Sunday, April 18, 2010

Preferential Option and the Poor

But we should first note that Jesus himself is elsewhere recorded as pronouncing a blessing on the poor—period (Luke 6:20)). Because of this, our tradition has always preserved what is known as the “preferential option for the poor”: the assumption that the poor, being among the most defenseless in our midst, not only require the care of the rest of society and not our contempt but, more than that, that they are “blessed”: that is, somehow set apart and above the rest of us by God, simply by virtue of the fact that they are poor. There’s no clause in there about their being virtuous, deserving, likable or hygienic. It is an act of pure grace and generosity by God. We should linger over that fact for a while and not hurry on too quickly to spiritualizing the saying, still less to telling the poor to get with the program and pull themselves up by their bootstraps so as to stop being poor.----from Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit by Mark Shea

I just read a book called Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women. I had requested a book on St Benedict from someone at Paperback Swap and she accidentally switched my request with someone else's. While I was waiting for her to send me the address of the original requestor (it was Easter weekend), I couldn't resist reading the book.

One of the things that has stuck in my mind was the difference described between two shelters. One was called Refuge House (or Haven House or something like that -- I think it was a pseudonym) and the other was called Bridge House. The Refuge was meant just to be a place where women could stay for the night to get off the street. It offered dinner, breakfast, 12 hours of time within walls, a place to shower and a few accessories, and a bag lunch to take onto the street with you. I think it was run by a loose association of religious organizations and was mostly staffed by volunteers, some of them professionals working pro bono, with a few paid and trained staff.

The other place, Bridge House, was somehow connected with the government.... either a private corporation funded by the government or a formal part of some government agency. Almost all the workers were employed rather than unpaid volunteers. This shelter's aim was to improve the womens' lives. So when you entered this house you had to receive an evaluation and co-design a contract for self-improvement, with the help of some of the professionals. If you broke the contract you were in danger of getting suspended or banned.

I think you see where I'm going with this.... Bridge House had FIVE times the amount of disciplinary events. The environment was tenser --there were more conflicts and angry episodes between workers and women. The house was perceived by the homeless women as being arbitrary and despotic with its rules, which seemed to the women to be ever-changing and designed to encourage dependency and loss of control.

I am sure the Bridge House had good intentions, and no doubt the homeless women tended to see their efforts through a very subjective lens, but it reminded me of the missionary woman in Bleak House who was always barging into poor peoples' house and giving them tracts and preaching to them, meanwhile ignoring their real need for support and compassion. Meanwhile, the girls she brought with her on one visit were actually responding to what they saw -- helping an abused woman whose baby was dying.

When we help the unfortunate we aren't doing THEM a favor. It's not a bargain where we dole out the necessities and they, in turn, jump through hoops. Sure, all the shelters had basic rules for civility, and some women got suspended even from the much looser Refuge House. But the fact is that it is our responsibility to help the truly miserable and destitute. It is a matter of basic dignity, not something we hold over their heads for the sake of control. It ends up being for OUR sake that we do these things; the Benedictines were grateful to give hospitality to those who asked for it, knowing that they thus had an opportunity to give help to Christ Himself, and this is the default attitude with those who for whatever reason lack the bare essentials for human dignity, not the "help those who help themselves" attitude -- that latter is for when the basic needs have been met -- they are for a much later stage in the game.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!