns — or of the Meeting as a whole, with this man, to clarify his precise relationship to Friends AND to ensure that the bare essentials (groceries, means of cooking them, blankets) were taken care of.

What happened after that would depend on the man’s situation and on the Meeting’s. Obviously we are neither numerous enough nor wealthy enough to meet every material need we encounter, but we do have to answer to the Voice in our consciences —

Diane said...

Hi Marshall,

I don't know what my meeting will be doing and won't find out for a few days, as I am driving to Greensboro ... I am in the position of being a member of the meeting but also only in this area for 2 years, so also essentially an outsider ... I mostly worry that the loss of gov't safety nets will put faith groups with limited resources in tough situations.

Alice Y. said...

Here I am, idealistic. I find that folks who come asking for money of food at meeting often have a lot too offer. I have had enough to do with poor folks to know how not to get scammed and how not to put myself in danger - and by the grace of God I don't think I have had to pass by anyone yet.
Jesus calls people to join a community. We have to learn to live as he lives: by the grace of God, feeding 5000 without any preparation. Lots of things about the way we live are broken but as I see it if we turn our backs on folks in need we have turned away from God. When we turn to God together things change profoundly.

AbiSomeone said...

This is a powerful pondering of what so many ponder ... and it is not to be solved lightly.

As with just about every difficult issue, there is a kind of both / and answer. And there is also a kind of vicious circle.

The challenge of vulnerability -- others' and our own -- is huge, as it the challenge of availability -- to others and to God.

That very thing about government help that lends itself to impartiality is threaded with impersonality. It gives "things" but does not give "life" The "things" are needed and helpful, but without the "life" that comes in the form of love and compassion and sacrifice, well ... it leads to other problems, doesn't it?

This "problem" is so overwhelming is it much like the challenge of "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." One situation at a time ... one precious soul or family that God presents to us and asks: what will you do?

The walk of faith versus sight is not for the faint of heart, eh? Do we, really, need to worry about whether there will be enough resource. Really?

I am in no way piling on any kind of guilt here ... you know how this wee abbess is! But I am seriously yearning the the vision of CovenantClusters and the sharing of life and journey that leans into the risk of loving those whom God brings across out paths.

I pray that you (and your whole meeting) will hear God speak clearly in your hearts and will trust Papa's provision for all of you ... especially these in need, all of whom Papa is especially fond.

Love to you, Diane, at this precious time of pondering the amazing gift of love that came wrapped up as a poor outcast baby boy.

Anonymous said...

I think faith communities can do so much, and they don't have to do it in a fragmented, self-doubting way if they can cooperate with each other.

In my smallish town (35,000) the churches have formed jointly run organizations that do the following:
1. Distribute food bank provisions
2. Distribute funds for paying rent, electricity, etc. during temporary emergencies (and also offer financial advice)
3. Provide lunch every day of the week (the Salvation Army provides dinner)
4. Provide beds (in the churches) for all homeless people who don't meet the rather strict requirements of the Salvation Army shelter between October and March
5. Lobby local government for improvements in education, transportation, healthcare, etc.

I think we can say that no one could starve or freeze to death in our town if they were willing to ask for help, and the churches do far more than social services or any state agency to make sure that this is true. It's not enough but it's substantial and it requires a great deal of work and money and commitment and trust in each other. But the result is help that is both personal and reliable. The benefits to congregations have been far greater.