Friday, October 21, 2011

Well Fare

The United States Welfare System has been on my mind recently. I've been collecting my thoughts, as opposed to just spewing them as I sometimes do, because I really care about the issues that this article represents.

Government assistance programs can include the areas of food, rent, health care, and cash monies. These programs have been in effect since our country's mother, England herself, sent people forth to tame the wild and wooly backwoods of The New World. England had laws regarding poverty and those experiencing it, and the colonists carried them over with their wigs and love of tea. However, the systems that are in place today are largely due to the Great Depression of last century. The leaders looked around and saw widespread poverty that was due to nothing more than the collapse of the economic system. Thus, aid for families, the elderly, the infants, and all those in-between, was seen as necessary. This wasn’t your grandfather’s welfare system. People with doctorates were sharing dirty bowls of beans with those who had no teeth.

The country experienced poverty in a new way. There wasn’t enough money or food or housing because there weren’t enough jobs because nobody could buy food or cars or shoes because….you know. The vicious cycle is as fragile as The Emperor’s New Clothes. Suddenly it wasn’t just the uneducated or unwilling who carried their belongings in a feed sack. It was your cousin, your best friend, your doctor. Bad things, wrong things, just happening to people on your street for no reason. It was shockingly unnerving, and there had to be a solution to care for those who wanted to pay their rent and butcher but couldn’t.

I hesitate to say that poverty leads to all manner of sins, because I've lived in poverty and haven't committed any crimes aside from dancing in a public fountain. The fountain wasn't because I was angry about being poor, as much as the whimsical fancy of a moment in which I realized that life often repeats itself over and again in such a nauseating deja vu, and the only way to cope was to slip off my shoes and laugh crazily while splashing through a fountain. The police officer who noticed me wasn't impressed with my life or its seemingly infinite ability to stump me at every turn, nor did he care that The Universe punished me by causing my thigh to meet an invisible piece of dirty metal in the fountain, resulting in a cinematographer's delight of blood spraying into coppery water. I found it ironic that this scratch developed a hideous barnacle-looking gangrenous fungous that didn't go away for a few weeks. 

Still, though...poverty frequently leads to things that are not as tame as fountain dancing. If you don't know why, I would venture to say that you lack both heart and imagination, in which case you should lay down and die. Poverty indicates need. If you have a need for food, you will look for something to ease your hunger. If nothing can be found, you might wait it out and plan to eat more at a later hour. More likely, however, you will root around in your trunk until you find that bag of leftover Halloween candy that you hid last year while your kids were asleep. You will hate yourself, but you'll secretly be happy when you find a peanut butter cup amongst the Nerds. Hunger is temporarily abated, and you can resume your regular activities with full attention. But what if you don't have that Ugly Bag of Halloween Shame? Let's say that this uncomfortable feeling stretches for more than two meals. You suddenly have no qualms with walking through the grocery store looking for samples. You might look at your neighbor’s leftovers and wonder if tucking in would be gauche.

Let's say that your kids are part of the mix. Let's say they wake up at night because they are hungry. What might you do then? You've paid rent, you pay the sitter so you can go to work. There isn't any money for another four days. Just like the candy from the trunk,just like the samples at the store, suddenly your perception of what makes an acceptable meal changes. I'm going to be flat out honest and admit that if my kids hadn't eaten and I had no way to feed them, I would steal food. I wouldn't be proud of it but I also wouldn't feel like I was hated by God. I would feed my children, because letting them starve is a greater evil. 

I have never been the recipient of government programs, though this is only because I didn't know that I could receive them. Instead, miraculously, I've been lucky enough to be helped along the way by friends or neighbors or straight up angels who handed me a box of noodles. The angels were still appreciated, despite the fact that I didn't have a pot with which to cook the noodle manna.

The subject of government assistance is touchy. Oddly enough, it seems to be more so within the American Evangelical churches. I've heard the same things that you have: He's too proud to take any handouts. She has too much character to ask someone else to work for her. They would rather starve than ask for help.

This, in my opinion, is mostly stupid. There is always the village idiot who refuses to work and likes to bathe in his own vomit. But he is the exception, not the rule. We can't have a society of any kind based on exceptions. But let's take a look at the rule, as it has been on my mind for such a long time.

Most kids will tell you that they didn't know they were poor. They were blissfully unaware that Mom and Dad sold plasma and sperm in order to buy them new shoes or a bike for Christmas. (As an aside -- I am aware that large portions of the world live in abject poverty and saying that someone who owns a bike is poor sounds ridiculous. And really, it probably is. For the sake of argument, I'm coming from a strictly American viewpoint here, for better or worse.)

I, however, knew that my parent's household budget was held together with off-brand chewing gum and someone's dirty shoelace. I knew this because I heard the fights and the late nights of 'oh crap what are we going to DO?!' I know what my parents’ income was for certain years, and even accounting for inflation, I cannot for the life of me understand how they kept the water running. Some of it, don't tell Dave Ramsey, is due to credit cards. I know, I know. Nobody needs them. Except for when you already have 4 jobs and can't find a cheaper place to live and you don't have television or steak or birthday presents or medicines or other such luxury. And then, well. Dave, I still can’t work that out. But really, my family was kept afloat because people in our community still understood the rules of Christian charity and hospitality.

If you aren't familiar with the concept, I'll start by saying that it is not just inviting people over once a month for your turkey-surprise-a-la-cream-of-mushroom-king. This is not Martha Stewart’s guest cards and linen napkins. This is an ancient law of sorts that predates our country and our faith.

The 'rules of hospitality' isn't just a phrase. For more of history than not, there were codes that dictated the way people lived. The codes were spoken and unspoken, but they guided communities through the ages. They are the basis of ancient and modern law. This is where we get to the rules of hospitality. It isn’t about proper forks. There were specific rules for the host and the guest, depending on the time period. But in essence, it comes down to this: If someone comes to your home needing food, lodging, or both, you cannot refuse him. Be it stranger, friend, wealthy aristocrat, or filthy beggar, your casa is also his casa. Literally. If you only have a loaf of bread to feed your family, you are still to give a fair share to the guest. You don't have to treat them as a guest of honor or give them your own bed. You do, however, need to make them feel welcome by not withholding. Hospitality isn't grudging, even if the heart feels otherwise. A pallet on the floor under your roof is more generous than the wet ground outside, if this is what you have to share. However, if you have a bed or meal, so much the better!

Hospitality often meant that you couldn't tell your guests to leave. There wasn’t a limit of one meal or one night. You weren’t released from your duty based on how much you gave. On the flip side, there were rules for the guest. While in another's home, you couldn't act indecorously or with ill intent. It was understood that you would molest neither person nor object, and that when you were able to be on your way, you would take your leave with thanks for your host. If you were used to better food, you wouldn’t mock the generosity of those who took you in. If you were used to lesser fare you wouldn’t stay on just because life tasted better at the manor!

These hospitality rules, or later, rules of charity or Christian charity or so forth, are largely extinct. I say this because if it were not so, there would be no need of governmental assistance, or at least a greatly reduced need. In many aspects, I believe that the Church has failed, and the next organizational group had to pick up the slack. We no longer care for the sick in pretty much any capacity. I’m not saying I want Sister Crazy Eyes to give me shot, but I think the entire world suffered when church-supported hospitals and staff gave up or were pushed out.

As a country, we mostly shake our fist and demand to know if we are our brother's keeper. But what we mean is more like this:

"Hey, I understand tough times. I remember 30 years ago when I only had oatmeal to eat for six weeks. I made it out. I made something of myself, worked hard, put my nose to the grindstone, burned the midnight oil, and look at me now: I own a car that costs more than your house, I take my family skiing eight times a year, and I bathe in wine you've never heard of. Keep your chin up and one day you can be like me. But I don't want to enable you by giving you anything more than my sage advice. You won't die of hunger, most likely. If it gets THAT bad, come see me. I'll throw packets of oatmeal on the grass for you to pick up. Speaking of grass, do you want to cut mine for 50 cents? No? Well, beggars can't be choosers. You are obviously in this situation because you want to be."

Am I overdoing it? Of course. Otherwise it would be far less interesting to read. I'm compiling people into a few basic groups, and obviously we are more varied and subtle than I've allowed for. But again, I'm not making this stuff up. I've actually heard every one of those sentences, though if I hear them in immediate succession from one mouth, I will do something drastic involving a grindstone, midnight oil, and someone’s expensive car. 

We are all at relative levels of prosperity. If you live in Malibu, you are most likely not dealing with the level of financial trouble that I am. Likewise, if you lost your job and have no health insurance, you are dealing with much more financial stress than me. We can always look at another tier on the ladder of socioeconomics and think that others have it easier. But then you can always look in the other direction and realize that things could be much, much worse. 

The rules of hospitality were largely in place for those who were less fortunate. People of means were generally able to plan their travels or dealings, working out the ordeals of what to eat and where to sleep and how to pay for a healer if bad luck befell them. However, we must note that even the king could find himself separated from his group, in need of food and a place to rest his head. 

The issue, then, is far less about money than need. 

As I said, poverty indicates need. That does NOT, however, mean that the lack of poverty indicates a lack of need. The need might be harder to spot, but it is all the more important because it is likely to go unnoticed. 

Those who can't figure out how to buy coats for the winter are in need of.....coats for the winter. Give them one, find them one, share yours, or tell them you see that they need the darn coat. People in need don't want to feel invisible. Just because you can't buy Sally a car doesn't mean you can't talk about it. Ask her what happened, sympathize with her needs, tell her you'll be there to talk if she needs someone. Address the problem, and then at least you share the problem and Sally doesn't feel quite so alone. In doing so, you'll be amazed to find how often you drive right by her house and can give her at least one more ride she doesn't have to stress about.

Those who lived in gilded palaces of This Designer Is The Best are in need of....what? Shockingly, sometimes they need a gift. You'd be surprised at how infrequently Prestonious Alston Rookworth VIII gets a present. After all, he has everything. How much would he scoff at a paper box full of homemade cookies? His wife would tell all her friends how low-class I am if I gave them seasonal hand towels. And yet, people in need don't want their need to go unnoticed. Perhaps you are guilty of thinking that those with buckets of money are immune to heartache or loneliness or even their own money troubles. How shallow of me, and how wrong. How very wrong. Maybe you can't be their best friend, or otherwise fill their need. But just like with the car, you can share the knowledge that someone sees their need. Burdens are shared, if not alleviated. You might be amazed to find how often you can wave at them from across the YMCA and share the disgust of those who take more than 30 minutes on the treadmill. 

I've been on both sides of the giving. I've never lived in a cardboard box or a mansion, so I'm lucky to be in the middle of giving and receiving. I've never been on government assistance, and it wasn't because there wasn't a need. Instead, my need was noticed by someone who shared in the human experience. I was their brother, and time after time after gracious time, I had a coat for the winter or a meal for my family. I've also been in need of more than the basics. To say that we need bread and water to survive is to equate living with survival. How many times did I get a pedicure, a new book, a concert ticket...just because someone was loving enough to notice my needs and my wants? I cannot count the times my plumber paid my bill, the friend passed on baby clothes, the grandmother sent a cake. My family and I are products of a small society that embraces the rules of hospitality. 

I'm afraid that the system is failing. Too many people don't understand what needs are, or look down on those that have them. Weakness is attributed to those who have lost their jobs, ignorance to those who never made it through school. God forgive us of the things we say about people on the street, especially in the name of God. 

You might remind me that the Bible (if you read it) and Puritan laws (which are frequently the basis of American thoughts on this topic) say that if someone doesn't work, that someone shouldn't eat. 

If you know of someone who has no job or function, who refuses to work for any type of payment, who delights in their state of poverty and wants no life beyond the welfare check, I would say that you could probably let them skip a meal or two. Why? Well, the old codes had this in place because a day without food is often sufficient for character change. Suddenly, someone who doesn't want to work finds that they might want to paint a wall or wash a car.  A hungry belly has a way of cutting through formerly stalwart positions. 

However, the Bible does NOT tell you to let someone perish in their ignorance. We are all fallen and do stupid things Don't let someone starve, and don't let his children starve and don't tell them it is because they don't really want to get out of their situation. When someone acts totally stupid, it is indeed your job to try and try and try again to help. Is it irritating? Yes. Is it unfair? Yes! Are you any better just because you are past that particular struggle? Uh….

I was recently reminded of the verse in which Jesus says that if we feed or clothe someone, we do it to him. When we pass someone up who needed something, we are passing up on Jesus as well. Sounds pretty straightforward to me. While you don't have to sell all your goods and share it equally among the masses, you DO have to take care of the needs that you are able to care for. If you have a family, God commands you to care for their body and soul. They come first. But if you have an extra blanket, hamburger, or ten-dollar bill, you need to consider the possibility that it meets a need. 

I’ll leave you with this thought:
The innkeeper in the Nativity story gets totally screwed over. He might have been a total jerk, or he might have been just a normal guy who already had a full house. Let’s not assume just because an angel told shepherds and wise men that a messiah was coming, that we would have been in the loop. It wasn’t a big entrance, and we might consider the possibility that the innkeeper wasn’t told to prepare The Atlantis Suite because God had other plans. We jeer at the evil innkeeper for making sweet baby Jesus be born in the hay with cows. Chances are we would have told Joseph to get a better job or call the church down the street or at least have the decency not to beg. The innkeeper followed the ancient rules of hospitality. He gave them a roof and place to be under his protection. He didn’t turn them away. He didn’t lament the lack of systems in place for Mary and Joseph and then respond by telling all his other guests to kick in some cash to buy a baby cradle. But he did do what he could, and it was accepted by a divine being who was watching his incarnate self be born from a human, wandering the road in pain, looking for a place to rest.

If Mary had to wait for government housing to open up, or food stamps or red tape and signatures, the story would be so different. But it was an act of grace, an acceptance of humility and yet also of pride. Joseph and Mary were humble enough to come into a barn, but had enough pride to ask for shelter.

If you are still reading, I can only say thanks. You’ve filled a need for me, be it healthy or not, for others to read what I have to say. I don’t know if it provoked any thoughts or made you angry. If so, I am sorry. The things that we are passionate about are the hardest to explain and communicate.

Thanks for being my support system, and never turning me away. Would that I could repay you, but until then I have only awe and tears of gratitude to remind me not to dance in a dirty fountain.  


GingerSnaps said...

THIS!!! You express here what I have been trying to say for weeks now, but with the results of talking to a brick wall. Maybe since you are our dear Pastor's daughter/Associate Pastor's wife, you can open some hearts better than I can... Thank you!!!! #goodstuff

Denise said...

Wonderful read!! You've put me in a spot of deep thought and soul searching... in the best possible way. I hope many more read this!

the beam team said...

Wow, Tiff! I want to be one that extends true Christian hospitality! Thank you for sharing your thoughts in such an honest and provocative way. I always look forward to your posts. :)

Talitha said...

I love this. It is possibly my favorite blog of yours (although that would be difficult to choose). You were able to eloquently express what many of us feel but don't know how to say. Well done!