I’d like to think I’m pretty consistent in my advocacy for the poor. I have worked with numerous poverty-related nonprofits over the years, preached about it and worked on it in church, written about it, and so on. But in general, all of that remains at a large “macro” level. It is a nameless, faceless group known broadly as “The Poor,” or worse, it simply becomes an issue.
Sometimes making it more real than that is emotionally overwhelming, if not paralyzing. When I worked in Fort Worth at an AIDS housing facility, seeing the multiple challenges first-hand that some of our residents faced was heartbreaking. In some cases it seemed they had little, if anything, on which to hang a shred of hope. At the Pueblo nonprofit I work with now, we have to turn away more than one thousand people a month when we run out of emergency assistance.
Once in a while, it feels like this work is hardly making a dent in the poverty juggernaut we’re fighting against. So sometimes it’s just easier to keep it at arms-length and focus on “The Poor.”
That may help me feel better, but it’s not Gospel.
My son, Mattias, goes to a magnet school on the east side of town. For those unfamiliar, magnets are established to do just what they sound like they’re supposed to do: attract students from all over the place. Generally they are established in economically depressed areas with the hope both of empowering the local residents with a higher quality education, and also diversifying the student body – and maybe even the greater area – to break cycles of systemic poverty and other related issues.
To get to the school, we go through some interesting territory. In fact, one day I found a bullet casing in the parking lot of his school. When I turned it in to the office, the teacher sighed and shook her head at the ongoing gang presence they had yet to eradicate from the neighborhood.
But it’s a wonderful school, and we believe in it. That doesn’t make it any easier on the way there, though.
A few days ago, we drove by some “Section 8” housing (a HUD voucher program for housing people with special needs or challenges) to find a man in his late forties or early fifties lying on the sidewalk out in front. An ambulance had already pulled up in front of the house, but they seemed to be in no particular hurry to help the man, who was struggling to hold himself upright. Since the emergency crew was already on-site, we kept going. But my wife, Amy, and I looked at each other as we passed by.“It’s weird, the flood of feelings I have when I see something like that,” I said, “and the different kinds of conflict I feel about it.”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” said Amy. She went to on say that her first instinct was toward compassion. She wanted to stop and help. But then she found her intellectual self waxing skeptical. What if he’s on drugs? Or drunk? Is that the kind of situation we want to expose our kids to?
My first reaction was to be angry. I saw this man who appeared possibly to be having a seizure, and the ambulance guys hardly seemed too concerned. They strolled over, stood next to him, but I could detect no trace of empathy or urgency in their body language.
When I told Amy how I had felt about it, she pointed out something I hadn’t thought of. “They may have compassion fatigue,” she said. “What if this is the fifth time this month they’ve been called to help this same guy? Or what if they know he has HIV, or is prone to violence? Maybe they’re just being careful. Maybe they’re waiting for the police.”
What if, what if, what if?
All of this is plausible, but the reality is that a guy laid there on the sidewalk, obviously suffering, and no one was helping him.
I’m still not sure what the “right” thing to have done is, but I can’t seem to get the story of the Good Samaritan out of my mind. In that story, the priest passes the guy in need by, but who knows the back story? What if he’d seen the guy abuse his wife before? What if he had stolen from the church? What if the priest had helped him five other times that month, but the help seemed to be doing no good?
What if, what if, what if?
Meanwhile, the world passes by and suffering continues.