Woe to the complacent and overconfident who sleep in comfortable beds, eat and drink well, and idly entertain yourselves while ignoring the collapse of the poor and middle class.
Two weeks ago I wrote about gangs and their relationship with the police and the lack of concern for the plight of the poor among average American Christians. Today I want to reflect on the Church’s call to work with the poor. Three things happen when working with the poor- grace, frustration, and burnout.
Lots of people experience joy, grace, and fulfillment when working with the poor. I have heard hundreds of times from people, “The poor give me so much more than what I give them.” I believe this is true. I have seen young people transformed by working on a house in Appalachia or serving food at a soup kitchen. I have seen people amazed that gang members in many cases are regular people. I have seen people find purpose in life by visiting the sick or taking communion to the homebound. I think we experience grace when we come out of ourselves and give our talents to others.
So if this is true why are we not more creative in our responses to the poor. First, I think Jesus parable of the sewer and the seeds gives us a good image. Jesus describes the seeds that land on the foot path, the rocky soil, among the thorns, and the seed that land in fertile soil.
The first two basically reject the gospel, while the last two accept the gospel to various degrees. The third group Jesus says, “…seeds landed among the thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them” (Mt. 13:7). Later he describes these people, “As for what was sown among the thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (Mt. 13:22).
Now I might disagree with Jesus and Matthew here. It yields something, but it yields less than it should, a lot less than it should. It costs to work with the poor. There is no money in it, except for those who exploit the poor. We feel that we have to spend our money as well as our time. Both time and money are valuable. The problems never end and we have other obligations. After a while the poor get forgotten unless something jogs our memory.
The second is frustration. The values of the church help eliminate many problems- sharing, mutual support, honesty, love of neighbor, trustworthiness, dedication, priorities that are life giving, etc. Living with these values help us to avoid lots of problems that the poor face.
Most of my experience among the poor is with the unchurched. It is easy to see how the values of gangs are at odds with the church, but the same can be said with much of the unchurched. For example, gang members are protected by the community. It is often said that people are afraid, but that is not the main cause. Mothers, girlfriends, neighbors go out of their way to protect young men who commit crimes and often benefit from the crimes too. Mothers protect their children even when the children are wrong. At the same time these same mothers put their children in danger. There are lots of paradoxes in working with people whether they are rich or poor.
It should also be remembered that some things cannot be fixed. Years ago I worked in a night shelter for homeless men. The director was helping one of the men try to get on his feet. He told me that this man had a chance to make it, but that the vast majority will not, due to mental illness and the physical and mental deterioration of substance abuse. In looking at the men in the shelter, I knew he was right. In looking at the man he was helping, it would not be easy. Still I knew why he was trying and why he ran a successful shelter. Personally, in reflecting on my thirty years of working with gang members, I do not see the gang problem getting any better here either.
Still we need to try. Mental health services are desperately needed for the homeless. Opportunities are needed for the young and those who come home from prison. A recent study wrote that six million young Americans between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed and out of school. They are missing out of the opportunity to develop skills that they need for the future.
The third thing is burnout. When I was in the seminary one of our lessons was that if we did not take care of ourselves we would lose our vocations to punch or Judy. A classmate of mine piped in, “Or Jack.” Translation, if we did not feed ourselves emotionally, spiritually, and physically (healthwise) we would be ruined by womanizing, alcohol abuse, poor health, and/or burnout.
It is important to let the poor give back when possible. I know that gang members have looked out for me and saved me from trouble. Too often in working with the poor, the caregivers give and give until they get tired. Oftentimes this leads to anger and despair because all the effort, time, and money led to nothing changing. The person who gets burnt out just cannot handle one more problem and when people see this they back away.
It can also lead to the caring person getting hurt. The poor often act in desperation and domination. Both of these factors lead to violence. The poor suffer more from violence than the rest of us, but helpers get hurt too.
In the next blog will I will describe how to thrive in working with the poor.