Last month, spurred by a post written by my brother Jim, I posted an article called “Does Government Assistance Discourage Private Charity, ” which elicited quite a bit of discussion. The discussion was interesting, but after reading it, I realized I should have used the word “personal” in the title instead of “private.” Most of the comments centered on the relative merits of government charity versus religious charity. It made me wonder if the discussion participants had read my post since I included stories about person-to-person acts of kindness rather than institutional generosity. But as luck or fate would have it, Jim gave me another chance to get it right.
This month he’s doing a blog series based on the Lectionary readings for Advent, and earlier this month he wrote about justice. Once again he talked about the responsibilities of the government and faith communities, once again I wondered where individual responsibility fit into the picture and once again it reminded me of a story:
When I met “Jane, ” she was already homeless. Her story began years before when she quit her job, withdrew her retirement funds and moved north with her son to pursue his goal of an education that would give him the skills for the career of his dreams. It worked on paper, but then reality intervened. Through the negligence of others, her son contracted a fungal infection that ultimately proved fatal, and instead of funding his education, her nest egg was spent on doctor’s bills and lawyer’s fees. Neither doctors nor lawyers were successful, and she gradually lost everything including her apartment, most of her personal belongings and the hopes that had sent her in search of a new life. With little more than gas money and a car that barely ran, she and her terminally ill son came back south where he moved in with a friend and she lived for a few days or weeks at a time with first one friend and then another.
Because of his illness, Jane was able to get her son on disability, Medicaid, and food stamps, so he did pretty well. But for some reason, whether it was pride or her particular circumstances, she never got into the “system.” She had a part-time job that put gas in her car and kept her supplied with peanut butter sandwiches most of the time. She told stories of acts of kindness from people: the waitress who gave her an order of fries with her $1 hamburger and didn’t put it on her bill, the couple at church who pressed a $20 bill into her hand during meet-and-greet time each Sunday morning, the lady at the food bank who let her pick through the selection of bent cans so she’d be sure and get something she liked, and the series of friends who offered her a room or a couch for a while. But there was no commitment and no security and she always felt like she was one night away from sleeping on a park bench. Then she met “Kay.”
Kay was in the same Bible Fellowship class as Jane, but they didn’t know each other very well. One Sunday, Kay invited Jane to lunch after church. Jane accepted, assuming it was another act of kindness that would forestall the inevitable for a little while, but Kay had something else in mind. After lunch, she invited Jane to her home to spend the afternoon. After spending several hours together, Kay invited Jane to move in with her, permanently. Kay was a school teacher with an active life, but she had trouble with her legs and sometimes needed a scooter chair to get around. She liked the idea of having somebody around, just in case, and Jane liked the idea of having a room of her own where she could unpack her suitcase and her few boxes of belongings.
Several years later, Kay and Jane are still friends and roommates. Jane’s son has gone to be with the Lord, and the lawsuit is lingering in that place where lost causes go to die, but Jane is in the system now. She’s collecting Social Security, and her beautiful smile and her offbeat sense of humor have returned. The government had a part in her survival, mainly because it helped her son when she couldn’t. And the church helped through gifts of food and clothes and sometimes a few dollars to tide her over until the next paycheck. But her real recovery came when an individual took on her burden as a personal responsibility and made a commitment to help her.
Here’s the comment I left for Jim after I read his blog on Tuesday:
I believe the problem comes when we expect either the government or the faith community to take care of the helpless and vulnerable. My understanding of the Scripture is that it is the responsibility of each individual to do his part to alleviate these issues rather than leaving it to institutions of any kind. The cry goes up that the problem is too large, but until the helpless and vulnerable become the majority, if each one helped one, the problem would be gone.
What do you think? Do you care enough to make a difference in just one person’s life?
Linda Brendle retired from the business world several years ago, and she blogs about caregiving, faith, and family at Life After Caregiving. She has written a book called A LONG AND WINDING ROAD, RVing with Mom and Dad, and she is a frequent contributor to The Rains County Leader in Emory, Texas, The Burnside Writers Collective, Soul Sitters, and Don’t Lose Heart. She can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.