You see, November is a kind of grace period for fines there. Instead of cash, you can barter with non-perishable foods. There were two overflowing barrels already: filled with the leftovers from many cupboards.
The season of giving has finally begun.
I could imagine the shelves of our community ministry’s pantry being full after a long summer’s drought. The last time I looked, we were down to the usual over-abundance of salty green beans and creamed corn. In fact, many days lately we have had to turn away food clients, as we call them, people whose monthly food stamps were long gone and whose disability or social security or temporary assistance checks had been spent just to cover the rent, let alone the electric company.
There have been more and more folks coming to us lately for help with rent or utilities or a mortgage about to go belly up in foreclosure. They’ve been sick and ended up with a $500 emergency room bill, or they’ve been laid off for the third time from low wage jobs in companies that are shutting down or cutting back. Their cars are broken down and even so about to be re-possessed. As author Barbara Ehrenrich has so aptly put it, they’ve been nickeled and dimed with too little money and too many expenses. Or runs of bad fortune or bad choices, with no safety net.
Lorna is one of them. She is in her early sixties, not quite old enough for Medicare, but with enough aches and pains now that she can no longer work steadily. She has custody of two grandchildren — she did not tell me why — one of whom is brain damaged. The rent in her crumbling neighborhood is low, but her landlord refuses to make repairs, so a water leak has caused her bill to soar to several hundred dollars. She is afraid to complain, lest she be evicted.
She comes to us for food, the second time she has had to do it this month alone. Before we can give her anything, she must answer a number of questions about her finances: her weekly expenses, her spending habits, her debts. It is painful for me to watch her composure collapse as she must calculate how much it costs to care for herself and those children: the price of sanitary and grooming products for a teenager, the need for warm jackets. I’ve been working 40 years, she tells the young student intern who self-consciously moves through the interrogation. My life is a hurricane, she tells him with only a trace of bitterness.
At the end of her obligatory grilling (a requirement of the federal aid we get to help pay for her food and our salaries and overhead), she can go shopping, as we euphemistically call it, selecting what she can from the hodgepodge of donations and purchased staples.
Next month, we tell her, if you still find yourself in need, there will be lots more choices. There will be turkeys and boxes of tangerines and pears, and candy and Christmas trees, and toys from Sunday School classes and women’s auxiliary groups and offices who want to adopt a family.
Because next month is December, there will be plenty of people giving and plenty of people serving in the church basement soup kitchens all over town. They will have had to book their service time well in advance if they want to be charitable at the holidays, and at a certain point — usually by mid-December — we will say that we simply can’t store any more gifts: no more stuffed animals, no more remainder items, no more dollar store cosmetics. No more tax receipts for last-minutes-of-the-year in-kind donations.
If what I have been saying sounds more than a little jaded, then the point has been made.
No less so than John McKnight, a longtime community organizer who is on the staff of the Urban Affairs Center of Northwestern University. A paper he wrote about the problems of what we often like to call “servanthood” — how we meet the needs of poor people — is combative and coercive. Of all the readings I give my first year seminarians to read in the course I co-teach in what is called contextual theology — testing what we believe in, what we have faith in, through experiential learning — this is the most controversial.
His questions about serving people and the systems we have for doing this get to the heart of our second Unitarian Universalist principle — justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
How do we go about caring about and caring for others in a way that affirms and promotes fairness and integrity, and allows us, indeed requires us, to stand with them in love and solidarity? How do we live this out?
McKnight tells the story of a small, relatively isolated community on Martha’s Vineyard where about every tenth person used to be born without the ability to hear. Everyone in the community, hearing and non-hearing alike, spoke unique sign language, McKnight writes, brought from England when they immigrated to Massachusetts in 1690. By the mid-20th century, with increased mobility, people stopped inter-marrying and the genetic anomaly disappeared.
But before the memory of it died and the unique sign language that had been used by all the townspeople, an historian, Nora Groce, studied the community’s history. She wanted to compare and contrast the experience of hearing and non-hearing people.
She found that 80 percent of the non-hearing people graduated from high school, as did 80 percent of the hearing. She found that 90 percent of the non-hearing got married, as compared to 92 percent of the hearing. They had about the same number of children. Their income levels were similar, as were the variety and distribution of their occupations.
She compared these numbers with the hearing and non-hearing on the Massachusetts mainland, considered at the time to have the best services for the deaf in the whole country. There she found that about 50 percent of non-hearing people graduated from high school, compared to 75 percent of the hearing. Non-hearing people only married half the time, compared with 90 percent of the hearing.
Non-hearing people had fewer children, received a third of the income, and the kinds of jobs they had were much more limited.
How was it, the historian wondered, that on an island with no formal services, non-hearing people were as much like hearing people as you could possibly measure. Yet thirty miles away, with the best and most advanced services available, non-hearing people led much poorer lives than the hearing?
The one place in the United States, she discovered, where deafness was not a disability was a place with no explicit services for deaf people. In that community, she discovered, all the people adapted by signing instead of turning over the non-hearing people to the web of service providers. That community, she concluded, wasn’t just doing what was necessary to help or serve one group. It was doing what was necessary to incorporate everyone.
John McKnight uses this study, this example, to make his — again — deliberately challenging and combative point that he has been around neighborhoods, community organizations, and communities for almost 40 years and, in his words, has never seen service systems that brought people to well-being, delivered them to citizenship, or made them free. Again, a goal of our own third principle.
He wonders out loud whether we religious folk — liberal or otherwise — have bought into what he calls a secular vision of service and forgotten that which makes people whole, and that is genuine community. Are we service peddlers or community builders? Which is the righteous vision?
McKnight uses a passage from Christian scripture to illustrate his bold assertion.
He reminds us that we all know (or most of us know) that at the Last Supper, Jesus said “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” But for some mysterious reason, McKnight writes, he never hears the next two sentences. “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I no longer call you servants, because servants do not know the business of the one they serve. But I have called you friends because I have made known to you everything I have learned from God.” In other words, it is not right to be hung back and divided by the model and metaphor of service and servantry. The goal is to be a friend.
What does it look like to be a friend? What keeps us from this relationship of mutuality?
Again, McKnight weighs in ferociously. He writes that he is constantly impressed by how dangerous people are who want to serve others. The service ideology, as he puts it, and its systems don’t work for three reasons.
First, he asserts that the money raised for services is stolen from the poor, meaning that when all the workers on behalf of the poor are paid for their professional salaries, two thirds of all funds go for the “services,” and only a third in direct assistance, the kind that Lorna, our custodial grandmother, needed to catch up on her basic bills. He makes it clear that the money does not go to bureaucrats. It goes to those of us, myself included at times, who case manage the poor, who triage their services, who administer their public housing, who audit their files. McKnight also takes on doctors, nurses, psychologists, and other caregivers, maintaining, again in the extreme probably, that they are called in to treat the results of flimsy or non-existent communities of compassion.
Second, he says, we base our programs on deficiencies, on needs versus gifts. He gives the example of an interview with a woman in Chicago for yet another umbrella planning program. When asked how far she went in school, she answers to the tenth grade. She is listed as a drop-out, instead of educated ten years. When she can’t read a form, they write down illiterate, instead of asking whether she has had her vision checked. There is no place on the form for her reputation in her neighborhood as a caregiver and a block leader. The money and services therefore go to mend perceived deficits instead of lifting up strengths.
Third, we displace existing informal systems of caring with superimposed systems, weakening those very associations and organizations that, in fact, our Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams so praised. By our groups, he always said, you shall know us.
McKnight gives us his five rules, which he believes support community and promote justice, equity, and compassion. First, follow what community organizer Saul Alinsky, beloved of many of us progressives, called the iron rule. Never do for others what they can do for themselves. For example, even the simple and symbolic act of allowing people to serve themselves family style instead of serving out plates communicates equity and trust. Or letting them select their own groceries in a food pantry instead of pre-made charity baskets.
Third, whenever a service is proposed, fight to get it converted into income. I know this is a tough concept for some of us. There are always the stories we read about how cash assistance can go for other than the basic needs they were intended to support. Just this past week there was a story in the Atlanta paper about three young men evacuated from New Orleans who used their thousand dollar Red Cross and FEMA checks to buy and use crack cocaine. But I can also tell you that of a ten million dollar grant I wrote for a city to coordinate and provide services for low income single mothers and their children, much of the money was misdirected and mishandled. If the assistance had been spread out equally and directly, every poor family involved would have received a couple of hundred thousand dollars. How’s that for promoting equity and justice?
Fourth, he says, and this is perhaps the most troublesome for me, that if we must give services instead of cash, then provide vouchers so that people can at least have a choice in who serves them and there would be some completion. This is of course extremely controversial and in my mind troubling when it comes to public school systems, but for other essential services such as health and dental care, child and elder care, and food, it seems reasonable and dignifying.
And then finally, develop hospitality. In Hebrew scripture, Abraham, who left his native land to wander into a new territory, traveled with his family as strangers in the world.
From this story comes a strong biblical imperative to welcome, care for, and treat equally and justly the Other, a theme picked up as perhaps the strongest message in the Jesus story. It can be as simple and profound a gesture as sitting down to eat with those you prepare meals for at a soup kitchen or deliver to their doors.
As the immediate crisis of this year’s horrific hurricane season dies down, what will our long-term response look like as we consider the proposal that our conventional model of servanthood is ultimately not one to replicate? Not coincidentally perhaps, in New Orleans, the Metropolitan organization, a group founded on the principles of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Foundation, is organizing returning residents to make sure that the maximum amount of money and resources reach people directly. Others are advocating for a Marshall Plan for the Gulf Coast, fashioned after the successful recovery efforts in Europe after World War II, rebuilding infrastructures and investing in education, jobs, and universal health insurance.
On the national level, it should mean working to overcome congressional resistance to a raise in the federal minimum wage, still stuck at $5.15 an hour, untouched since 1997, increasing the bottom of our pay scale so that people can work and live with dignity.
My life is a hurricane, Miss Lorna told me, as she accepted a small box of groceries with an understandable lack of effusive gratitude.
In this time of giving and holiday hospitality, I will hold her in my heart and redouble my own efforts to work for justice, equity, and true compassion in human relations.
May it be so.