Making poor people pray

Many years ago, despite hard work, thrift, and a small family, we were poor.  As in no-heat-no-car-no-food poor.  And so I started traveling to a church which hosted weekly grocery nights, when needy people could browse over tables of expired dry goods, wilted produce, and drippy ice cream at cut-rate prices.  I remember the thrill of putting a true luxury, a box of crackers, into my bag, and feverishly calculating how many meals I could squeeze out of a single chicken breast.

That part of it was great.  But the part I didn’t like was in the beginning:  Before they opened the auditorium, they made us pray.

I hated that part.

Let me explain.  I pray.  I did pray at the time, I will always pray, and I will always be in favor of people praying, and in favor of encouraging other people to pray and to become closer to God.

But I am vehemently opposed to insisting that people suddenly start praying aloud, or giving intimate details about their spiritual life to a stranger, just because they happen to be vulnerable or in need.  Too many Christian ministries, including food pantries, crisis pregnancy centers, and homeless shelters, include mandatory prayer in their good works, and I think it ought to stop.

Well!  You may say.  Those who are vulnerable or in need are exactly the ones who need to hear about God!  Should we leave these poor souls in their misery?  Man does not live by bread alone.  Should we feed only the bodies of those in need, but leave their souls hungry?

Also:  what, should we be ashamed of our faith?  Should we hide our light under a bushel, cover over the name of Christ like those weasly Georgetown Jesuits?

The Good News is never out of place or inappropriate.  It’s always a good time to pray, and anyone who suggests otherwise is denying our Lord.

Okay, then.  How come you never insist that rich people pray?  When’s the last time you made it very clear to someone in a nice suit that he needs to start being thankful, out loud, right this minute?  Why is this on-command spirituality only standard practice for a guest who’s already on the ropes?

I know these good Christian folks had kind intentions.  They meant it like this:  we have a chance to do a corporal work of mercy—and while they’re here, we have the chance to share his glorious Good News with people.  So let’s be like the early Christians—let’s pray!  That’s all they meant.  And I was truly grateful for the food, and for the time they volunteered.

But let me tell you what messages I, as a bona fide wretched poor person, actually received:

1.  “We can see that you’re poor because of some spiritual failing, so let’s take care of that.”

2.  “Don’t you forget for a moment that we’re doing you a favor.  So before you get your dented box of Special K, let me see you bow your head.”

Now, there may have been someone at that grocery night who was smitten to the core—who needed to be there, needed to be forced to pray.  Maybe his life was changed forever by those mandatory prayers.

But I was there.  I guarantee you that thirty more people in that auditorium learned to connect the name of God with humiliation and intrusion.

Being poor means you never have a choice in anything.  Even while you’re grateful for bags of free clothes, boxes of food, and rides from volunteers, never having a choice about what to wear, what to eat, or when to come and go—it stings.  It makes you feel like crap.  Whether you’re poor because of bad luck and tough circumstances, or because of laziness and stupidity, being poor doesn’t make you sub-human.  It shouldn’t give other people an excuse to treat you like a child, even if they’re helping you.

So here is my suggestion to people who, God bless them, want to help the poor, and want to evangelize at the same time:  be quiet.  Put up lots of crosses and statues and Bible verses on the wall, wear T-shirts and medals—go nuts.  But don’t say a word, unless someone asks.  At the very most, extend an invitation:  “We are available to tell you about our faith—just let us know!” or “Don’t forget to check out our lending library, if you’re wondering why we’re here.”  Poor isn’t the same as stupid:  people notice when help always comes from someone who believes in God.

So please, never require someone to have a spiritual experience in exchange for your help.  The first thing about personal relationship, with God or with anyone else?  It’s not a quid pro quo.  It’s never mandatory.

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Photo: Steven Depolo via Flickr (Creative Commons)

When you give a man money, you don’t own a share in his soul

Several years ago, my family went through a rotten patch, and we couldn’t scrape up enough money to pay our basic bills. A friend of the family got wind of our troubles and fired off a generous check. She did the same the next month, and then next as well, always with a little note saying she hoped it could help make a dent in our expenses.

One month, we miraculously found ourselves above water. One of the most miserable parts of poverty is having to deny your kids. It almost hurts worse when they learn so quickly not to ask for even the smallest treat. So when the mail came and there was yet another check from our friend for expenses from, the first thing I thought was, “Oh, I can buy the kids a swing!”

But I didn’t want to be presumptuous, so I asked her permission to spend her money on a swing. She was flabbergasted. She begged me to spend it however I saw fit, because it was a gift. It wasn’t her money; it was mine.

This is how you live the gospel. This is how you don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. When she gave me the money, she didn’t give herself permission to manage my life. She wasn’t buying a share in my life or my soul or my day. She understood this better than I did.

Having been the poor, I don’t want to romanticize the poor, to paint them as some kind of holy, spotless victims who can do no wrong simply because they are poor. The poor are just people, just like the rich. Sometimes they are greedy; sometimes they are stupid; sometimes they are ungrateful; sometimes they are dishonest, just like the rich.

Sometimes poor people do dumb or dishonest things with money, even the money you gave them. (Rich people can hide or get past their dumb or dishonest actions more easily than the poor; that’s the main difference.)

I’ve been on that side of this difficult transaction, too. I’ve been the one to give money to a needy person, only to discover that he wasn’t as needy as he claimed, or he spent the money foolishly, or he spent it in a way that I thought showed an ungrateful attitude, or a million other flaws in the way he received my gift. Maybe I denied myself so that he could eat, and then he turned around and got himself a treat, and acted like it was no big deal.

That sucks. It feels horrible. No one wants to be played for a sucker. No one wants their good will offering converted into something evil or gross; and no one wants their sacrifice treated like dirt.

In situations like this: sure.  If the person you gave money to lied, don’t give him any more money. If you think the money is making his life worse, don’t give him any more money. If interacting with this person is an occasion of sin for you, maybe take a break. Find someone else who needs your gift. God knows there are always more needy people.

But this is very basic: Once you have given the money, it is no longer yours. That’s what it means to give. If you give but still want to hang on, then you haven’t really given; you’ve just tried to buy a share in another human being. Charity doesn’t come with a rubber band that you can twitch any time you feel like it, making the other fellow dance to your ideals. That’s not giving. That’s investing, and we’re not supposed to treat other people like investment property.

Scripture is full of imprecations not only to give to the poor, but to be gracious about it, or at very least to shut up about it.

Do we want any chance at all of getting into the kingdom of God? Then we have to recognize that we, all of us, are the poor — poor beyond measure — and that Christ gave recklessly to us. He gave without any hope of being paid back, without any hope that we’d use His gift well, without any hope that we’d be anywhere near sufficiently grateful. He gave up Heaven to become a man, and then gave up his body and became a dead man. That’s what He did for us. He doesn’t threaten to withdraw salvation every time we act ungrateful (which we do every day) or squander his gifts (which we do every day) or fail to shape up (which we do every day). Instead, He gives more and more.

Look at your weekly bulletin. Is there Mass? Are there baptisms? Is there confession? You’re receiving charity. Are you living up to it? I’m not. I’m a horrible investment. I’m a black hole. Christ knows this, and still He gives.

That’s what he does. And we’re going to be jerks to each other about money?

So if we give — and we must, if we can at all! — remember we’re not making an investment. We’re not teaching a lesson. We’re not purchasing a share in someone’s life. We’re imitating Christ. Christ will make our gift into something great, if we will let go of it. 

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Photo: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

How to motivate Ben Carson

Because I’m basically a giver, I have a few ideas for Ben Carson. Specifically, I have some ideas for how to motivate him so he doesn’t remain entrenched forever in his current unsustainable, dependent lifestyle.

Carson is, of course, the kindly-faced sock puppet who boasted zero experience in public housing or government and was therefore appointed head of HUD. He is now on a fact-finding tour of government-subsidized housing to make sure it’s sufficiently horrible.

The theory, popular among folks who mistake luck, wealth, and support for personal virtue, is that, just as people catch pre-existing conditions because they didn’t take their vitamins and wear a scarf when they went out, the main reason people are poor because being poor is just so dang comfy. If we make poverty less fun, then poor people will get their act together and stop being poor.

Like so many brilliant ideas, Carson’s theory is both simple and universal. So let’s go ahead and apply it to him.

As head of HUD, his income comes directly from taxpayers; his comprehensive health insurance (which covers pre-existing conditions) is heavily subsidized by taxpayers; and he spends his days in government-sponsored housing. Does he even take the subway to work? Nope. Someone drives him around, and it’s all on your dime.

He’s a leech, pure and simple. This is a life devoid of dignity and integrity. But does he show any signs of wanting to better himself? No, he does not.

Why? Because he’s too damn comfortable. How are we ever going to get this fellow up, self-sufficient, and independent if we allow his daily life to be so cushy? Here are my compassionate recommendations for Dr. Carson:

He gets three paper clips per annum. Need more than three paper clips? Should have planned ahead. Nothing like running out of paper clips to drive home the hard lesson that paper clips aren’t free, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. If he’s really desperate to hold papers together and has already burned through the allowance that an agency who knows nothing about his daily life has decided is sensible, he can put on his thinking cap and fashion some kind of substitute out of, say, bootstraps. People in desperate situations have no end of bootstraps, and just about any problem can be solved by giving them a good yank.

No chairs. When we sit, it trains our gluteal muscles to become accustomed to rest, rather constantly tensed and engaged in work. As a doctor, Carson can surely confirm that you do more, live better, and can even be excused for existing as long as you are never at rest and feel constant stress and tension at all times. All the better if we can erect some kind of treadmill to his workspace, so he can grind grain or something as he works. Give a little back.

Walls and floors of his workspace should be concrete and colorless. If he starts to feel like he owns the place, by putting up photos of his family or choosing the color of the drapes, he’s going to start to feel like he belongs there, and he doesn’t. It’s temporary, and the sensation of security is the enemy of humanity. The best way to think clearly and make good decisions for the future is to have constant reminders that your very existence must be accounted for, and that everything that makes it possible for you to live could be yanked out from under you at any time.

Perhaps we could hire someone to follow him around chanting, “Shame, shame, shame, shame, shame” in his ear and to sigh disgustedly every time he cashes his government-issued paycheck. Hasn’t done anything to be ashamed of? So what? My sister’s husband’s aunt’s friend used to work at the white house, and there was this other guy in HUD who gamed the system left and right, and we can’t take the chance of that happening again. Fraud is rampant in the system, so it’s essential for anyone who cashes a government check to be made to feel bad, all the time. This is empowering and encouraging and extremely compassionate.

You think this is silly. You think that Carson is a man who has worked hard his whole life, has accomplished more than the ordinary man, and who is doing an important job — one which will be made more difficult if every aspect of his life is made unpleasant and difficult. He doesn’t deserve to be treated like scum. That’s inhumane, not to mention counter productive.

Well, you just described the typical poor person. You just described veteran. An elderly person. A refugee. A disabled person. A homeless person. A person whose life is already so severely proscribed that already nothing comes easy, nothing is by choice, nothing is certain, nothing is soft.

These are the people who live in government-subsidized housing. If their lives were easy, they wouldn’t be there. If their lives get uglier, harder, and less comfortable, as Carson apparently wants them to be, they’ll still be there. They’re there because they have nowhere else to go. And yet the crowds cheer as here comes a man in a tailored suit, stepping out of his limo and nodding in approval because the homeless men have no TV in the warehouse that shelters them at night.

Shame, pain, discomfort, inconvenience, and ugliness will not end poverty. Despair is not a motivator. Misery is not an engine for enterprise. I do not know how to solve the problem of generational poverty, but I do know that poverty is already ugly enough, and deliberately making it uglier will encourage fraud, not upward mobility.

Policies that deliberately employ shame and deprivation are not for the benefit of the poor. They are for the benefit of the well-off who despise the poor.

In the past, Carson has cast doubt on the relatively new policy of offering housing to low-income people even if they are not clean and sober. He believes that the morally corrupt should be excluded from government assistance.

In March of 2016, Carson candidly explained to NewsMax  that he didn’t want to endorse Trump, but Trump offered him a job.

It is a federal crime to exchange support of a candidate for appointment to a public or private position.

What was the phrase? “Drain the swamp?” Maybe we could, if the swamp were a little less comfortable for nakedly opportunistic careerists like Carson.

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Image of Ben Carson by Gage Skidmore via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Blessed Are the Useless

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This is the connection that we need to hear over and over again: we’re not here, in this world, to get ahead. We’re not here to prove how useful we are, and we’re not here to use other people. We’re not beloved by God because of how useful we are to Him! We’re useless. We’re beloved in our uselessness, because God is too big to fit into a simple equation of cost and benefit, debits and credits, loss and gain. We’re beloved because we exist, and that’s it. And if we want to meet God, we will find Him in service to others who can do nothing for us, because He came here in service to us, who can do nothing for Him.

Read the rest at the Register. 

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But what will poor people do if Planned Parenthood is defunded?

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On Wednesday, NH voted to withdraw nearly $650,000 of state funding from Planned Parenthood. Even the pro-choice legislatures of our state have long chafed against funding the top-heavy, corrupt, inefficient monolith of Planned Parenthood — not because we love babies, but because we hate wasting money.

Naturally, people concerned about the poor are upset about the vote to defund, because Planned Parenthood is like the classic abusive boyfriend: They’ve got us convinced that we need them, we’re going to be lost without them, we’re no goodwithout them, we’ll never make it on our own.

Yes, well.

New Hampshire is actually a pretty good state to be a poor woman in (it’s rated 7th in the nation for the quality of its healthcare).

I should know, having been a poor woman in New Hampshire for the last forty years, give or take a few sojourns north and south.  I have always gotten free, excellent prenatal care and postpartum care, free pap smears, free breast exams, free STD testing, and — well, I’ve been offered free birth control, if by “offered” you mean bombarded with non-stop, wall-to-wall, relentless harangues about how important it is for me to get my free birth control now now now. Even when I told them I didn’t want it, they put a bag of condoms in my suitcase at the hospital anyway.

I have gotten all of these things for free. And I have never set foot in a Planned Parenthood.

But what would we do without Planned Parenthood?

NH has offered free medical care to children, pregnant women and the elderly and disabled for years, and it recently expanded Medicaid to cover all poor people. Here is a pdf of the handbook that lists (starting on page 15) all the services which are free to poor people. It includes preventative care, including regular wellness check-ups, and  all prenatal care, including nurse midwife services, pregnancy related services, services for conditions that might complicate pregnancy, lab work, birthing centers, family planning, medically necessary hysterectomy, prescription drugs, and a myriad of programs to help you have a healthy pregnancy. They literally pay you to take care of your baby, offering cash incentives for well-child check-ups.

But what would we do without Planned Parenthood?

New Hampshire will take the $600,000+ they were going to give to Planned Parenthood and instead will distribute it among the Concord Feminist Health Center, the Joan G. Lovering Health Center on the Seacoast and Weeks Medical Center in the North Country.

But what would we do without Planned Parenthood?

New Hampshire’s Let No Woman Be Overlooked Breast and Cervical Cancer Programoffers

women’s health exams, mammograms, pap test, and pelvic exams to women age 21-64 who have no health insurance or have insurance that does not pay for screening tests and with family incomes at or below 250% of the Federal Poverty Level.

Here is the list of sites which offer free mammograms and pap smears:

Berlin Coos County Family Health Services – North 752-2900
Colebrook Indian Stream Community Health Center, Inc. 237-8336
Concord Concord Hospital Family Health Center, Concord 227-7000×2921
Conway White Mountain Community Health Center 447-8900 x305
Derry Women’s Health Associates 421-2526
Franconia Ammonoosuc Community Health Services 444-2464 x0
Franklin Health First Family Care Center 934-0177
Gorham Coos County Family Health Services – South 466-2741
Groveton Weeks Medical Center 788-2521
Hillsboro Concord Hospital Family Health Center, Hillsboro 464-3434
Keene Cheshire Medical Center 354-6679
Laconia LRG Healthcare 524-3211 x2940
Lebanon Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center 653-9321
Littleton Ammonoosuc Community Health Services 444-2464 x0
Manchester Catholic Medical Center 626-2626
Manchester Elliot Hospital 668-3067
Manchester Manchester Community Health Center 626-9500
Nashua Lamprey Health Care 883-1626
Nashua St. Joseph Hospital 882-3000 x67188
Newmarket Lamprey Health Care 659-3106 x7455
Newport Newport Health Center 863-4100
North Conway Memorial Hospital 356-5461 x2388
Peterborough Monadnock Community Hospital 924-1795
Plymouth Speare Memorial Hospital 536-1104
Portsmouth Families First of the Greater Seacoast 422-8208 x222
Raymond Lamprey Health Care 895-3351 x7390
Somersworth Goodwin Community Health Center 749-2346
Warren Ammonoosuc Community Health Services 444-2464 x 0
Whitefield Ammonoosuc Community Health Services 444-2464 x 0
Wolfeboro Huggins Hospital 569-7500
Woodsville Ammonoosuc Community Health Services 444-2464 x 0

But what would we do without Planned Parenthood?

Uninsured people can get STD testing, pregnancy tests, counselling, and ultrasounds at these clinics around the state.  My daughter volunteered at one of these clinics. It’s a few blocks away from Planned Parenthood, and unlike Planned Parenthood, but like many of the other clinics around the state, it also offers things like free diapers and baby clothes, car seats and strollers, parenting classes, and help navigating social services.

Without $650,000 from the state.

But what would we do without Planned Parenthood?

Here is a list of FDA certified mammography facilities. It includes nearly 9,000 places where women can get mammograms. Planned Parenthood is not one of them. Not one. Because they don’t offer mammograms, but only referrals (i.e. a piece of paper with an actual doctor’s address on it) for mammograms.

But what would we do without Planned Parenthood?

The truth is, most of what Planned Parenthood offers is abortion. That’s their cash cow. The reason they say it’s only 3% of their business is because they count everything that goes along with abortion as an individual service: you go in because you’re pregnant, and they give you a pregnancy test, and an STD test, and an abortion, maybe some antibiotics, and a box of birth control pills. Guess what? Planned Parenthood just provided five services — and abortion was a mere 20%. Now mix in a bunch of teenagers who stop by to get free condoms, and it’s pretty easy to get that number down to 3%.

It’s a stupid game, but it works. And it makes people think,

What would we do without Planned Parenthood?

We would do fine.

We would do fine.

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At the Register: God and the Hungry Belly

[L]et’s make a distinction here. Christ and the saints exhort us to deny ourselves, to voluntarily turn away from the lure of physical comforts, to sell all we have to follow Him. He wants us to learn that we have a choice: to give ourselves over to the demands of the flesh, or to master the flesh and try, instead, to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst.

Christ and the saints did not exhort us to deny others, to prevent other people from enjoying physical comforts. He did not tell us to make the choice for other people. Instead, He told us, over and over and over again, to feed His sheep. And that’s what the saints did: they fed people. Yes, with plain old physical food, that poor people could eat with their bodily mouths and digest with their earthbound bellies.

Read the rest at the Register.