Societal oppression, dish soap, and knives.

The last few weeks I’ve been working on an essay project that has to do with societal oppression and the Bible.  (I’ll post the full text at some point.)  Of course throughout the whole thing I find myself ruminating about the families in poverty I work with.  Couple this with ongoing political debates about the Affordable Care Act, and I’ve felt like an emotional cocktail for the last month.  Of course, emotional cocktail means blog post eventually, because why feel and think about all of this stuff if not to lay it at your ever-patient feet?

The first thing I was thinking about was dish soap.  For the average family, dish soap is something you use to wash dishes.  You know you’re poor when you realize it also cleans floors, can be used as a body wash in a pinch (but not your privates- that stings), as a laundry detergent, to clean floors, and to bathe puppies.  Oh, yes.  When I was working at the shelter, we used to have families that didn’t like the Tide detergent we provided for free (for use in a High Efficiency front loading washer) and would use dish soap instead.  The first time I had to mop several gallons of soapy water off the floor because the seal started to leak I thought it was mildly amusing.  The fifth time, I was spitting angry and already knew to wipe the seal down with baking soda first, then with canola oil, then to run canola oil and baking soda through the dispenser to kill the suds.

The dish soap would leak out from the shower, too.

Dish soap is only the first thing which people in extreme poverty have special knowledge about.  The other is knives.  Not hunting knives.  Kitchen knives.  Did you know that if you don’t have kitchen scissors, steak knives work well on cardboard and tearing open freezer bags?  They do.  And a thin fillet knife is just the thing for opening a can of beans if you don’t have a can opener.  I, personally, wouldn’t have realized that a can opener is a luxury.  But yet I cannot tell you how many times I was supervising lunch prep and someone went at a can with a fillet knife before I even knew what had happened.  It didn’t occur to them that we would have a can opener, they didn’t even know what one looked like.

The normal person is blissfully unaware that there are everyday habits we engage in as members of the middle class that people in poverty do not know because they’ve never had the opportunity to engage with them.  Our clothes washers need fussy soap.  We have kitchen utensils which only have one purpose.  Some people have ten, fifteen things in their kitchen that can only be used for one thingIf you have to pick pennies out of your couch to scrape together the money to ride the bus to work, you do not own single-use utensils unless someone else bought them for you.  Garlic crusher?  Fuh.  No.  Juicer?  What the…? No.  Cappuccino machine?  It is to laugh.

It’s interesting to me when people disparage the poor, saying things like they aren’t smart enough to be rich.  Sorry, buddy, you ain’t smart enough to be poor.  The people who stayed at the shelter had MAD skills.  They memorized bus schedules, they knew who gave what away on what day and what thrift stores dependably had what kind of stuff.  “Don’t go to Salvation Army for kids clothes, they never have any.  This store drops prices towards the end of the month.  Go there in the evening, sometimes you catch that store right when they are throwing out the day old bread and it’s still good for a while…”  And on, and on.  Repositories of knowledge that people with cash in their pockets simply don’t ever need.

And the middle class has it’s own rules.  Knowing what is good debt and what is bad.  Knowing what the hell a Roth IRA is and why you would want one.  Knowing where to get secondhand clothes with good labels and what stores discount what clothes in what season.  Learning those skills can be the hardest part of transitioning to a new class.  The quiet judgment of the women who wonder why you got your kids clothes there.  The panic the first time someone asks you to bring a cold plate for brunch.  (Why does the plate have to be cold?  What do you put on it?  If you go into Kroger and ask for a cold plate will they know what it is?)  There are a million things that people take for granted as a part of their lives, as common knowledge, simply because it’s what they grew up with.  And asking?  Asking is the worst kind of shame because it tells the world that you don’t really belong.  If you belonged, you would know.

They say that there is always someone richer.  You tell someone who makes $60,000 that they aren’t too bad off and they’ll point to the person who makes $100,000.  Tell that person they are doing really well and they’ll point to the person who makes $200,000.  Tell that person they are really quite fortunate and they’ll point to the millionaire, who points to the multi-millionaire, who points to Bill Gates, who I’m sure is jealous of someone.

When you’ve got a family of five and you feel lucky to break $30,000, everyone is rich.

When you’re homeless, anyone with a roof of their own is a lucky bastard.

We all have things we take for granted that we shouldn’t.

But the thing that bothers me the most right now?  Last week I washed a few loads of laundry in dish soap and baking soda, because I had made buying my kids warm clothes for winter a priority.  And in the midst of all the political arguments, I kept wanting to tell people I just couldn’t listen to them because they didn’t know about dish soap and knives.

What they picture as poor doesn’t reflect the effort and knowledge and work that goes into being poor.  Food stamps will keep you fed, if you’re smart about how you use them, but they won’t keep you from scrubbing your rump with dish soap when you run out of body wash.

It won’t keep you from opening the can of beans with a knife.

It won’t keep you from shaking out the couch cushions for the money to ride the bus.

It won’t let you take a single thing for granted, like the majority of this country does every day.

Let’s talk about healthcare, please.

I support the Affordable Care Act because I believe it will help our Gross Domestic Profit go up, and because I believe in social justice.  Let’s talk about it.

I spent a year working as the site supervisor for a homeless shelter, and then a year and a half as a “float” between several residential mental health facilities, so I’ve seen my share of people who have no choice but to rely on the state.  Any time an issue about state benefits come up, my mind immediately flashes back to my experiences there and I judge everything I hear not of how it affects me personally, but how it would change the situation for the people I have served.

Please, give me a few moments of your time.

Working with the homeless, I saw a side of the mental health industry that was chilling.  A large proportion of the guests at the homeless shelter had mental health problems.  Bipolar syndrome was a constant theme.  Why?  Because it, like schizophrenia, tends to manifest in adulthood rather than childhood.  The first symptoms don’t show up until someone is in their mid-twenties or later.  If you’re in college, in an office job, or in another supportive environment where you have a lot of hands-on supervision when the symptoms start to show, you have a good chance of being referred to help before it derails your life.  If, on the other hand, you are flipping burgers or nailing window panes on a factory floor, it’s far more likely that the first “incident” that lands you in front of someone who could help you isn’t going to be mild, it’ll be extreme.  More often than not the outbursts that can characterize mania (or the paranoia of schizophrenia) are misinterpreted as aggression or something more extreme.  There are books, and volumes, and scads, and rants, and epics of information on why it is that poor people with mental health problems seem to inevitably end up in jail or residential treatment for the rest of their lives.  But the truth is the answer is very straightforward:  right now, that’s just what the system is.  If you are poor, the only way you can stay medicated is if you are in jail or residential therapy indefinitely.  That means if you’re in your mid twenties and married with children when you first have an aggressive manic episode on a factory floor, not only is that the only route available to you, but it is the only route available to your family.

Ask yourself if that is just, or even necessary.  Is that the society you want to live in?

Addiction operates in much the same way.  White collar addicts can get chain prescriptions for pain killers, and there are many supports there to act as a barrier between the addict and extreme consequences.  For the poor, reality is again far more harsh.  Unless there is insurance coverage for treatment expenses, chances are treatment will happen when the addict is caught in an illegal action and sent to jail, or their children are taken away and rehab is proscribed by the state as a requirement for reunion.

Is that justice?  Is it necessary?  As the self-ascribed “greatest society”, is that how we should live?

Despite any issues that there may be with the Affordable Care Act, there are a few things it does which are absolutely necessary if there is to be any sense of social justice in the United States.  It makes it so that the poor can have preventative and maintenance mental health care, meaning that problems like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be treated before they become debilitating, and poor people with those illnesses can remain productive members of society and their families are not torn apart.  It also means that people with addictions can be helped before their addiction becomes so severe it becomes a legal matter instead of a personal one.  Even if you have absolutely no interest in those issues as a social justice matter, think about the expense.  How expensive is it to maintain treatment for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia through the jail system and residential programs as opposed to having insurance cover medications?  How expensive is it to treat addiction as a legal matter- court fees, jail costs, state paying for rehab- as opposed to treating it through insurance as a private matter?

The Affordable Care Act isn’t about coddling the poor, it is about saving money, saving lives, and keeping people economically stable and productive instead of burdening society with unnecessary expense and unnecessarily broken people.

If you don’t believe me, go to your nearest residential mental health treatment facility and talk to the people there about how they ended up in that situation.  Hear them talk about how schizophrenia made them homeless and years of going without medication or health care on the streets broke their bodies and caused so many complications they could no longer care for themselves or became suicidal, and the state remanded them to residential care.  Here them talk about how they ended up in jail because they punched their boss but now they know aggression is a symptom of their illness.  “I can’t live without the lorazepam, without it I am violent, but I can’t buy it unless I’m here, so the state says I’m a threat to others.”  Hear their stories, and realize that if we defund the Affordable Care Act, there are only two options open to the very poor who have abnormal mental conditions:  jail, or residential care.  Neither of those options are freedom.

Then ask yourself if that is the society you want to live in.  If you want my generation, and the generation of my children, to send a significant segment of their population to be jailed by the state either literally or with high doses of medication administered several times a day, because their brains are wired differently and we can’t be bothered the expense of keeping them productive.

Think about it.

And when you get that statement in the mail saying your copay is going up to provide full coverage, realize this:  every time a copay goes up, a bipolar factory worker gets to stay on his medication.  Indirectly, your money isn’t going to brigands or scum or people who can’t be bothered to get better jobs; actually, it is going to keep people working and improve the Gross Domestic Profit.

Everybody wins.

In all seriousness, what would Jesus do?

Sometimes I feel like I get upset about the wrong things.  Let me explain, there’s this meme going around that talks about a new pastor’s first sermon to his shiny megachurch.  The story goes that the pastor pretended to be a homeless man and everyone ignored him, even when he begged for money.  He was asked to stand in the back of the church, and when he was finally introduced everyone was horrified, until he preached a really scathing sermon which culminated in his asking the congregation if they were ever going to choose to be disciples.

It seems like most of my Christian friends have been forwarding this meme around.  A lot of people say things like, “wow,” or “so humbling!”

My first reaction to it was to be sick to my stomach.  Then, I was angry.  Then, I was angry-sad.  Then, I had a headache.

There’s a part of me that thinks we all need reminders that Jesus told us that we would be judged by how we treat “the least of these.”  So why don’t I like that meme?

Okay, let’s go through it step by step:

  •  It isn’t true.  This is a story that someone made up, probably to try to put some of the things that Jesus said into a more modern day context, making the church analogous to the pharisees.  I’ve made that analogy myself, so why does it bother me so much in this context?  While I am a little bothered by the meme’s assertion that only a handful of people out of 10,000 would acknowledge the pastor’s presence, I’m more bothered by the pastor himself.  Here we have a well-to-do man with his suit and tie concealed under homeless man’s clothes.  He isn’t really a man of the street that lives off charity, but he pretends to be one.  When Christ said, “What you do to the least of these you do to me” he wasn’t saying it from a comfortable position as a pastor of a megachurch whose tailored suit was hidden under beggar’s clothes- he was saying it as a beggar.  He lived off of the charity and hospitality of others, so when he said, “do it as you would to me” that could be taken quite literally.  If you would welcome Jesus into your home, welcome the beggars in.  If you had food to share with Jesus you had food to share with the lame.  If you would offer Jesus a cup of water, offer it to the sick.  Every offering as such Jesus would accept as an offering to his own person- not because Jesus didn’t need the offerings, but because he did.  These days, we as Christians are far distanced from the reality which Jesus had to live.  I don’t know if we really understand the fact that Jesus didn’t have a pension plan, couldn’t file unemployment, and couldn’t ply his trade while traveling and teaching.  He didn’t have a trust fun he was living off of, he lived off of the goodwill of others.  When we feed the hungry and care for the sick and give room to the homeless, we are remembering that God himself once shared their lot.  This meme?  It doesn’t seem like a humble reminder of that reality, it feels like the opposite.  It treats the reality of Christ’s life that he lived for us as a charade, to be put on and then taken off at the most humiliating moment.
  • It’s a “GOTCHA” moment, not a humble reminder.  Jesus doesn’t deal in shame, so why should we praise those who do?  This isn’t the case of a pastor humbly searching for truth in the guise of a homeless man, like this one, this is a pastor knowingly setting a trap to catch his congregation in.  The whole story hinges off of the judgment that Christians, as a whole, aren’t choosing to be disciples.  That churches do ignore people who aren’t dressed right.  That parishioners with cash in their pockets for the offering basket would give no change to a hungry, needy man sharing their pews.  The pastor, prior to ever preaching a sermon to his new congregation, has already decided they aren’t following Christ and need a scolding.  And rather than, say, inviting actual homeless people in to be cared for, he pretends to be one just to hammer a point home.  No, no thank you.  Jesus didn’t contrive situations to shame his followers.  He lived his life as a genuine example.  Those teachable moments the Bible is full of?  They happened as a natural consequence of how Christ lived.  The only time he set up “traps” for anyone was in response to the traps that had been set up for him.  Jesus didn’t trade in shaming his followers, so neither should we.
  • Who made it up?  What was their motive? We don’t know.  Rather than putting their own name and face to the tale, someone made up a story just to prove their point.  I’m all for parables, Jesus himself was known for them, but this doesn’t feel like that.  This is a lie parading as the truth.  The internet, yes, is full of such things.  Pictures of babies born with deformities meant to shame you if you don’t share them.  Mangled fetuses.  Abused dogs and cats for whom some unnamed stranger will donate a dollar per “like.”  To put it plainly, bullshit.  But this bullshit I’ll take personally, because this bullshit is about the church.  This bullshit about the church hinges off of the fact that no one will question the idea that a congregation of ten thousand are ready and willing to reject a homeless man.

So what does that tell us about the person who wrote the story, and what does it say about those who share it?

Judgment, and shame.  We’ve all judged the church as having fallen on it’s sword, and we all believe that it needs to be shamed.

What.

 

The.

 

Hell?

 

I spent one of the most fulfilling years of my life working as the site supervisor for a homeless shelter.  That shelter operated based off of the goodwill and cooperation of a couple of handfuls of churches surrounding a relatively small, but active, community.  Volunteers stayed with our guests overnight to make sure their needs were met.  Volunteers prepared and delivered hot meals for them twice a day.  Volunteers cleaned up after them.  Volunteers often picked them up and drove them to church on Sunday mornings.  Volunteers talked to them.  Volunteers let them know about job openings in the community, sometimes offered them small jobs, brought gently used clothing to hand out, made Easter and Christmas baskets, and donated thousands of dollars every night to pay the staff who served them.

None of those churches would have ignored a homeless person on a Sunday morning.  Quite the opposite.  Their attention and interest brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it to this day.

Let’s be evenhanded.  If we all agree that most churches don’t give a crap about the people who walk in their doors, what does that say about us?  Our faith?  Or, even more important, what does it say about our belief in God?

Essentially, what that meme says is not that we need to be reminded that Jesus asks us to care for the “least of these”;  what it says is that faith is pointless.  That no one is getting anywhere.  That two thousand years after Christ’s death, the church is useless.  That Christians are, as a whole, hypocrites.  (With the exception of a few self-righteous pricks waiting around for “gotcha” moments to humiliate us all and remind us how little we’ve grown.)  The meme doesn’t remind us of Christ’s love, it reminds us of our own selfishness.  What it offers isn’t hope but condemnation.

I have seen a pastor preaching shirtless in the streets because he gave the shirt off his back (literally) to a street kid.  I’ve seen a poor woman wander into a church in the middle of a service and seen everything stop while the congregation found out what she needed and got her help- including people running to the store to buy her baby diapers and formulas, and her having so many lunch invitations she had to choose who to turn down.

That’s my faith.

I’ve seen people give away the dinner they just cooked for their family and have toast for dinner instead because they heard that someone down the street lost their job and couldn’t get groceries.

That’s my faith.

I’ve seen families take in kids whose parents were arrested so that those kids wouldn’t have to go into foster care.

That’s my faith.

I’ve seen so many people show up at the hospital to pray for a sick relative that some of them never even got in the room.

That’s my faith.

That’s my church.  And I’m not just speaking about one church, but many.  All of the truly genuine people whose example brought me back to the feet of God after I thought I’d left him forever.  I may speak about the judgment of the church making me question my faith in God, but never let it be forgotten that it was the genuine love of the church that brought me back to him.  This is a sword that cuts both ways and cannot be ignored.  Yes, some Christians are assholes.  But there are still many who truly seek to follow Christ and emulate his love, and the only cure for the one is the praise of the other.

If we want people to stop being assholes, we shouldn’t be assholes towards them.  We should seek to be as loving, open, genuine, and kind as they are not.

The solution for a church that ignores the homeless isn’t a heaping helping of condemnation- it’s a loving example of the proper way.

*

Do I sometimes have harsh things to say to other Christians?  Yes.  I believe some of the attitudes I’ve seen towards the poor, towards single mothers, towards gay people, are incredibly destructive.  But I speak against it not because I believe the majority of Christians are selfish assholes but because I believe the opposite.  I believe that if most Christians realized the impact their attitudes had on others, they would willingly and quickly change.  And guess what?  In the six years I have helmed this blog that is what I’ve seen, time and time again.  I have so many stories of hope and change and trust and love that I could spend the rest of my life writing about them, and I’m only just getting started.

So, yeah, I had an allergic reaction to this particular meme.

That’s not my faith.

You, dear reader, you are my faith.  And you deserve better than to be shamed by a lie.

*This cannot be overstated.  If you want a church to take interest in the homeless, the best way is to bring the actual homeless into the church and take care of them.  People respond to love with love, and when they see you loving others their natural response is to do the same.  This is far more effective than shame could ever be.  Give the church an example to be like Christ, and if the church is full of Christians, it’ll happen.

 

Government waste/Societal need

When I worked at the homeless shelter, the knowledge that our budget depended on the government’s generosity never could truly leave our minds.  Most of our donations were won through tax incentives that we needed to continue to be passed, and others came from community development grants and other charitable contributions that all seemed to lead a trail back to capitol hill.  While the churches that housed our guests and the people that fed them every night did so out of charity, my paycheck and the paycheck of those I worked for, the money that kept the lights on and put gas in the van, all traced back to the government.

This is even more true at the residential treatment facility I worked for, where huge portions of the funding were directly tied to social security and medicaid.  Without those programs, we would have had no one to treat and our patients would have been homeless, fully symptomatic, and dangerous to society.

In both places I can say with absolute certainly that the work we did improved our communities, kept them safer, and filled vital needs.

In both places I can say that I am worried what the future holds.

When people talk about the Government’s “wasteful spending” I am horrified that the things most people point at are tax incentive community development programs, medicaid, and welfare.  The argument usually goes like this, “these benefit programs create a dependency that deepens the problem they are meant to address.”  Let’s look at that for a moment.  The first assumption of that argument is that if people didn’t have government incentive programs to develop their communities, they’d be equally able to do it on their own.  It also assumes that people who receive welfare and medicaid are capable of providing for their own needs if they didn’t receive help from the government.  To further that logic, the assumption deepens into a belief that we are wasting our money by giving to people who are capable of, and should be, caring for their own problems.  I will concede that such programs are self-feeding.  (That is, that by giving the benefit they often weaken resolve to move beyond the need for it, or in worst case scenarios the program actively works to keep people in it.)  What I don’t understand is the logic behind the assumptions being made.

Why were these programs created in the first place?  If we believe that people are both capable of providing for these needs on their own and would do so if the government didn’t have them a check, then why would the government have ever handed them the check in the first place?  These programs address real, persistent problems that people can’t fix on their own.  Poverty has always been endemic to our society.  Sociologists will say things like that it fills a societal need by creating the impetus for people to work jobs that are necessarily low paying, or by saying that since there is a conflict over necessarily limited resources it is inevitable that there are people who end up without insufficient resources for survival.  The debate as to the reason extreme poverty exists is ongoing, but what I can say with absolute certainty is that even God himself is quoted as having said “the poor will always be among you.”

It’s a fact of life- the need exists, whether or not a program is created to address it.

The reason the government took on the burden is because it is demonstrated that by raising the basement and making even the poorest in society capable of achieving more,  everyone benefits.  It is beneficial to all of us that the children of the very poor have healthcare.  It is beneficial to all of us that children do not starve or have the meal they eat at school as their only meal of the day.  It is beneficial to all of us that community development programs offer tax incentives that drive community members to donate more to food banks, homeless shelters, and beautification programs that remodel the homes and apartment complexes that the very poor live in and cannot care for by themselves.

Do these programs create a self-feeding cycle?  Perhaps they do.  But even so the money is not wasted, the more the programs are cut the more people end up starving, or homeless, or literally insane and on the streets.

It isn’t safe to cut them without a backup plan, and I’ve yet to hear any backup plan other than social darwinism.

And do you know what social darwinism leads to?  Dead babies.

hurts like Heaven.

I love my job.

But there are days that I really, really hate my job.  For the most part I work with people who have had a lot of bad things happen to them.  Sometimes it’s really awful- the kind of stuff that seems more at place in a horror novel then a quiet midwestern town.  Sometimes, it’s the kind of stuff that leads to me locking myself in the bathroom for a time out.  The worst part of it isn’t the fact that I’m a visual person by nature and thus struggle with visualizing the badness and taking it home in the form of nightmares.  The worst part is that often I’m dealing with people whose lives have trained them to believe that they deserve no better, they will get no better, and the best that they can hope for themselves is to grow thick enough skins that they become numb to the pain.

There are men who learn that “real” manliness is fighting back and fighting dirtier.  Women who think that they need to trade sex for safety.  Kids who think that learning is for nerds and losers and the way to get ahead in life is to punch the other guy first.  Mothers who reject their children because responding with sympathy to a babies neediness makes them vulnerable.  Men who reject their pregnant wives for the same reason.  The world is full of people who know nothing other than cycles of poverty and pain, people who see daily happiness as just as much of a fantasy as the whole family getting along over the holidays.  The world has a seedy underbelly of pain and discontent that so many are blissfully unaware of- but for the people who live there, that is the entire world.

Pain, heartbreak, rejection and more pain.  The smart ones learn to reject before they can be rejected, to cut more quickly and more deeply, to make sure that everyone else owes them more than they owe anyone.

It’s hard to remember that there’s hope beyond all hopes, that there is a love that conquers fear, that there is a peace that surpasses all understanding.  It’s hard to remember, but most of the time I manage to.  And I do my best to continue to be God’s hands and feet in this world.  I offer love, and then I experience the greatest heartbreak of all: love rejected with a wary eye.  Love mistrusted.  Love responded to with anger and fear.

And I lock myself in the bathroom again.  And sitting there, in the dark and heat (because for some odd reason our bathroom is the hottest room in the building, like a sauna, suffocatingly hot) listening to the sound of the radiator rattling like Marley’s ghost, I realize that what I am experiencing is only a fraction of the heartbreak that the Spirit feels every day when we mistrust God’s love for us, when we respond to salvation with cynism, when we judge others before they can judge us.

The answer is simple:  love more strongly.  Believe with more conviction.  Offer more grace.  Create an overflow of mercy and affection so strong that it washes away even the most stubborn of barriers.  Live every second of your life in the hope of salvation.  Pick up the shield of faith, wear the belt of truth, set your feet in the readiness that comes from the Gospel of peace.

We already have earned our reward if we only love those who want to be loved.

We have to love the way God loves.

And God just… loves.  Everyone.  Constantly.

I would say it hurts like Hell, but that’s a misnomer.  It hurts like Heaven, but that’s the kind of hurt that’s worth carrying with you.

It could change the world.