When I visited the families of this church in their brick row apartments, the kind that were pizza ovens in the summer and well-ventilated in the winter, we ate a lot of cornbread and mashed peas. Their strong trust in God inspires me to this day. "God is good all the time." I was getting more ministry than giving. One family proudly noted that they were “originals”, having lived at this spot "since when it was cows". This was as distinct from the many newcomers they viewed with pity and caution, mostly refugees from Pruitt-Igoe.
My hosts, originals and newcomers alike, had additional insights. They recalled that the dirt-floor slum communities and rural communities before Pruitt-Igoe at least had strong families and churches. They reminisced to this effect: “If I got in trouble in school, I knew I would get whomped-on, two, three, more times that day. Even before I get home, word flies to my aunty and her neighbor and my momma and my daddy. Kids these days, they got no one to whomp 'em.” Fathers with minimum-wage jobs often could not live with their families in subsidized housing. BAD.
Utah's Strategy for the Homeless: Give Them Homes
You understand now why I did not jump up and dance. But I read on:
'We call it housing first, employment second,'
said Lloyd Pendleton, director of Utah's
Homeless Task Force. ... In 2005, Utah was
home to 1,932 chronically homeless. By
April 2015, there were only 178.
Giving away homes might work if only because the programs around Salt Lake City have not deployed Pruitt-Igoe-style concentration camps. Instead, Utah dispersed the gift homes, often in the scale of two-unit and four-unit condos. "Employment second" is better than 1960 St. Louis's "what employment?" Utah has local jobs programs. Having a home apparently makes most beneficiaries not lazy, but gives stability so they don't need to desperately cycle through minimum-wage jobs. There appears to be improved counseling and medical care. People also can have severe physical and emotional health needs, outlook needs, education needs, relationship needs, justice needs, and certainly God needs. The governments of Utah have addressed not all needs, but have recognized many kinds of needs for many kinds of people in a somewhat integrated way. So, no dance, but I see cause for a smile.
In recent months I've gotten updated on northern Virginia fragmented social services. As in most other places, food, housing, jobs, medical care, counseling, and other support programs each arose as separate legislation. Consequently, services are fractured in several dimensions: housing for families versus housing for vets; medical funding by federal, state, county, employer, and private means. A needy person visits several offices scattered around the county, fills out lots of forms, is frequently refused but politely redirected elsewhere, and yes, eventually returns to previously-visited offices and forms. I did do a little dance when one fellow I've been helping recently got a Medicaid approval. I resumed my seat when we found that the sole benefit for this 61-year-old bachelor was not the needed medication, hospital procedures, or assisted living facility. Rather, the card gave him access to contraceptives and family planning; useful for some but not for him.
I could gripe, but today's social services are better than former years' poor houses and starvation, thank you Charles Dickens and many lesser-knowns. I don't much lament that believers have handed to the state their personal calling and church calling to give. But there clearly exists a better approach than the current muddle, a better approach that starts with me more than my government.
Jesus said, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?”
The man answered, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.” Also, “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
Jesus said to him, “Your answer is right. Do this and you will live.”
But the man, wanting to show the importance of his question, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
Then a Samaritan traveling down the road came to where the hurt man was. When he saw the man, he felt very sorry for him.”
Love God with all your heart.
“The Samaritan went to him, poured olive oil and wine on his wounds, and bandaged them.”
Love God with all your soul.
“Then he put the hurt man on his own donkey and took him to an inn where he cared for him.”
Love God with all your strength.
“The next day, the Samaritan brought out two coins, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of this man. If you spend more money on him, I will pay it back to you when I come again.’”
Love God with all your mind.
I don’t have a simple recipe to optimize kindness. On reflection, I’m impressed by how well the story of the Good Samaritan structures the process of doing kindness, a process that in my experience "first does no harm" and in the end is most productive.
- The best helping starts with compassion. That said, “a thing worth doing is worth doing badly.”
- Background: Many of the ancients identified the "soul" as simply whatever-it-is that makes the difference between being alive and being dead. The Samaritan risked his whatever-it-is, given signs of robbers nearby. A typical robber trick was to leave a victim or fake being a victim in order to attack do-gooders. Steak knives might be a sign of trouble nearby. Or not. Does it matter? Kindness takes risks. Kindness gives time, irreplaceable time. Kindness is a spending of my life. Kindness goes to the hurt.
- If manual labor is needed, kindness means real touching, embracing the bloody, literal lifting. Kindness means changing diapers, fixing cars, making homes, making meals, sweeping floors. Kindness is not just mailing off my surplus, but lending my actual hand.
- Kindness thinks ahead. Kindness considers pragmatically, "what if?" Kindness knows hope and prayer but not wishful thinking.
- Kindness continues. Kindness rarely wipes its hands and proclaims, "my work here is done."
- Kindness gives money generously, but rarely as the first or only act.
- “The poor you will always have with you,” Jesus said. This recognizes a fact to consider in my planning, not an excuse to avoid compassion or abort continued kindness.
The story of the Good Samaritan suggests that with respect to kindness, there are three kinds of people.
- Robbers: What's yours is mine. Hands up!
- Shruggers: What's mine is mine. Hands off!
- Lovers: What's mine is yours. Need a hand?
Ought there be limits to kindness? How does one prioritize? How does my family, my church fit in? I aim to tell a few more tales and respond to such questions in a later installment.
Consider this concluding clip from Thailand. Do Christians own a monopoly on compassion? Ha! No!
The more important question: does compassion have a monopoly on you?