Based on the varied responses I got from the last post, I thought I’d compose a follow-up, in the form of a case study. I’ll introduce you to a homeless woman I met 2 months ago and have been counseling since, every 2-3 weeks, when she shows up, at Presbyterian Medical Care Mission of Abilene where I volunteer one morning a week. Of course, I’ll change her name and aspects of her presentation, in order to protect her confidentiality.
My goal is simple, to shift from the general, theological issues raised in the last post to a real life example, that puts a face on poverty. The objective is to invite us (in our tiny blogosphere community) to ponder the issue of a Christian response to poverty, unemployment, homelessness and welfare… not in the abstract, but in specific.
And I think this (composite) case study illustrates the issues that are troubling to all those who struggle with the question of the poor. These questions include: What are their real needs? Have we done enough? When are wants not so much genuine needs as an attitude of entitlement? How much should we do versus expect them to do for themselves? When are we enabling? What does compassion look like? How does one manage one’s own internal reactions (whether disgust, fear, feeling overwhelmed, the pull to be a rescuer, the temptation to objectify or dehumanize, or the temptation to be sentimental, etc…)? And so on.
But first, I feel obligated to express a word of caution. In discussing a “case”, the personhood of the individual is in danger of getting lost. I think that’s what we witness in John’s gospel, chapter 9, where the man born blind becomes a pawn in what is essentially an ideological, one might say socio-political or religious, conflict. Of course, to Jesus, the man was not an object for debate. He was not an illustration or vehicle for self-promotion. To him, he was neither a victim nor a guilty person who brought on his own fate; instead, he was… a man. With all that is glorious and worthy of dignity in that human identity, as well as all that is broken, lacking and needy. Jesus touched him, healed him, gave him a chance, with no strings attached. We don’t know what became of the man, ultimately.
So, let us proceed with respect, with mercy, with wisdom, and with trepidation.
Of course, the above is not a picture of “Mary”, though she also is (a) homeless, for 2 years now, living in a tent with her alcoholic boyfriend, and (b) of working age and without disabling medical problems. She too, has a dog. She smokes. She is very depressed and complains of anxiety around people; . She applies for jobs but has not been hired; she has been turned down for disability for the 4th time and expresses doubt as to her ability to hold a job. In fact, her work history is pretty spotty.
On first impression, she illustrates what those who think the poor don’t try enough fear: healthy enough to work, history of drug addiction (which cost her custody of her now grown kids) though she’s been sober 7 years, very identified as a patient (both medically, with frequent ER visits, and psychiatrically, reporting dubious symptoms of multiple personality, hallucinations and delusions).
And yet, on the other hand, her story is tragic. She suffered prolonged episodes of sexual abuse/rape as a child, her father was absent and her mother an alcoholic. She’s been raped twice as a young adult. She became addicted to meth and alcohol, as a teen, ultimately served time and lost her kids (who, now adults, barely talk to her). All her relationships with men, except her current boyfriend, have been physically abusive. Her IQ is low average.
Now, she spends her days dumpster diving, looking for either food or scrap metal for money to buy food… and cigarettes.
I ask her why she smokes (… you wondered too, didn’t you?). She says it relaxes her and, mostly, dulls her hunger pains. I ask her why she has a dog. She explains he makes her happy and gives her someone to take care of. I ask her why she didn’t stay in the women’s shelter. She replies that the crying children made her too anxious and that she couldn’t sleep around so many people. I assure her I can help her with her anxiety; she tells me she doesn’t think so. I suggest a night job that’s quiet. She thinks she’d be better off on disability, so she could afford a place to sleep (a cheap, by-the-week motel). I ask her if she’s connected with one of the more active church ministries to the homeless locally. She laughs, stating “they keep trying to baptize me.”
After our first hour, it’s obvious she’s totally defeated… and I’m started to feel the same. Clearly, despair has set in… in fact, she’s attempted suicide, a serious attempt, about 8 months ago (overdosing on medication given for depression), and not her first.
It’s also obvious I’ve made the most fundamental mistake, when working with the homeless. In forgetting just how alienated she feels from society and most humans (think of her traumatic childhood and repeated devastating disappointments), I prematurely offered suggestions and ideas. In ignoring the extent to which she has come to expect judgment, and has hardened herself to it, I asked questions that betray that very judgment (you know… about smoking, about losing her kids, about her past drug use, about her job history…).
I leave our first appointment thinking three things. First, I’m struck by how “broken down” she is, spending her days scavenging dumpsters and resigned to her alienation. Second, in light of her limited resources (intellectual, educational, financial, spiritual, social, etc…), I’m amazed she’s still alive. Third, as tough as she seems, I think she’s hanging on by a thread and I’d be surprised if she was alive in 5 years (either murdered or suicided, I predict).
At this point, I am (and now you are) faced with the question: what is a Christian response to “Mary”?
I’m quite sure I don’t have it figured out, but a few things I know:
1. Human touch: If I’m to trust the example of Jesus, she needs to be touched, not just physically but deep down emotionally, so she knows that she belongs, that there is hope, that she is lovable. Life and society, Satan if you will, have dehumanized her. In order to touch her, I have to shed any spirit of judgment or condemnation.
2. Patience: Unfortunately, lacking the miraculous Jesus touch, I can’t expect a simple laying on of hands, a word spoken, or a mud/spit poultice will make her troubles disappear. In fact, the psychologist in me knows that due to her fragile character structure, a long road lays ahead simply to establish rapport with her. It will take months before she even “feels” my touch! Dr. Nancy McWilliams, a marvelously insightful psychoanalyst, comments on the difference between the typical “neurotic” patient therapists usually treat and the more seriously troubled individuals with a chaotic personality structure:
I don’t know how else to say, so I’ll be frank: I think the average Christian should most assuredly be at least as patient as any decent psychoanalyst, don’t you? P.S. Surprisingly, you can even be both a Christian AND a psychoanalyst…
3. Compassion: This starts with listening to her story (rather than asking my questions) of course. It also requires empathy, or the effort to put myself in her shoes. Jesus did both. He asked “what do you want from me” 2, rather than assume; and, he actually “became poor” 3.
Thinking theologically for a moment, it simply is impossible to have compassion on the poor and at the same time blame them for our economic problems (which is the idea that prompted my last post). And I believe that a lot of the “going off” on welfare is actually a form of scapegoating. René Girard, of course, is the theologian known for writing about this phenomenon of scapegoating. Because we are under stress (troubled economy) and fearful, and because we might fear an outbreak of violence within our society as the economy worsens and hostile outsiders (terrorists) threaten us, we look for scapegoats. Because, when we eliminate the scapegoats, we think we’ll be better off, and, in fact, internal chaos may indeed be averted.
But are the poor our modern day scapegoats? I think so. In a thought provoking book, Jeffrey Sachs 4 reports:
West and Smiley state the matter more strongly still: 5
Yet, if anyone should be able to unmask the mechanism of scapegoating, both its appeal and its falsehood, it should be Christians. In his book “Unclean“, Richard Beck explains,
Compassion leads to (a) staying involved and (b) trying to understand. As I see it, even if we could accurately say that a homeless, welfare-seeker like “Mary” was an addict (though she’s in recovery), or was unmotivated to help herself, we’ve solved nothing. To conclude that we need to tighten up our generosity and cut off the “undeserving” leaves unanswered the question of what will become of them. What if their internal resources are insufficient and they give in to despair, killing themselves? or, instead, limp along in sub-human existence, dragging their kids along into the undending cycle? Shall we endorse some grotesque social Darwinism and say, ”so be it”? (Incidentally, there is something disturbingly ironic about arch-conservative creationists who want to expunge Darwin from our textbooks, all the while advocating economic strategies that, in essence, advocate this kind of “survival of the fittest”).
Also left unanswered is the “why” question. Why is this person on welfare addicted to drugs? And how do we best support her in finding sobriety? Why does a person get to the point that he has no motivation whatsoever to find a job? Is refusing to “enable” such persons the only, or best, strategy to motivate them? How do we best address inter-generational poverty? Could it be that an “us vs. them” posture only perpetuates some of the problematic dynamics already at play?
I know I’ve raised far more questions than I’ve answered. But, hopefully, it helps to think of specific people, like “Mary” and not just generalities. And hopefully, too, we can, as a community, keep this kind of dialogue alive, civilly, lovingly, and patiently hearing each other out, and all the while, each in our own way, getting “our hands dirty” and getting involved in the lives of all the “Mary’s” God will put in our way… if only we open our eyes.
1 Nancy McWilliams (2011). “Psychoanalytic Diagnosis” (2nd Ed.), p. 84
2 Matthew 20:32
3 II Corinthians 8:9
4 Jeffrey Sachs (2011). “The Price of civilization: Reawakening American virtue and prosperity”
5 Cornell West & Tavis Smiley (2012). “The Rich and the rest of us: A poverty manifesto”