On Tuesday I met with a woman in my office, whom I’ll call Cindy, to determine if she was a worthy candidate to receive financial assistance for her utility bills. She was compliant with all the questions on my intake form, including social security number, her financial history and her work history, and she gave me permission to share this information with other agencies and churches from whom she might seek help in the future. I had conflicted feelings about Cindy. Frankly, she didn’t look or sound quite right. My gut told me that she was not strung out on drugs, but maybe that she was mentally disabled. I couldn’t figure out if I was supposed to feel sorry for her or be frustrated with her helplessness.
Here was a woman my age with two children, no husband and no job. The only income Cindy receives is $750 a month from the government. Her rent alone is $500. Her utility bills for the month of August totaled $200. I asked her how she “lived.” She said that she scrapes by way of food stamps and a landlord who gives her a break on rent when she needs to pay other bills. Like a lot of people, Cindy juggles bills. One month she’ll pay her phone bill while neglecting her electricity bill. The next month she’ll pay her electric but not her phone. I asked her why she doesn’t work. She said that she’s been looking. Honestly, I didn’t believe her. That said, Cindy is not the kind of person I would hire. She did not look dependable, and had to be brought to the parish house by a friend on the bus because she had no idea how to navigate the bus line, much less the network of social services, like daycare, that are available to her and her children.
As I sat there in judgment, wondering if this poor woman was mildly retarded or just dumb, I knew that I held an enormous amount of power over her. She was at my door asking for money. I could decide that she was worthy of the money I had to give, money you’ve given me, just pay her bills per the biblical mandate and let God sort out the details. Or I could deny her because she has not been pulling her share of the load. I did admonish her to find work after her children returned to school, saying that her situation would never improve if she didn’t have a steady income to offset her expenses. I paid $140 towards her water and gas bills, and asked my colleague at 1st Baptist to put $100 towards her rent.
There were a couple of reasons I decided to help her. First of all, she made the good faith effort to come and meet with me. Most people who call want immediate gratification and don’t follow through when I put demands on them. Secondly, just before meeting with her I read today’s scripture lessons. The readings left me chastised. In the parable Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14: 14 ). The reading from Ecclesiastics further reproached me: “Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to mortals, and injustice is outrageous to both” (10:7). And verse 9, “How can dust and ashes be proud?” I think I ought to stick that line, “How can dust and ashes be proud?” on my bathroom mirror and on our refrigerator.
Today’s scripture really offers a set of instructions. We are to care for others, especially the poor, the lame, those over whom we have power, those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” We are to show hospitality to strangers, to those condemned and those imprisoned. We are not to hold ourselves in any place of honor, but to always humble ourselves. We are told that pride is sinful. In the letter to the Hebrews we are called to nurture mutual love (especially in our marriages); and we’re to live free from the love of money. This by no means is a complete list of life’s operating instructions. But it’s a good place to start.
You see, the Biblical mandate to care for the indigent is crystal clear. Our duty to care for the poor is mentioned 64 times in the Bible, and God’s preferential care for the poor is mentioned at least 56 times. Jesus never gives us a solution to eradicate poverty; it’s as if the poor and destitute are a condition of a sinful and imperfect world, and they are here to stay to be the one universal, ubiquitous obstacle by which each and every one of us will be judged. What is also abundantly clear in the Bible is that in the afterlife, in heaven, the poor will be received into the open arms of God. They, the lowly, will be uplifted, and the mighty, you and I, will be laid low. If any of you tend to be biblical literalists and want to see salvation, then I’d hitch my wagon to any one of these pieces of scriptures.
The conflicts that arise within us when we’re called to care and love the disenfranchised, the chronic poor, the helpless, the uneducated, the sick, the disabled, even the drug and alcohol addicted—all of those people who get under our skin, who we just wish could lead “normal” invisible lives are understandable. We feel overwhelmed, we feel guilty, we feel revulsed, we don’t know how to help, and we ask ourselves: Are we enabling or empowering these people?
I was talking with a parishioner last week about this very thing, and she said that at one time in her life she was a single mother with two children, broke and jobless. She said that what made the difference for her, perhaps as opposed to all these other desperate people we hear about, or see sitting on their porches all day long in a stupor, was that she had hope. She knew that this was not how her life story would be read. Only hope, through her trust in God, could some achieve some measure of stability and security in her life. She knew what security felt like, and that she could get it again. The point she was making to me was that some people don’t have any hope, don’t enjoy its propulsive power to get them out on the street looking for a job. Without hope they lack imagination–the ability to see what could be. Their hopelessness renders them blind. This blindness is a terrible thing, a paralyzing thing, and it is the reason why it is nothing short of miraculous when a chronically poor person transforms their life from one of scarcity into one of abundance.
I called Cindy on Friday to make the arrangements for the pastor at 1st Baptist to get in touch with her landlord. Somehow in our conversation she mentioned that her $500 Supplemental Security Income check went directly to her landlord. She kept calling him the “payee”. And when I said that I didn’t understand, she finally spit out that she is mentally disabled and that her landlord is her “guardian.” Though my suspicions about her mental capacity were correct, I felt like a heel for making judgments and getting angry with her for not working the system and placing her burden on me. I asked Cindy to tell me more of her personal history ; she is from Washington , D.C. A friend brought her down to Richmond and then left her. She has no family left and is on her own. As gently as I could, I asked if her financial situation had ever been any better and she said, “no.” “Has your life always been this way,” I asked her, and she said, “Yes, Pastor Dana, that’s why I’m so grateful you decided to help me.” I felt humbled.
A month ago I wrote a letter to the parish on the Sunday bulletin cover describing how acute the need of the poor had been over the summer, and that Randy and I were scrounging from our discretionary funds to make ends meet. Well, of course, my thinly disguised plea hit home with folks and the checks started arriving. There is one letter in particular that I’d like to share with you, not to guilt you into sending more money, because it’s not always about throwing money at a problem, but to share with you a glimpse of the heart and soul of the parishioner who wrote it.
Dear Randy: Every now and then I set aside a few dollars, ten here, twenty there, and over a few months or maybe a year it grows into something that’s enough to buy myself a little treat, a reward for working hard and being frugal all the rest of the time. It’s never anything I need. A guy toy usually, a gadget, something else to play with. I’ve been going along for a while now and that little pile has grown up a bit and I’ve been casting about for something to do for myself, and then in church I read Dana’s note in the wrapper to the Chimes and I can’t get it out of my mind how much some people need this money more than I do. So I was hoping you’d take this and split it down the middle and use half of it for your discretionary fund and give half of it to Dana’s discretionary fund, and I hope it enables you and Dana to make a small difference in someone’s life, maybe get them through another month’s rent without getting turned out to the streets, or let them feed their kids for another week. Whatever it is it’ll mean a hell of a lot more to them than some new trinket would to me. Blessings.
This letter was not signed and in the envelope were 10 $100 dollar bills. Randy did the honorable thing and gave me $500 and Torrence the other $500. I’d like to end by saying that caring for the poor is not always about giving money. Of course, financial assistance is always the most immediate need, but it’s also about giving our time and our brain power in some way to some organization that will channel and amplify our gifts. And more than that, I think it is about just giving them of your person in a very intangible way: your soul, your smile, a considerate, compassionate glance. Simple human contact and a “hello” go a long way. It is new respectful attitude toward their very existence. It’s a prayer asking God to provide for them when you cannot.