catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 18 :: 2010.10.08 — 2010.10.21


Saturday mornings in the church basement

Not long ago, on a bright and sunny day in early spring, with the temperature hovering close to 80 degrees, I sat in the basement of our church and interviewed a young lady who was about to be evicted from her apartment. Not long before this, she was working 30-35 hours a week at a fast food franchise, taking classes at the local community college, sharing an apartment with her best friend, socializing with her peers on weekends and otherwise living the busy but promising and hopeful life of someone standing on the cusp of adulthood.

And then the economic tsunami blew into our state and knocked down her future like a house of straw. Her hours were cut in half, forcing her to drop her college classes. Then, her roommate lost her job and moved out of the apartment. Unable to cover the rent all by herself, her landlord started the eviction process. With time-warp speed, her happy and hopeful life turned upside down, and she found herself with her toes wrapped around the edges of an abyss, looking down into a very uncertain future.

She came to our St. Vincent de Paul Society on this sunny morning to ask for our aid, and, given her circumstances, it didn’t long for us to extend a hand to help her get out of this mess. With our help, as well as the help of several other charitable organizations in our community, she was able to catch up on her back rent, stop the eviction process and to stave off, at least temporarily, the wolves baying at her door.

Now, I am fully aware of the difference between charity and justice, and I clearly understand the significance of our act. I realize that all we did is offer an act of kindness to one particular individual desperately in need, and that the act was, at best, a temporary solution to our client’s problems. I know that, come Monday morning, the economic conditions and systemic injustices woven deeply into the fabric of our financial institutions will still be in place and as strong as ever.

With all that being said, I also have to state that such specific acts of charity have a value far greater than the amount of the monetary gift or the number of individuals served. First and foremost, they do a positive good for someone deeply in need. They stop people from being evicted from their homes, keep the heat on in the middle of the winter, prevent cars so desperately needed to get from one minimum wage job to another from being re-possessed. In the case of our client, a career in the drug trade might not be such a bad idea if the choices were between it and eviction, or an unhealthy and abusive relationship becomes a lot more tolerable if the only other option is a life on the streets. Acts of charity may be meager and temporary, mere drops in an ocean of misery and suffering, but they are also specific, concrete, and observable. They have an immediate and direct impact on the quality of someone’s life, lighten the burden of a fellow human being, and this alone is worth the price of admission.

Just as important, though, is the impact of these Saturday mornings sitting in the church basement have on me, how they color the way I look at the world. Looking into the eyes of people as they tell their tales of economic woe brings the face of poverty and injustice up close and personal. No longer can I think of these things as a cause, or political issue, or something that happens “out there,” but not in my house. What visits me in the middle of the night is not an economic issue or an abstract concept. Rather, it is the sad, scared eyes of the young lady about to be evicted from her apartment, the trembling voice of the mother of three being forced out of her home of the last nine years into an apartment in a dubious part of town, the creased face of the woman who needs help expunging a fifteen-year-old felony from her record so she doesn’t have to worry about losing one of the three jobs she juggles to keep her economic wits together. These are the images that color the way I view the world now, that add heart and soul and body to the cold, hard facts and statistics.

Here are just a couple of ways my Saturday mornings in the church basement have tinted my world.  First, being poor is not for the weak or faint-hearted. It takes strength, energy, determination and a good deal of shoe leather. Charity doesn’t come in the form of a big, benevolent agency that waves a wand and grants your every wish. Charity is scattered around our community in small pockets — a few dollars over here, a few more over there, a heating voucher at this agency, a food bank at that church. Chasing it all down and putting it all together is a hard, frustrating and time-consuming job.

The concepts of “deserving and undeserving” poor are concepts created by those at the top of the system to dehumanize those at the bottom. They are created to blur the face of poverty, to rationalize dominant beliefs and to serve as a salve for the troubled conscience of the privileged. I am sure there are people out there milking the system for all it’s worth, but what I see when I look into the eyes of my clients, what I hear when I listen to their voices, is compelling and overwhelming need and a desperate desire to keep themselves and their loved ones out of the abyss they are so close to falling into.

I could go on and on like this, listing the things I have learned in the past year, describing the ways I have changed, some of them small, others huge and mind-bending paradigm shifts. The theological name for this process is sanctification, and it is not a Saul-blinded-by-the-side-of-the-road thing. It is a drip-by-drip, Saturday-by-Saturday, step-by-baby-step process. It works like this: every time I look into someone’s eyes and listen to his or her story, I add it to my collection, accumulated in a corner of my heart. One by one, they change me, add something to my consciousness that wasn’t there before, slip a new lens over my eye so I see the world in a different light, and put me more in line with the person I hope to become.

And, believe me, do I have a long way to go before I reach that destination. I am not quite ready to sell my house and all my worldly possessions, say farewell to my family, put on a pair of sandals and follow in the dusty footsteps of Jesus. I will need a lot more Saturday mornings in the church basement before I reach that place. But these Saturday mornings do keep me moving in that direction. They teach me to keep my eyes open, wide open, and to be aware and ready to act when the opportunity comes. Some of these opportunities are small acts of charity, things that affect a few people one issue at a time. But others are bigger issues now, ones that have a deeper impact and more heft to them. These issues are more labor intensive, take more time and effort, but when they are finished, they will have a major effect on whole segments of our population.

The most important thing I have learned from my Saturday mornings, I think, is that the distinction between charity and justice is a thin one, that they are really two sides of the same coin. The road to justice is long and hard, one that takes a toll on the body and soul. Coming face to face with poverty on Saturday morning is one of the things that keeps me on that path, motivates me to look at the larger issues, the systemic ones that send our clients to us in the first place. It is charity and justice together that provide the metaphorical kick in the pants that keeps me going in the direction I want to go. Each is important in its own right and plays a positive role in our culture. All by themselves, though, their power is muted. Charity does much good but is temporary and limited. Justice takes on the big issues and looks for cures, but can be distant and mechanical, leading to burnout and a sense of hopelessness. Braid the two together, though — fuse their power so they feed off of each other — and you have a synergy that burns brightly, a source of inspiration and strength that keeps me plugging along that path, and brings me back for more. It is this braided quilt of charity and justice that is the source of my hope and dream that someday I will show up for duty in the church basement on a sunny Saturday early in spring and find no one there — because no one needs to be there.

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