Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Hard and Simple Truth

A man came to Faith in Action last week. He was a white man about fifty or sixty years old, with grey hair down to his shoulders. He came to the window so upset he was nearly crying, and his hands shook while he talked.

"I need help, I need some kind of help," he said to the receptionist. He held out the paper he was holding. "My brother moved out, he moved out of our trailer, and I got this, and I give it to my neighbor to read for me and he says it's a bill and they're going to cut my power off."

It was an electric bill. Our receptionist said he'd need to make an appointment for help and gave him a form to fill out. The man said he couldn't--he couldn't read or write.

The receptionist took back the form. She asked the man his name. He told her, then carefully spelled it for her. "Miss Leela taught me that," he said. "Took me a month to learn."

Eventually I sat beside the man and made him an appointment for the next day. I got his address off the electric bill and, after reading the bill, assured the man that his power wouldn't be cut off before we could help him. After I said that his hands quit shaking a little. He asked if we had food. I gave him cereal, peanut butter, crackers, soup. He was pleased with the soup, beef vegetable, as he could take out the pieces of beef and feed them to his cat.

So often when I talk about the work we do at Faith in Action, people respond by telling me that our clients should just "get a job." That sounds super--everyone would work, everyone would pull their weight. But the realities of social justice are murkier than that. What job can we give an 80-year-old widow on home oxygen, so that she can afford the adult diapers she needs, which cost $90 a month, or 10% of her social security income? What job will you give the high school dropout with a six-month-old, whose baby daddy is in prison? Something above minimum wage, so she can afford day care? Yeah, it'd be great if she finished high school and didn't have a child--but in the real world what will she do? What job do we give the addicts, the incurably mentally ill, the people with missing teeth and bad body odor?

What job do we give this gentle man with the shaking hands, who can't read, who will never be able to read because he simply isn't smart enough, but who feeds half his soup to his cat?

Some people need to be taken care of. And when they have no one else, they need us.