There’s a guy who comes to see me at church every couple months. He’s lived in his car for as long as I’ve known him, because shelters are not his speed, and most won’t allow his kitten anyway. Just about every time he comes in, needing anywhere from twenty to a hundred dollars, he’s got a plan. A job, a place to stay. He just needs a little for gas, or food, before he gets paid, before he can move in. And that job, or place to stay, holds for a bit. But then something goes wrong with the car, or his health. Something changes for the friend he’s staying with. The church’s pastoral assistance fund has helped with dental work and fending off gangrene, as well as purchased a new alternator for his van and heavy boots so he can start work. Sometimes he just calls to check in, and last Christmas, he brought boxes of chocolates for me and the church financial manager who sometimes helps him out if I’m not in the office. He always asks about my kids and is grateful for my prayers when the fund is low or I can’t help him.
I know the feeling of desperation when you’re stuck — when the car dies, or the furnace goes, when the church can’t afford you and you can’t afford your taxes. I know the need to explain how you’ve managed to find yourself in this predicament, again, despite your best efforts and intentions. The desire to be justified, and the immediacy of that need. I appreciate that he’s trying to hear that he’s not my only concern, just because he happens to be the only person sitting outside my office on any given morning. I appreciate it, because it soothes my irritation, and my guilt at feeling irritated by someone so desperately in need.
Recently, someone in the office said to me, after overhearing that I’d given this guy food and gas money, again, “you have to stop giving him money. You’re just contributing to his dependency.” And I wanted to yell. But instead I swallowed my anger and wrote about it passive-aggressively well after the fact, because I am a healthy person.
I wanted to yell, because I’m not sure when, if ever, the person raising their complaint had last experienced a poverty period, or the shame and desperation of not knowing where to turn, of having to ask.
I gave the guy money because he’s finally enrolled in disability and SNAP, so he’ll be getting money soon – not a huge sum but coupled with a place to stay with an old friend, enough to get on his feet, hopefully – but there was a problem with the funding this month and so he’s been without.
That’s no tall tale, either. Illinois is garbage about funding social services, and the current federal budget and administration are just exacerbating the issues. A lot of people are just getting dropped off the rolls, or the already minimal funds they were receiving have been further reduced.
When I give money from the pastoral assistance fund to the man experiencing all those unfortunate events, it is charity. We have no particular obligation to him, not really. Our mission committee gives thousands of dollars to local charities and social service agencies each year, some of which focus on hunger and others on domestic violence and still others on homelessness. But this guy in my office doesn’t really qualify for any of those programs – how he came into our circle of care is a bit of a mystery. Why he’s ours is not clear to me.
I wish – I desperately wish – that we had a real social safety net. So folks didn’t have to experience homelessness, or choose between food and transportation. When they have a medical crisis, there could be care available. But we do not have that just now.
Our congregation is in the midst of an ongoing conversation about the need to shift from charity work – providing funds and meals and socks – to doing the work of justice; partnering with the marginalized to make structural change. I am all for structural change. But until then – while we work for that – the poor are always with us. And are with us more today than in previous generations; when social supports were more reliable and economic disparities were not so stark.
If more affluent Christians read their experiences through the same lenses we are quick to use for people living in poverty, I wonder how our understanding might change. Were my parents rewarding my bad choices – going into ministry, pursuing grad school right away instead of working at something just for a check, buying a house in the community I served, having kids – by bailing me out whenever I reached moments of panic and low funds? No. Not likely.
And yet, the things that we see as virtues in some social circles are seen differently when it comes to those living in poverty. The man who comes and needs our financial help is, we believe, the one who needs to change.
That’s how Americans, and Christians, have been framing conversation about poverty in recent generations. But what if the problem isn’t that we depend on each other in times of crisis, but that so many people can’t afford a crisis, and so many people are so isolated, and wealth is so concentrated, that when we are suddenly unemployed, or sick or homeless, so many have no one to whom they can turn for help?
Some weeks I spend a lot of time fielding phone calls from this man, and another. From families and folks who drop by. Some elicit more compassion fatigue, some I am delighted to help. Some hate asking for help; some have exhausted every other agency; some come back to me time and again. It guts me, pastorally, not to be able to help everyone. Or to have to say no. But we’re going to need a political solution. My fund’s not that big. My heart can’t take it.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is Associate Pastor for Ministry with Families at Union Church of Hinsdale (UCC). Her newest book, a co-edited collection called When Kids Ask Hard Questions: Faith Filled Responses for Tough Topics, will be released October 9, 2019.
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