Friday, October 31, 2014
“Feeding the hungry is a greater work than raising the dead.” –St. John Chrysostom
I've talked before here about the poverty of inconvenience. Over this past year, we've had several opportunities to see some real poverty up close. We live in a small, rural town, so though there is plenty of poverty here, plenty of kids go hungry at night, and we are aware of that, it doesn't show up in the same way. Because people have friends and family that take care of them, because restaurants take extra food to those who are in need at their back door, our soup kitchens, food banks and senior centers are set up in such a way that, even though there are a lot of people who use them, it doesn't seem so in your face. In some ways, I wish it was more in our face, because our government welfare and food stamps makes the poor somewhat invisible to us. We no longer have long food lines that make poverty visible to everyone.
That wasn't a problem while we were in San Antonio. We saw more obvious, and lonely, poverty there than we have in a long time. Our first night there, we were walking around, trying to find a pizza place we'd read about, when we passed a homeless man on the street. He was friendly, we smiled, and he asked where we were headed, we told him what we were looking for and, though he couldn't help us find it, he had been given a pizza to eat, and he offered to share it with us. On the one hand we didn't want to take food from a man who may not see it regularly, on the other hand, we were so touched that this stranger would share what he had with us. We didn't take it, but we did remember him and pray for him.
The very next morning, on our way to church across from the hotel, we were met by a woman, Kim, who had been abused by her husband. She had burns on her leg that she showed us, and she showed us ID to prove that she wasn't scamming us. This is not a part of our normal life, needless to say. She needed money for a bus ticket to get to her mother's. Since the bus station wasn't open yet, and we were on our way to church, we invited her to join us, then we would walk her to the bus station and pay for the ticket. She was really reluctant to go in, seemed to feel she wasn't in the right clothes or position to be in the church. So, Rich asked her to wait outside for him, while he got me settled, then he would return to take her to the bus depot. As we went in, we told the ushers that there was a woman in need outside, who needed prayer and assistance, but when they went out, she was gone. I don't know if she thought we were lying to her, or if she was just uncomfortable. Rich went after her, though, and found her to help. We've been praying for her ever since.
Even one day there while Rich was coming to meet me for something, he ran into a man, Eric, who was just out of prison, had turned his life around, but was having a hard time finding a job. Rich talked to him as a man who hires people and tried to give him some hints and assistance with ideas for interviews and applications, and he took him to lunch. We normally do not run into this many desperate people in a year, let alone in less than a week. Poverty is not as openly displayed here.
When we went to Ballard this summer, there was a man playing piano in the park. I stopped there to listen and sing along and knit. As he played and sang, he talked about his life, and how he was once a resident of this rather posh neighborhood. But he was down on his luck and had been homeless. He now played piano for the city, who did pay him, but he was not allowed to take tips. The only way I could assist was to listen. So, I did.
Rich and I are more and more convicted of our duty to provide for the poor in whatever way we can. Time are tough for everyone, but for us, it means tightening our belts a little. We don't have a lot that is extra, and with hospital bills and whatnot, there really isn't any extra anymore, but it is always possible to cut something or cut back on something to provide for someone else. Homeschooling allows us to bring our children with us to food banks to work, or to assist at the church soup kitchen. Even our gleaning club, while it provides excellent produce for us, and allows us to cut our grocery bills considerably, first gleans for the food bank or senior center, then people glean for themselves. This weekend, Dominic went with Rich to glean huge, organic, butternut squash and red onions, and after gleaning for the food bank, and for our family, the farmer told the gleaning club that there was another group there gathering squash for another charity, and their volunteers didn't all show up, so up Dominic went into the bed of a semi while Rich was tossing squash up to him to stack in the bins. We want our children to grow up with compassion and generosity for the poor, rather than disdain.
We try to keep food in our car as snacks for the kids, and emergency rations should we get stuck somewhere, but also so we can give something to those who are at street corners begging. Even if they are drug users, they still need something to eat. We hope our children are learning that. So, on a recent trip to Fred Meyer, which requires a drive to another city now, I bought some rosemary bread and a roasted chicken to get a little lunch in me before I left. I saved the rest for the kids, so they could have a snack when I got home. However, at the light, there was a young couple, who were holding a sign asking for money or food. I was embarrassed to offer them my leftovers. But, I asked if they minded taking my leftovers, told them I had used a fork and knife on it, and they took it, rather gratefully.
Rich has an acquaintance that he met through his work who has had a terrible string of disasters. Some of his own making, which he will readily admit. But God keeps putting this man in Rich's path. He'll see him walking into or out of town as he's driving, and feels moved to pick him up and give him a ride. They talk, they pray. In fact, this man recently converted to Christianity, and came by Rich's office after hours while Rich was still working because he wanted to share that with him, thinking that Rich was one of the few men he knew who would care and rejoice with him. He said he appreciated how Rich had always been honest as well as compassionate, telling him when what he was choosing was wrong, as well as offering assistance, regardless of that.
I'm not sharing this to tell you how great we are. Or how we always get this right. We don't. I can tell you a story of a lost opportunity here in our own town that both Rich and I deeply regret. Near our home, there is a little parking area where people stop to walk, hike, hunt, play paintball, whatever. There was a motor home parked there for some time. Every time Rich went to work and back, every time I went into town or home, we passed them. At first we wondered what the deal was, and why they didn't leave. Then, we realized they were living there, probably because they had no other place to live. Rich wanted to stop and bring them something, but was worried that the woman might feel threatened by a man coming alone. I wanted to bring them something, but we were worried about my safety going to strangers in a relatively deserted area where there are lots of transients and not lots of witnesses. So, we kept waiting for a time we both could go. Until one day, they weren't there any more. We didn't listen to our consciences and make the time and we lost the opportunity.
We strongly disagree with most government programs to relieve poverty. Not because we oppose it, but because it is the job of the Church, and the government does it badly. St. John Chrystostom said:
For if you wish to show kindness, you must not require an accounting of a person’s life, but merely correct his poverty and fill his need. When you see on earth the man who has encountered the shipwreck of poverty, do not judge him, do not seek an account of his life, but free him from his misfortune. Charity is so called because we give it even to the unworthy.
Let us also do this, I beg you, without making any inquiry more than necessary. Need alone is the poor man’s worthiness; if anyone at all ever comes to us with this recommendation, let us not meddle any further. We do not provide for the manners but for the man. We show mercy on him not because of his virtue but because of his misfortune, in order that we ourselves may receive from the Master His great mercy, in order that we ourselves, unworthy as we are, may enjoy His philanthropy. For if we were going to investigate the worthiness of our fellow servants, and inquire exactly, God will do the same for us.
It is not that we should be contributing to someone's addiction or poor choices. It is that God does not give to us conditionally. It is important to know the root of someone's poverty, and alleviate that as well, but if we do not have any reason or ability to have an accounting of his life, it is simply our duty to give. It is not our business to go rooting around in his history to discover if he is worthy of our assistance. On the contrary, however, when government takes money from citizens to do this work, it is precisely their, and our, business to make sure the money is not being squandered. This is one reason it is better for such actions to happen with individuals and private organizations. Asking why a person is sick, poor, homeless, addicted, or otherwise in need does have value, but not in determining worthiness. The person deserves help because he needs it, and because God has called us to help our neighbor. He even clarified that our neighbor might very well be our enemy. By all means, if you have a relationship with the person in need, discover what contributes to their plight, but use that to help lead them out of the situation, which is an act of justice which, like charity, is a Christian obligation.
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