Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bus Passes and Judgments


The bus pass man came into the church yesterday asking for a few bucks. Our financial secretary was out, so I told him he could come back the next day if he wanted and we would see if anything could be done. I wasn't optimistic, though. He's been frequenting the church office for at least the past few years, I'm told, and usually has the same story (or stories), and the general feeling was that the time was coming to direct the man to other services. I don't say that with judgment. Rather, I say it because it's evident that, for whatever reason, the man's life is in a holding pattern. I've been in many a holding pattern myself, and it makes me sad to see someone else so...stuck. Seemingly hopelessly.

Today he came back, as fate would have it, almost immediately after I met with a pastor to ask what we wanted to continue to do for this man. The pastor said she felt it was time to provide him with a list of social service agencies and tell him he needed to contact them for ongoing assistance. Most people see a church as a place where folks can't say no to giving. I think a lot of people have a slightly romanticized view of churches handing out bread on a daily basis. The truth is that each church has limited resources and just isn't equipped to provide ongoing financial support to those in perpetual need.

I'm sick and my voice is hoarse, so my lovely office mate from Zimbabwe, who is also a pastor, said she'd talk with the man. When he showed up, I handed her the printed materials I'd prepared for him, then left to give them some privacy. She told him that unfortunately the church isn't a social service agency specifically set up to provide ongoing financial assistance, and recommended that he contact the social service agencies that are specifically geared toward ongoing assistance with food, shelter, employment, etc.

He was not happy about this, but he did leave. Nonetheless, I have a feeling he'll be back.

Imez asked in an earlier comment whether there was something someone could do that would cause me to stop feeling like helping them. I've been thinking about that for the past few days, and every time I come up with something that could indeed change my mind, I ultimately go back to the person's need. Yes, people in need sometimes play us for fools, sometimes act entitled, sometimes ask for more than we can possibly provide, sometimes come to rely on outside help without making an effort to improve their situation. That certainly dampens my enthusiasm for helping. When someone is aggressive and threatening, that shuts me off right away. In most case, though, after I think about it, I see that the asker still just needs help at that moment and I usually feel driven to help them.

Is it our job to try to see beyond what they're asking for and figure out what kind of help they need? Do they really need money, or do they need food, mental health care, a shower, a drug treatment program? I personally don't feel equipped to discern this at this point. If I spend a lot of time with someone, I can eventually form an opinion about what they need, but in my job I typically see people for only short bursts of time.

The bus pass man had been coming to the church office for years. Everyone here had heard his stories over and over, to the point that they strongly felt they were a ruse. In the short time that I've been working at the church, he came at least once a month, but sometime two or three times a month, with the same stories. How many bus passes can someone need in one month? I'm sure it was just easier to say the money was needed for a bus pass than to say it was needed for food, for alcohol, for a motel bill, for...anything else.

This situation is keeping me up, but I'd better go back to sleep if I want to kick this cold and be useful to someone tomorrow. I have so many unanswered questions, but staying up all night won't answer them.