Tuesday, June 09, 2009

the question of the undeserving poor

There is a question that has clouded the air around work with the poor for as long as such work has existed: Is there a delineation between the "deserving" and the "undeserving" poor? To the advocate for love, the latter designation might sound appalling. One might pontificate: "Well, we are all undeserving of the grace granted us by a merciful God." And such a statement would be theologically sound, perhaps stirring up some inner nobility among speaker and hearers alike. But the lines are not so black and white as nobility would wish, not even when the social service agency is a rock-solid group of Christ Followers. The question of "who deserves my help?" clouds the air of churches and agencies, a difficult and lingering haze through which social service ministries have to navigate pretty much constantly. The haze is familiar to me now, nearly 8 months into my work with the homeless. I no longer expect to see things clearly when I go to work--no, I know I'm going to walk in there and it's going to get fuzzy before I have a chance to look around.

Some examples:

1. A local pastor calls to let me know that he's considering hiring John, one of our biggest drinkers, to do some maintenance work on a weekly basis (he's already chatted with John about it). He asks me what I think, and my response is immediate: "I'd rather have you hire someoe else. John will without a doubt drink the money you pay him (I call it 'liquidating their assets'). I have some guys here who have been working on sobriety who need work, and I'd rather send you one of them, maybe Jesse." The pastor, as one who clearly lives under the call of the gospel, feels the same dilemma I do, even as I speak as if I didn't. Part of John's drinking comes from boredom and frustration. The job would give him a sense of dignity, which is half the goal for us. But I know the odds are more than overwhelming that he'll liquidate those assets. Jesse is over 5 months sober and will use the money for healthier purchases. He "deserves" the work more. What does the gospel ask me to do here? Not logic. Not even fairness. The Gospel.

2. Upstairs at the Salvation Army, requests for clothing vouchers and warm items come in at an over 100% increase from last year. The budget is tight, and many families with young children are coming in for help. Then one of our alcoholic clients from FMS walks in and asks for a clothing voucher and sleeping bag. He plans to continue camping and drinking, and responds to the urging toward rehab with an only slightly veiled version of "screw you". But he is a life, and his body will freeze to death in the cold the same way a more "deserving" person's would. What would Jesus do in this case?

Dilemmas abound: Do I buy a bus ticket to rehab for the woman who has already tried and quit twice, each timing coming back to drink and spewing hatred at us when we ask her why she left the program? Do I continue to provide services to the man who constantly disrupts the community and gets arrested, and then openly declares that he has no intention of changing his situation? Do I help with paperwork for the client who is applying for disability, even after he has manipulated every agency in town, even taking the pain meds they paid for and selling them, sometimes to kids? These questions rattle around in my mind day after day. The haze follows me home, clouds my thoughts, makes me wrestle with the gospel on a level I have never known before. I come back again and again to the story of Jesus and the paralytic (see earlier blog), and I wrestle some more.

I look often to the writings of one of my heroes, Dorothy Day (less for answers, more for companionship in the questions): "...there is nothing to do but love. There are families among us, destitute families, destitute to an unbelievable extent, and there, too, is nothing to do but love. What I mean is that there is no chance of rehabilitation, no chance, as far as we can see, of changing them; certainly no chance of adjusting them to this abominable world around them--and who wants them adjusted, anyway? What we would like to do is change the world--make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And to a certain extent, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, of the poor, of the destitute--the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words--we can to a certain extent change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble into the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world. We repeat: there is nothing that we can do but love, and dear God--please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as well as our friend." (taken from the Catholic Worker, June 1946)

Nothing to do but love. This doesn't necessarily clear up the questions, but it calls me to a default. In all the fuzziness, I will seek to err on the side of love. When in doubt, default to love. If I fail while trying to love, then I have at least ventured mightily, right?

More than this, I notice that the goal is to "make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do." This means seeking justice on a systemic level. I may have to wrestle a great deal over what to do with the alcoholic sitting in my office day to day. It is agonizing at times, and probably will remain so. But I can far more confidently seek out the systems that keep that person down and fight them outright. Then perhaps the question of deserving and undeserving poor will fade; then, perhaps, there will simply be fewer who are destitute. And that is the goal of love. I recall the prayer repeated again and again in the simple sanctuary in Green Mountain Falls: "God, we look forward to the day when sharing by all will mean scarcity for none."

Until that day, pray for those workers who face the question every day. It is just plain harder than you'd think.