Monday, December 20, 2010

The Saga Continues

Ah, me of little faith.

I learned yesterday that Stillwater has provided for the family--a husband, wife and three young children-- who showed up in need a week ago with little more than a borrowed car to their names. Currently, they have moved from a motel and are living in Morland House, the Ohio Yearly Meeting's retreat center. That should be an ideal resting spot for them as it has three bedrooms and ample living space. However, since it's already booked for quarterly meetings, retreats, etc., they can't stay there permanently, so they are on the lookout, I'm told, for another home. In Barnesville that's an affordable prospect: A modest house can be rented here for less than $400 a month.

The husband may get a maintenance job at the Walton, the local Quaker retirement home, and the wife also may get work helping there and/or doing housecleaning. The children are enrolled in the local public school, so all is well at the moment for one family. There is, however, an undercurrent of grumbling by some longer-term Stillwater members about their own needs for job and money, their own dire straits, getting less attention.

I am impressed, all the same, with the kindness and generosity of Stillwater meeting. The issue of being aware of and sensitive to the needs of others who may be reluctant to ask for help emerged with the Fifth query, and the meeting answered it well, articulating a concern to notice people who may never step forward.

I do feel the cumulative weight of need all over and sometimes it feels overwhelming. But when I stay in that spirit of love and light described by early Quakers like George Fox, Isaac Pennington and Margaret Fell --what I (and they) would call the Holy Spirit--I am reassured, against all the visible signals to the contrary, that everything will be fine, and I should be at peace. However, it is easy to step out of that circle of light and witness a world that seems to be falling apart and a country that seems to be spiraling into decline. At these times, the story of Peter walking on water becomes a useful parable.

I also have to remind myself that I am not personally responsible for solving the world's problems. All of us are simply ordinary people with little to no control over the larger destinies of nations. As the Abbess implies, we do what we have to do, one person at a time. (However, I do support a strong government safety net, am willing to pay taxes for it and hope our country will maintain, improve and strengthen it.) One family in need doesn't mean a thousand families behind them will suddenly appear, all lining up at tiny Stillwater, clamoring for help. And I have to trust, were that to happen, resources would emerge. Here, I can lean into the story of the loaves and the fishes.

What other spiritual touchstones might there be for finding our way through economic times that are hard on many people? And since people need practical resources, not just temporary charity and well wishes, what else can we do?

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?

Hildegard of Bingen

Yesterday, Roger and I saw the movie Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen, directed by Margarethe von Trotta. Hildegard was a 12th century nun and mystic, known for her visions.

The movie juxtaposes a 1950s-style Hollywood technicolor "Catholic" aesthetic with a feminist portrayal of a nun. The convent/ abbey is a somber place--lots of gray stone and women swathed in identical habits marching down corridors holding thick lit candles or surrounding the beds of dying like blue-clad vultures. Hildegard, who becomes its abbess, is a strong and serious leader and also an herbalist and healer. Some scenes show her in the convent garden gathering herbs with her nuns as she sternly quizzes them about which herb heals what ailment. In a feminine divine moment, the nuns act out Hildegard's play, Play of the Virtues, with the nuns playing the virtues, Hildegard as Anima, or the soul, and a friendly priest playing the Devil. The young nuns and Hildegard, their hair free and festooned with flowers, dressed in soft white shifts like May Day dancers, defeat the Devil and tie him up. An old nun who refuses to participate condemns the women for showing their hair.

Setting a bleak tone, the movie opens with villagers huddled in a cold church on New Year's Eve, 999, awaiting the end of the world. However, as we know, the world does not end--nor is Hildegard born for another 98 years. Following that, the opening sequences show flagellations juxtaposed with the young Hildegard being taken under the wing of the saintly and somewhat saccharine "mother" Jutta, the abbess, scenes which could easily have been lifted from a church-approved 1950s film. Not long after, Jutta dies, and we find that she has been mortifying herself with a metal mesh sash tied around her waist and working its way into her flesh under her habit.

Hildegard's visions serve to forward her own agenda. She is powerful and determined. But while she achieves her goals within the larger church hierarchy, such as establishing her own convent apart from the men, she is thwarted when her favorite nun and protege, from a noble family, is taken from her to become abbess of her own convent. Hildegard fights the transfer with all her might to no avail. This adds to the complexity of Hildegard's character. She undoubtedly is in love with the nun and selfish in wanting to keep her, as the young woman points out to her.

The film, a German production, is in German, and for anyone post-Nazi (ie., all of us) the emphasis on order, hierarchy and faceless uniformity, not to mention "mountaintop visions," carries a chilling layer of reference and serves as an implicit condemnation of the Catholic church. I have to imagine this was deliberate on von Trotta's part.

The movie was beautifully filmed, well acted and despite a slow pace, seemed shorter than it actually was.

I'm ambivalent about it however. Is it a cliche to add flagellation to a movie about medieval nuns and priests, especially when its not integral to the plot--and when flagellation did not burst into vogue until after Hildegard's death? Is it a cliche for a nun to fall in love with her protege in a strange, repressed way? Or are both realistic? Does anyone know anything about Hildegard? As a mystic, she seems a person who would be of interest to Quakers.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thrift store fashionista

How to dress for less in this recession. Between the Salvation Army store and Gabe's (Gabriels), Roger has been able to dress at bargain prices. The moss green suede jacket was a Salvation army find. At $20 this Weatherproof brand jacket was expensive by Salvation Army standards--but in perfect condition and a perfect fit. He wore it to Pittsburgh today in a light snow, so it keeps him warm. The heavy wool REI ribbed zipper sweater underneath also came from the Salvation Army--for $6. The pumpkin tee shirt beneath that was $2 at Gabe's. Roger guestimates his light brown Gabe's jeans came in at $10. So he achieved the layered look--with a jacket that works in winter weather--for $38 total. Take off the jacket and his indoor wear comes in at $18 for three pieces. Not bad.

The photo also shows our Barnesville kitchen, remodeled two years ago when we moved here. I tend to like everything made of natural materials, but I love this pergo floor.