Friday, November 1, 2013

Who Are We Saving?

I thought I'd write about the saints today, since it's All Saints Day, and since I'm in the middle of reading a book called The Afterlives of the Saints.  By and large, the saints were weird--most of the early ones would today be seen not as holy but as completely whackadoodle.  I'm not sure which perception is more accurate.

Anyhow, that was the plan.  Then yesterday happened.

Yesterday I was, for a few brief heady hours, the Big Boss at Faith in Action.  One of the directors was on vacation (but answered her cell phone long enough to tell me how to disable the new alarm system, thank you!) and the other was taking care of a family member.  In came an interesting problem.

Now, please understand, we have rules at Faith in Action.  We have lots and lots of rules, and we kept them almost all the time.  We are very good about keeping our rules.  Except for when we aren't.

I'm going to be very deliberately vague here, so don't get frustrated with my lack of detail.  Our client is a real person who deserves privacy. 

I was sitting at the center desk, enjoying the view, when one of our interviewers came in and asked where the directors were.  Then she looked at me, sighed, and said, "You'd better come here about this."  I went, and heard a long, complicated, and fully documented story from a client and an accompanying social services employee, and the gist of it was this:

We could keep all our rules, and put this person onto the streets, OR
we could break several rules, some of them mightily, guarantee the person a safe place to live and give him or her a real shot at a vastly improved life.

What would you do?

For the record, I read through the client's file--we'd helped this person sporadically with small amounts of financial help--less than $100 each time, perhaps 3 or 4 times in the past ten years.  The files showed that the client had a strong track record of both work, for very low pay, and the ability to manage on a budget that would send most of us underwater fast.  I'm trying to work out this morning how much all that influenced my decision making--what if the client had been a former drug-using pedophile just released from prison?--because I woke to this quote from the pope in my email inbox:  I have a dogmatic certainty: God is in every person’s life. God is in everyone’s life. Even if the life of a person has been a disaster, even if it is destroyed by vices, drugs or anything else – God is in this person’s life. You can, you must try to seek God in every human life. Although the life of a person is a land full of thorns and weeds, there is always a space in which the good seed can grow. You have to trust God.  I still can't say for sure I'd have bent the rules for a pedophile.

Meanwhile, though, I had the real, non-pedophile, client sitting in front of me, looking exhausted.  I went back to my office, and did what we in these agencies tend to do when we're confronted with a difficult case:  called all the other social justice agencies in town and asked them to pitch in.  (For the record: the final solution represented the combined efforts of 3 different organizations.)  One of them said, "We don't help with that.  It's against our rules."

"Yes," I said.  "I know that.  It's against our rules, too.  But I think in this case we might make an exception."

The person said, "We don't make exceptions."

It wasn't until much later, thinking over the day, that I recalled the Pharisees who got mad at Jesus for healing someone on the Sabbath.  Not because healing people was wrong, but because no one was supposed to work on the Sabbath.  No exceptions.

But I wasn't thinking about Pharisees then.  I was thinking about this client and how hard it had to be when you were faced with hideous choices and no clear way to resolve them.  I went back into the interview room and I broke all the rules, and when the real director returned I tried to confess my sins, except that you can only get absolution when you feel sorry for what you'd done, and I didn't.  And that was okay, because the director agreed with me.  And later in the day, when I was finishing up some of the paperwork, someone asked me how old the client was.  I flipped through the paperwork.

My age.  To the month.