Not My Idea of Religion

Church Demonstration

The scene outside Victory Baptist in Sacramento last night

The Sacramento Kings basketball team has unveiled its new purple jerseys, featuring the logo “Sacramento Proud.”  Today, however, I am not proud to be a Sacramentan.

Right on our doorstep, the minister of a purportedly Christian church delivered a mean-spirited, hate-filled sermon on Sunday, in which he insisted that we should not be “sad or upset” about the mass murder at Pulse nightclub in Orlando.  In his depraved mind, this horror was very much in line with Old and New Testament verses that prescribe the death penalty for homosexuals.  When the Sacramento Bee interviewed Verity Baptist Church Pastor Roger Jimenez at home, he confirmed his pulpit remarks stating “all I’m saying is that when people die who deserve to die, it’s not a tragedy.”  He cited passages in Leviticus and Romans to back up his claims.

I looked up the address of the church on our way home from work this evening so that we could drive by.  (I was horrified to discover that some miscreant who apparently believes that two eir wrongs make a right had changed the Google label to read “Verity Satan Church.”)  It was located in a boring, cookie-cutter industrial park, where we saw close to 100 protesters demonstrating in front of the church with rainbow and American flags.  News crews and sheriff’s deputies were on the scene.  While I do hope that the church’s service was not disrupted this evening, I was pleased to see that more than a few local residents took time out of their busy schedules to register their disapproval in a public manner.

While I remain incredulous that anyone characterizing himself as a man of God could suggest that we not mourn the loss of our fellow man, I am heartened by the fact that his warped dogma is a very minority view.  I simply cannot allow myself to believe that many others surreptitiously subscribe to this brand of hate.  I always thought that God = Love.  God approving of murder?  That’s certainly not my idea of religion.

 

 

Home(less) for the Holidays

gifts

Christmas Eve seems like a good time for an update on the homeless guys who we’ve been trying to assist here at the parsonage.  I am pleased to say that things are starting to look up.

Homeless Guy #3 surprised us all when he entered a local residential program that focuses on leading a godly life, staying clean of alcohol and drugs, and contributing to support of its mission by performing carpentry, roofing and other types of home improvement work in the community in exchange for donations.  We had been feeding #3 whenever he showed up at our door, despite our awareness of his penchant for fighting off demons with the aid of substances that we’d rather not know about.  We’d see him sleeping on a friend’s porch or out in the open or occasionally sharing a tent with Homeless Guy #1.  Every time we’d give him a couple of sandwiches, a bag of chips and a bottle of water, #3 would tell us stories about how he planned to turn his life around by entering a residential program.  We didn’t believe him for a minute, as his ongoing pattern of behavior led us to believe that he was merely telling us what we wanted to hear.  Praise God for small miracles.  I only hope that he’ll be able to make a decent life for himself once he completes the program.

Homeless Guy #2 is homeless no more, or at least for now.  Befriended by our young nephew, who calls #2 “uncle,” they eventually became housemates.  They share a love for music, both of them being guitar pickers with golden voices.  #2 does odd jobs (painting, carpentry, yard work and the like) and receives Food Stamps (known as CalFresh in our neck of the woods), so is able to contribute to their household.  Other things, I prefer not to think about.  I am all too cognizant of the penchant the two of them share for the toke and the six pack.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he doesn’t come around to the parsonage since we had it out with him and let him know that he is no longer welcome here.  We still see him wandering around the area, walking on the side of the road, going in and out of the dollar store down the street.  He wears a monitoring ankle bracelet that was a condition of his release from jail.  We’ve had some cold nights recently (at least by California standards), and we’ve noticed extra layers covering his tent.  Off in the distance this morning, we heard him yelling and cussing and throwing a fit, as is his wont.  He must have gotten into it with his mom and sister.  It wasn’t long before the sheriffs showed up.  Later, we saw him walking down the road again.  I guess the cops gave him a pass as a Christmas present.

While substance abuse, mental illness and even personal lifestyle choice are frequently cited as the primary causes of homelessness (particularly among Republican congressmen), I challenge you to take the time to actually talk to a homeless person and learn his or her story.  It won’t take long before you realize that the primary cause of homelessness is poverty.  To state it in the bluntest terms possible:  It takes a certain amount of money to pay rent.  Either you have it or you don’t.  And if most of the little money you have goes toward food, medicine, clothes for your kids and maybe bus fare, you’re probably not going to have enough to pay for rent and utilities as well.  Many get by, at least for a time, by robbing Peter to pay Paul.  We have neighbors in our community who survive dark nights and empty refrigerators because they’re behind on the electric bill and it’s preferable to at least have a roof over your kids’ heads.  There are those who endure freezing nights without heat and scorching summers without air conditioning for the same reason.  Here in California, our summers frequently involve weeks on end of temperatures over 100°F.  Cooling centers open up in public buildings in an effort to minimize the heat-related deaths we experience among the elderly and the young every year.

There is a woman in our neighborhood who resides in heavily subsidized housing.  She pays only $11 per month in rent.  And yet, there have been a couple of times when we learned that she had run out of food.  Life on a fixed income is a special kind of hell.

Many of us live a hand-to-mouth existence, struggling along paycheck to paycheck.  One unanticipated expense, one illness or automotive breakdown, can send us straight over the edge, into the abyss of homelessness.  Writhing on the precipice like a mouse caught in a trap, we are susceptible to those who prey on the poor, such as the payday loan places, the rent-a-centers and the convenience stores that profit off of inflated prices and cater to those who lack a car to drive into town.

Despite the abominable rhetoric of Congress during the unemployment debates of the past year, there are relatively few who fall into unemployment and homelessness as a result of sloth and lethargy.  Most of us go down screaming all the way.  And once we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole, it is next to impossible to climb back out.  You can’t find or keep a job if you don’t have a stable address and a place to bathe regularly.  Destroyed credit ratings and lack of first month’s rent, last month’s rent and security deposit may lead to a protracted period of sleeping in a homeless shelter, under a bridge or over a heating grate.  Difficult economic times have always helped to draw families closer together; pooling of resources can make the difference between extended family members having a roof over their heads or becoming homeless.  Too many people, however, have no family who they can rely on when the going gets tough.  Here in America, we live in a culture that celebrates individualism and views the nuclear family as the sitcom ideal.  Anything less reeks of failure.  We all want to do our own thing, unencumbered by aunts or uncles or grandchildren occupying spare bedrooms and sleeping on couches and making messes and not cleaning them up.  If drugs or alcohol or mental illness brought on by a history of abuse is involved, the situation is often rendered impossible, leading to homelessness.

My boss and I have had some really good conversations while standing at the tall picture window situated at the end of our row of cubicles.  (Next week will be his last with our agency and I will miss him.)  Several of those have been about homelessness.  With our office located high above downtown Sacramento, he has been able to point out the spot where his homeless guy usually hangs out.  He tries to stop to talk with his homeless friend for at least a few minutes each day.  This is a man, my boss tells me, who has been sleeping outdoors for 22 years now.  Even so, he recently told my boss that he is hopeful that his time without a home will soon come to an end.  He just has a feeling, he related, that good things are just around the corner and that something will arise that will allow him to finally have a home after nearly a quarter of a century without one.

Indeed, hope is always the last thing to die.  For when even that is gone, when all hope has vanished, we truly have nothing left but the blackness of despair.  I like to think that hope figures somewhere in the lessons of Christmas.  For hope recognizes the possibility of a better tomorrow, whether it be through the fulfillment of ancient prophesy or through taking action in our local communities toward ensuring housing for all.

Hope is sending off a letter to Santa Claus at the North Pole with the conviction that, if I’m very, very good, he might come down the chimney with all the desires of my heart on Christmas Eve.  Hopeless is knowing that, no matter how good you try to be, you will never be deserving of anything but lumps of coal.  And so, on this Christmas Eve, I put it to you that entirely too many of us fall into this latter category.

Yesterday, we had our annual toy giveaway here at the church, courtesy of an area Spanish-speaking congregation.  While carols played through a sound system, hot dogs were cooked and passed out as parents and their children lined up to receive what may be their only Christmas gifts this year.  Each child who showed up received several age-appropriate toys, while food boxes were given out to the parents.  All of the gifts were donated by generous businesses and individuals.

We have the naysayers, sure.  When I point out that families began gathering at 7:30 am for the 11:00 giveaway, leaning against the church façade, bundled up against the cold, someone always points out that most of these families are not impoverished, that they’re just trying to get something for nothing.  That we are suckers whose generosity is being taken advantage of.  As I think about this, I am reminded of a saying that my mother used to throw at us when, as kids, we became unduly cynical:  “Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.”  I laugh now at how old-fashioned this sounds, but there is a truth to it.  There will always be sharpies out there, fraudsters who care about no one but themselves and who, to paraphrase Billy Joel, will take what they’re given as long as it’s free.  For me at least, this will never be a reason to throw in the towel.  The only control we have is over our own behavior.  We have no control over what anyone else does.  The fact that there is evil in the world is not a valid excuse for refusing to be the good in the world.  And as for those who characterize us as bleeding heart do-gooders, I can only say “why don’t you come join us?”

Of course, we are not the only bastions of generosity in our little town.  Far from it.  There’s the Salvation Army, for example.  The Sally had collected hundreds of toys to give away to local kids right before Christmas.  Unfortunately, they stored those toys in a vacant storefront next to a supermarket.  Some malefactors discovered this fact, broke in and cleaned them out on Sunday night.

But for several hundred kids in our community, Santa arrived a day early.  They provided the hope; generous donors provided its fulfillment.  If we are to banish homelessness for good, we must rely on a similar model:  The hopes of the have-nots fulfilled by the largesse of the generous.

So where do we start?  Whose responsibility is it to ensure that each of us has a home?  I submit to you that it is everyone’s responsibility.  In Yolo County, just down the road from here, the local government implemented a ten-year plan to end homelessness in the county.  They report that they are well on the way to achieving this goal.  Other localities insist that they haven’t the resources to devote to a project of such dimensions and must rely on the federal and state governments and the generosity of private donors.  Meanwhile, Congress cites finite resources and too many hands clambering for a handout.  The churches, they say, will have to take up the slack.

Now that I have lived at a church for a year, I am able to appreciate how this zeitgeist trickles down to the immediate needs of the community.  As a local church, there is seldom a time when we are not virtually broke.  We are a tiny church, and despite generous donations on Sundays and at other times, there is never enough available to do all the work we’d like to do here in the community, much less to make contributions to worthy causes elsewhere.  With the help of other churches, we are able to do things like hold an annual toy giveaway or run a weekly food distribution.

What it comes down to, of course, is that no man is an island.  We are all in this together, popular ideas about individualism notwithstanding.  We are our brother’s keepers, whether we choose to ignore this responsibility or respect it.  We have to do it together, though.  Yes, we need the support of Congress.  Yes, we need the contributions of the state and county governments, the tireless efforts of our elected representatives who create programs that provide the neediest among us with housing and food.  And, yes, we need the churches and the generosity of businesses and individuals who provide us with turkeys and canned goods and gift certificates.

None of us can do this alone, but together, and with the blessings of God, anything is possible.  We can bring hope to the hopeless and the homeless.

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May your days be merry and bright.

That Homeless Guy in Your Living Room

So Homeless Guy #1 is finally out of jail.  For how long, I have no idea.

I gleaned a fairly good idea that his release was in the offing when I phoned the court last week to find out whether his case was on the docket for his scheduled trial.  No, the clerk told me, the judge had granted a motion to continue the trial due to the unavailability of witnesses.  I then asked whether the court had heard the motion in limine that had appeared on the calendar the day before.  The clerk didn’t know, but informed me that #1 had a whole string of motions set for hearing that afternoon, one of which was a motion for ankle bracelet monitoring.

That told me he was coming home.  But to what?  How do you parole a defendant to house arrest when he has no house to go to?

In this case, I suppose the court either didn’t know or didn’t care, as #1 had provided his mother’s address as his own.  He forgot to mention that his mother won’t let him in the house.  Oops.

Well, you know what?  I wouldn’t mention that fact either if I knew it might stand between me and (relative) freedom after being locked up in the pokey for three months straight.  Sleeping under the stars has to be a whole lot better than sleeping in a jail cell.

Homeless Guy #1 used to pitch a tent on the grass near the back edge of his mother’s property.  He had a sleeping bag, a Coleman stove and all sorts of stuff.  I have no idea what happened to his worldly chattels during his recent period of incarceration.

Given the circumstances, my hope was that perhaps his mother would give him a second (or 97th) chance and allow him under her roof.  I hear that a small pile of blankets has been seen out on the rear section of his mother’s lawn.  So much for that idea.

My guess is that house arrest doesn’t mean he actually has to stay in the house, just that he’ll be on the property.  Then again, it must not even mean that, as #1 has been seen wandering about the area.

A few days ago, as my wife and I prepared to head out the door at 6:45 in the morning, Pastor Mom got out of bed and started talking about how she should handle the situation.  The church is located just the other side of the fence from the verdant spot where #1 makes his bed in the great outdoors.  We knew he’d be showing up at the door of the parsonage.  And then what?

Pastor Mom told us that she had been praying about this and that what came to her was “innocent until proven guilty.”  I rankled at the very thought.  The man has been charged with a violent sex crime!  Yes, I believe in the American justice system, but I also see its imperfections.  Homeless Guy #1 is out on the street not because he’s innocent (although he may be), but due to the serendipitous intersection of a successfully argued motion and the jail overcrowding situation that we are currently experiencing here in California.

Sure, I like to think that he didn’t do it.  Homeless, mentally challenged people are easy targets for everyone, those who would like to take advantage of them as well as those who are charged with protecting them.  But what if he actually did commit this crime?

It’s possible that #1 will ultimately be acquitted due to lack of evidence, particularly if the district attorney fails to bring his witness back here from out of state.  My support of our justice system is not because I have confidence in its ability to distinguish guilt from innocence, but because it’s the best we’ve got.  I’ve yet to read about any superior system of justice.  The truth in this case is known only by God and the parties involved.  And I’m not so sure about the parties involved, considering that both of them have severe mental challenges.  I am not convinced that even they fully understand what did or did not happen.  After all, the allegations were made by a third party, not by the alleged victim.  I believe it is entirely possible that #1 may be convicted of a crime he did not commit or acquitted of a crime he did.

One thing we decided for sure is that #1 will not be permitted to enter our residence when our little grandniece is present.  That’s a risk we are not prepared to take.  Pastor Mom’s concern was about what we will do when he shows up at the door asking for food, coffee, water or ministry.

To me, it’s not about “innocent until proven guilty.”  We will never know what really happened.  In my humble opinion, however, it doesn’t matter.  When a homeless person is hungry, lonely or in need of spiritual guidance, I believe it is our duty to provide for his needs regardless of the sins of his past, present or future.  I’m pretty sure Pastor Mom would agree.

On Friday evening, I arrived home from work exhausted from the week, and walked through the door dragging my lunch bag behind me by its handle.  Lo and behold, there was Homeless Guy #1, relaxing in our living room.  He greeted me immediately and asked how my new job is going.  “Tiring,” I replied, “very tiring.”

As I headed into the kitchen to unpack the remains of my lunch, it occurred to me that #1’s misfortune could happen to any of us.  You never know what you could end up involved with.  Anyone can make a stupid mistake and end up in jail.  Anyone can find himself or herself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Anyone can make a series of bad decisions or suffer a run of bad luck and end up homeless.  There, but for the grace of God, go I.

That homeless guy in your living room could be me.

The Underground Economy

If you’re interested in the effects of long-term unemployment and the ways that out-of-work people manage to get by, I highly recommend the Longreads selection that was Freshly Pressed this past week:  “Mango, Mango! A Family, a Fruit Stand and Survival on $4.50 a Day.”  Douglas Haynes, whose piece was originally published in Orion magazine, takes us through a day in the life of families who eke out a living by selling snacks in the squalor of Managua, Nicaragua’s sprawling Mercado Oriental.  While some of the tiny businesses that set up folding tables are licensed, most are not.  With so many thousands of stands cropping up and disappearing daily, selling everything imaginable, the government can’t even begin to keep track.  For most of these mom and pop entrepreneurs, the profits are barely enough to feed their families.

In Nicaragua, as in the United States, working “under the table” means that nothing is put into the government’s established economic institutions and nothing is taken out of them.  These are people who work without paying taxes into the public coffers and without the ability to draw social security benefits once they are no longer able to work.  And, as Haynes point out, they suffer all the disadvantages of the self-employed — no paid vacation, no sick leave, no health insurance.  Still, in societies in which there are tens of thousands of people out of work, it is a way to survive.

Several years ago, I read an excellent book about residents of the South Side of Chicago who provide goods and services to the community on street corners, in alleyways, out of parking lots and abandoned buildings.  In Off the Books, author Sudhir Venkatesh refers to this phenomenon as “the underground economy.”  Operating in the shadows, these informal businesses fill a void in that they provide a way to obtain desired goods and services in areas that may be underserved due to a deteriorating economic establishment in the wake of poverty, crime and the participation of “legitimate” business owners in white flight.

In the public eye, the underground economy is often associated with illegal activity.  Indeed, criminal enterprises, such as prostitution or the sale of drugs, necessarily remain outside of the mainstream.  But the fact that they’re not counted by the government doesn’t make them any less a part of our economy.  As long as there are those willing to pay cash or barter for these goods and services, there will be enterprising folks willing to evade the law to sell them.  I think of when I lived on Broad Street in downtown Hartford, where cars would slowly approach each other from opposite directions and stop for just a moment, in broad daylight right in front of the brownstone I called home, to make their exchanges through open windows.

However, a significant part of the underground economy consists of legal activity, such as the sale of sliced watermelon, bottles of Coke and fried platanos in Managua or the automotive repair and oil change businesses that operate out of back alleys in Chicago.  In an economy in which there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the point of such efforts is to earn a dollar or two in profit to allow one to get through another day — to put some kind of food on the table for the family, even if it’s just rice and beans in Nicaragua or peanut butter and jelly in the United States.

Indeed, it’s sad to say that unemployment is starting to make the United States look more and more like Latin America or Africa.  With a large segment of our population descending into third world conditions, it’s no wonder that the Occupy movement railed so mightily against the “one percent” just a few years ago.

In most other parts of the world, the “underground economy” goes by the name “System D.”  The “D” stands for the French term la débrouillardisme, which is most often translated as “resourcefulness,” although that word fails to capture the true nuance of the French.  The original phrase embodies some combination of “schemes to get by,” “living by one’s wits,” “knowing how to get around the system” and one of my favorite terms from back in the 1970s, “gettin’ over on the man.”  In France, to say that someone is très débrouillard is an expression of high admiration.  It means that you are able to figure out a way to get what you need, even when the odds are stacked against you, wink, wink.

I have come to realize that, here in the United States, System D takes on numerous forms, including learning how to work the system and learning how to live outside it.  Some combination of these is what enables the unemployed to keep going without a steady paycheck.  For example, it is perfectly legal for a person to earn a certain amount of money while drawing Food Stamps.  Your EBT card will rarely feed the family until the end of the month; even if you can supplement it with some canned goods from the local food bank or the occasional dumpster dive, that isn’t going to help if your kid needs a pair of shoes.  So the unemployed frequently supplement whatever kind of benefits they are receiving by selling goods or services on the side.  This could mean anything from setting up a table at a swap meet to babysitting to fixing things as a handyman.  Haynes describes bus drivers who pay a man a few cents to shout out the bus route number in the crowded marketplace.  Such informally obtained income is generally taxable, but of course, most people don’t bother declaring it.

Further strengthening the underground economy, those who find themselves in poverty often exchange good will by patronizing each other.  “I know a guy who knows a guy” is what everyone wants to hear.  And when there’s not enough money to pay the guy, there’s always barter.  Change the oil in my car and I’ll bake you some pies.  Venkatesh mentions Chicago shop owners who can’t afford a security guard and instead “hire” a homeless person to sleep in their tiny storefronts at night.

Understanding how the underground economy works in one’s community often makes it possible for the poor to get hold of the things they need.  The main thing, of course, is that you don’t ask too many questions.  Back in New York, I remember that there were always guys who knew how to get stuff that “fell off a truck.”  The retired guy who might be willing to fix your leak or the out-of-work teacher who can tutor your kid probably doesn’t have ads in the Yellow Pages (although, these days, they might have one on Craigslist).  It’s very much a word of mouth thing.  Here in our little relatively rural community, many people have little gardens where they grow various things — could be cucumbers or cantaloupes or cannabis, you never know.

I think of the three homeless guys who we’ve tried to help out here at the church.  Homeless Guy #1 is in jail, awaiting trial.  His needs are being provided for by the judicial system.  Homeless Guy #2 has done a lot of couch surfing and has now found a place to stay for a month or so.  Sometimes he works as a day laborer or fix-it guy or painter.  Other times, he doesn’t, particularly if there’s alcohol to be had.  He figures out ways to trade his services for whatever he needs.  Homeless Guy #3 sleeps on someone’s porch or under a tree, and begs sandwiches at the door of the parsonage when his Food Stamps run out.

His EBT was replenished yesterday, so we weren’t surprised to see him walking along the road with a full plastic bag from the local dollar store this afternoon.  When he passed by the panhandler who stands at the freeway entrance with the “homeless and hungry” sign, we saw him give the guy some money.

It’s funny how those of us who have the least are often the most generous.

 

The Employment Paradigm: A Labor Day Story

I used to think that the scariest thing about unemployment was the obvious, the lack of an income.  But I soon came to realize that there is something else:  The fear of the unknown.  Will I find anything before my unemployment checks run out?  Will I have to take a job that pays a lot less than what I have been earning? Will I have to change careers, give up my home, move to a distant state?  The one question I never asked, however, was whether it might be possible to have a good life as an unemployed person.

Just as I wrote the above, Homeless Guy #3 appeared at the door of the parsonage, asking for food.  He said that he’d run out of Food Stamps for the month and that his EBT card wouldn’t be filled up until tomorrow.  I went in the kitchen and made him a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  He began to chow down the moment I handed him the paper plate with the PB&Js, right there in the doorway.  That guy was hungry.

Although our friend has mental issues, substance abuse problems and has been in trouble with the law, it’s hard to avoid thinking “this is what long-term unemployment can do to you.”  It’s a vicious circle, of course; no one wants to employ people with those types of problems, but it’s hard to surmount those issues without a paycheck to purchase things like food, clothing and shelter.

When I received my layoff notice about a year ago, my coworkers and subordinates all asked me “What will you do now?”  Um, look for another job, maybe?  What do you think I’m going to do, dorkus mallorcus?

Biting my tongue to avoid blurting out a facile answer (“I’m going to Disneyland!”), I would tell them that we were headed up north to live in a church parsonage with my mother-in-law and that I hoped to contribute my efforts to the church ministries.  When they’d press me for details, I’d talk about starting a food bank, collecting coats for kids and helping the homeless.  I had no idea whether I’d actually end up doing any of these things, but I did have a dream about some of these possibilities and, well, I felt as if I needed a more intelligent answer than “I don’t know.”

But I didn’t know.

I got tired of answering the same questions over and over, but I had to remind myself that at least some of it was the product of genuine concern.  A few would sweep aside formalities and ask what was really on their minds:  “What will you do for money?”  I really wanted to answer by whispering confidentially “Well, you know, we have savings.  You don’t have any, now do you?”

As annoyed as I’d be with the question about money, I came to realize that this is part and parcel of the paradigm of employment:  You need money for the necessities of life, and you have to be employed to get that money.

Later, however, sociologist and fellow blogger Alex Barnard of Ox the Punx helped to introduce me to alternate economic paradigms.  There is an interesting school of thought that holds that most of us waste our lives in meaningless employment that is mind-numbing, contributes to the destruction of the earth and makes us sick — all in order to earn money to purchase consumer goods that we don’t need and that don’t make us happy in any event.  Okay… So is it possible to have a happy life of unemployment without sleeping out in the open and starving to death?  Without ending up like Homeless Guy #3?  It turns out that it is.

I have been learning about a movement known as freeganism.  The word freegan is derived from a combination of the words “free” and “vegan” (although many practitioners are not vegans).  The crux of the idea is to reduce waste via the four Rs:  reducing, reusing, recycling and repurposing.  Specifically, make use of perfectly good items that others throw away.  This can take a huge variety of forms, but it essentially assumes that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  This week, for example, our elderly neighbor was thrilled to find, discarded on the roadside, a pair of pants that fit her perfectly.  In our relatively rural area, we have county and state food distributions, free bread pickups on Fridays and churches hosting food banks and free lunches and dinners.

But it is the practice of “dumpster diving” that has caused the freegan movement to attain a negative image in the press.  The truth of the matter is that restaurants, bakeries and grocery stores throw out perfectly good unsold baked goods at the end of the day and unopened cans and boxes of food when they approach their expiration dates.  Those who reclaim this discarded food not only use it for themselves but also share with others in need.  Nevertheless, instead of lauding the efforts of freegans to reduce unnecessary waste, the media have characterized freegans as a disgusting class of untouchables.  The economists and sociologists have suggested that the anti-capitalist nature of eschewing money in favor of making use of the castoffs of others is at least one reason for the denouncement of freegans in the media.

When it comes to housing, the joint efforts of government agencies and volunteers in places like New York and Detroit have created safe housing for those who would otherwise be homeless.  We constantly hear about homeless camps under freeway ramps, people sleeping on heating grates (or here in California, on the beach) and beggars panhandling on corners.  Although those are some ways of surviving for free, they are often unsafe and frequently made impossible by law enforcement.  What we rarely hear about, however, are efforts such as the conversion of in rem buildings (apartments seized for nonpayment of taxes) into housing for the homeless in my native New York City, or the use of adverse possession and other laws to allow volunteers (neighbors helping neighbors) to convert abandoned homes into family housing in Detroit.  The latter practice is often denigrated in the media as “squatters’ rights” or “squat-to-own” — which conveniently forgets that this is similar to the way that the American frontier was settled in the nineteenth century.  I am proud to be from New York, where the state constitution has codified that housing is a right, not a privilege.

Whether we are talking about food or clothing or shelter, there are those of us who believe that we can make the world a better place for ourselves and others by minimizing our possessions and maximizing our use of what others have thrown away.

But it is the freegan position on employment that really makes me sit up and notice.  Too many of us work, directly or indirectly, for corporations that rape our natural resources and seek to sell us garbage that we don’t need.  Meanwhile, the stress and unhealthy working conditions of our jobs are killing us.  Wouldn’t it be better to spend our time with our families, helping others and enjoying the one life that God has given us?  And indeed, by reducing our consumption and becoming aware that most of our “needs” are false idols created by Madison Avenue, we can reduce or eliminate our need for work.

This point of view runs contrary to society’s (and, I might add, Congress’s) disdain for the unemployed as “slackers” and “bums,” lazy, worthless people who leech off the generosity of others.  But now that we’ve reached a point in our economy at which technological obsolescence has become a runaway train, and where there aren’t enough jobs to go around for those who want them, perhaps we need to take another look at the viability of remaining permanently unemployed.

The suffering of the unemployed goes beyond the uncertainty of providing for our needs when we have no money.  This is because we have built our entire identities around work.  The very words we use when we talk about employment give us away.  We don’t say that we are employed as a secretary, waitress or computer programmer; a person says that he or she is a secretary, waitress or computer programmer.  Becoming unemployed takes that identity away so that our financial struggles are compounded by feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness, leading to family problems, depression and even suicide.  While the employed waste their lives on the job, the unemployed waste their lives by destroying themselves from the inside out.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Instead of allowing ourselves to be occupationally pigeonholed, we can reclaim our identities as individuals.

And so, as we celebrate Labor Day here in the United States, I call upon each of my valued readers to keep an open mind and to rethink what it means to be employed, what employment is taking away from us, and to what extent employment does or does not remain a valid paradigm in the 21st century.  Unlike some, I’m not saying that being employed is a bad way to live; I’m just saying that it’s not the only way to live.

I can tell you from personal experience that unemployment is not for sissies.  But I can also confidently state that we can vastly improve our world and our lives if we make it a point to help each other rather than burying our heads in the sand, to make use of perfectly good items that others throw away, and to value each other for our unique personalities rather than merely for our ability to contribute to the economy.

References

Freegan.info, “Free Your Life from Work”

Goodwin, Jan, “She Lives Off What We Throw Away,” Marie Claire (March 11, 2009).

Halpern, Jake, “The Freegan Establishment,” The New York Times Magazine (June 4, 2010).

Kurutz, Steven, “Not Buying It,” The New York Times (Home and Garden, June 21, 2007).

Spencer, David, “Why Work More?  We Should be Working Less for a Better Quality of Life,” The Guardian (Feb. 4, 2014).

Swanson, D. Joanne, “The Cult of the Job,” http://www.whywork.org (2004).

On Blogging About Homelessness

I’m not a news junkie, I don’t have a Facebook feed and my favorite flavor of ice cream is not Heavenly Hashtag.  In some respects, I feel as if I embody my generation’s version of my parents’ refusal to text message.

Blogging is the medium for which I feel affinity, both in the writing and in the reading.  I find myself exposed to many more viewpoints in the blogosphere than are presented to me by CNN or Fox News.  I try to remain at least minimally conversant with the issues of the day, which seem to change every few seconds, not unlike the electronic billboard at Shaw and Blackstone in Fresno that flips through a half dozen ads before the light turns green.  The Malaysia Airlines twin tragedies —  the plane that vanished in the Indian Ocean and the one that was shot down over Ukraine.  Missiles and murders in Gaza and the West Bank.  The execution of James Foley.  The drought here in California.

Mike Brown.

And yes, even the hullaballoo over the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, as petty as that may seem in comparison to the above.

In reading the comments on a blog post about the tragedy in Ferguson, I sat up and noticed when one commenter accused another of wanting a soapbox rather than a discussion.  After thinking about this, I realized that both are essential elements of good blogging.  At least for myself, I know I want both a soapbox and a discussion.  Yes, I appreciate the opportunity to report on events as seen through my own eyes and the partiality of my own filters.  The best part, however, is the discussion that ensues, the comments that challenge me, encourage me to stretch my thought processes and help me to see contrasting viewpoints and approaches that I could never begin to imagine on my own.

I like to think that my commenters help me to improve my writing in that they encourage me to consider multiple angles rather than merely committing my raw thoughts to pixels.  While inflammatory remarks do have their place in the pantheon of rhetoric, my commenters provide appropriate checks and balances that often cause me to pause and use the backspace key more than I did, say, a year ago.  They give me a reason to take time out to think about how my words will affect those who read them.

Nevertheless, I am sometimes way off base, and I am grateful to my commenters for setting me straight.  At times, my shortcoming is in the realm of making assumptions that may not be apparent to readers.  My understanding of how something works may be very different from your understanding of how it works, particularly if, although brought together by the digital world, we are widely separated by culture and geography.

I think about readers like Belle, who have, in my opinion, provided some of the most insightful comments in this space.  In her comment yesterday, for example, she asks why I haven’t pursued various enumerated avenues in my efforts to rejoin the workforce.  In an “I could have had a V8!” moment, I had to smack my forehead at the realization that there is so much back story that I have never adequately explained.  I have fallen victim to the fallacy of assuming that everyone else knows what I know.

And then there are the blessings bestowed upon me by fellow chroniclers such as The Art Bag Lady, who yesterday went toe to toe with me on her own blog.  She pointed out a number of my prejudices in writing about homelessness, including conflicting opinions that I have expressed and things that I can’t possible appreciate, never having been homeless myself.  Aside from being deeply honored by her lengthy critique, I genuinely appreciate the opportunity to benefit from insights born of working with the homeless regularly and of actually having been homeless, both of which are outside of my personal experience.

I think also of Dennis Cardiff’s blog, Gotta Find a Home, which consists almost exclusively of transcriptions of his conversations with the homeless of his Canadian city.  In at least one respect, Dennis has succeeded where I have failed.  He is an excellent listener; he allows the homeless to tell their stories in their own words.  By contrast, I don’t spend a lot of time just listening to the homeless individuals whom we serve through our ministry in this community.  They come to the door of the parsonage seeking help with a particular need, and I enjoy doing whatever I can to help fill that need.  Biblically, I believe this is called “standing in the gap.”  Ezek. 22:30  I have to laugh, because this is such a “male” thing.  It seems we always want to solve someone’s problems rather than taking time to just listen.  A lot of us men only feel satisfied when we have actually done something, taken some sort of affirmative action.  Unlike many of the women in our lives, we tend to forget that being a listening ear is an action, too.  And that sometimes it is exactly what is needed.

So here in the parsonage, we make some sandwiches, pack canned food and pasta into grocery bags and start thinking about places to stay the night and residential treatment programs and who needs a ride to where.  But dare I suggest that such pat solutions close more doors than they open?

Just as blogging provides us with a forum (a soapbox and a discussion), so does lending an understanding ear and a sympathetic shoulder provide an empowering forum to the homeless.  Listening more and speaking less provides a voice to the voiceless.  It makes the invisible visible. And it allows them to tell the rest of the world about the abuse they suffered as children, the odds that have been stacked against them from the very beginning, and the lack of viable choices that has pervaded their entire lives.

And perhaps I would be less prone, as The Art Bag Lady points out, to alternate between empathy and irritation if I were to stop telling it as I see it and allow the homeless to tell it like it really is.  If for once I would just shut up and listen.

Something Good About Facebook

My wife and I are sitting at a gray Formica top table in the tiny diner that we always seem to find our way back to, the one with the black-and-white diamond parquet floor, a vague nod to the middle America of the mid-20th century.  We already know what’s on the menu, but we listlessly take a cursory glance anyway.  The only thing that’s changed over the years is the prices.

I order a salad with oil and vinegar (no croutons) and a baked potato — no butter, no sour cream.

“You want it plain?” the server asks quizzically, uncertain whether she didn’t hear right or whether I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes, please.”

The salad consists of a small pile of lettuce in the center of a glass plate, flanked by two cherry tomatoes and two slices of cucumber.  The gold and red shakers that are my salad dressing appear in their little silver holder.  We bow our heads and say grace.  We are quiet about it and most often no one notices.  Occasionally, out of the corner of an eye, we catch someone at a neighboring table gawking or making a whispered remark to his or her dining companion.  But we’ve been doing this for years and we’ve long ago ceased to care what anyone thinks.

We each have our iPhones out, swiping and scrolling at our tiny screens in between bites.  Watching us seated next to each other but bent over our phones, seemingly transfixed by the characters and images, people often get the wrong impression.  They don’t understand what they are seeing any more than they understand what they are hearing when we pray over our food.  We are not holy rollers, but we do worship God, and not the god of technology either.  We are not using our phones to avoid talking with one another, nor are we using them to text each other about the garish outfit of the woman sitting alone near the door or about the bratty kid misbehaving at the next table.  Quite the contrary, our phones have become the source of subject matter that has made for some of our most interesting conversations.  The medium of choice?  Facebook.

My wife has an account on Facebook; I do not.  I was once on Facebook for a spell, before backing away about four years ago.  For a little while, I had been thrilled with the prospect of keeping in touch with former coworkers, former subordinates, college acquaintances whom I hadn’t spoken to or thought about in 30 years, and all those “people you might know” — mostly members of churches that my wife attended as a teenager.  My initial enthusiasm waned as I became increasingly disappointed with everyone I knew on Facebook, most especially myself.  I find it convenient to say that what finalized the divorce between me and Facebook were the profanity-ridden, hateful comments posted by my nieces and nephews.  I like to say that I was tired of feeling as if I were back in junior high, a voyeur to an endless stream of bickering and vitriol.  But I know better.  That wasn’t it.  It was me!  I could no longer tolerate the way I had begun to treat Facebook as a talisman, the first thing I did when I opened my eyes in the morning and the last thing I did before going to bed at night.  I was so embarrassed with the way that I had allowed myself to be sucked into entirely too many games on Facebook.  And I became disenchanted with the superficial quality of my online relationship with people whom I barely knew, and in some cases, never knew.

These days, I take every opportunity to point out the downside of Facebook.  My wife says that my antipathy toward Facebook is no different than my promotion of vegetarianism; in both cases, I act as if I am better than everyone else.  She’s right, of course.  I do tend to harbor a rather smug attitude.  But I also believe that it is everyone’s right to pick his or her poison.  Although I no longer waste my time on Facebook, I now waste it on other things (like what I’m doing right now, for instance).

In spite of the above, I am pleased to relate that my wife and I have found a use for Facebook that we can both agree on.  And it is this in which we were engaged at the little table in the diner as we munched our dinners.

First, my wife opened her Facebook feed and passed me her phone so I could read about what’s going on with several members of our family.  This led to discussions about nieces and nephews, our little grandniece and upcoming plans.

Then she flipped to a screen on which she showed me a photo of a little old lady at a sewing machine, explaining her devotion to the charitable organization Little Dresses for Africa.  This is a woman who spends her time making one dress per day for penniless African children.  She hopes to reach a total of 1,000 dresses by the date of her upcoming 100th birthday.

But not all the stories that my wife shares with me from Facebook are so encouraging.  Next, she showed me the photo of a grisly auto wreck in our former hometown of Fresno.  Apparently, a woman strung out on meth had stolen a car and ran a red light, crashing into three vehicles.  26-year old Matthew Harkenrider was killed on his way to work as a radiology technician at a local hospital.  He had recently graduated and purchased a house; his wife had announced her pregnancy that very day.  Then my wife showed me the Go Fund Me campaign taken up for the man’s widow, an effort that has already raised thousands of dollars.

Whether inspiring or tragic, family-related or world news, my wife has probably read about it on Facebook.  And she shares it with me on her iPhone over a meal at a little diner, often leading to some of our deepest conversations.

And that tells me that there is indeed still something good about Facebook.

How Do You Help an Alcoholic?

Homeless Guy #2 was released from jail this week.  All of us were surprised, as he already has multiple probation violations on his record.  I’m glad he has been given another chance, not because of his particular circumstances, but just because I believe everyone deserves another chance.  After all, God keeps giving us chances to improve, to do things right this time.  And who am I to argue with God?

Our friend’s next court date is a year from now.  Depending on one’s outlook, that either gives him a year to get his life back together and prove himself, or it gives him 12 months’ worth of opportunities to mess up again.

Upon his release, #2 immediately moved back in with his wife at her mother’s home across the way from us.  The next day, I saw them holding hands, and then they came to pay us a visit.  Sitting across from each other in the living room of the parsonage, this heavily tattooed couple spoke nothing about prison life or about past hardships endured.  Nor did I hear much talk about the future.  It was all about the present, about living in the now.  Still, I heard the usual whininess creep into her voice and easily detected his annoyance therewith as he asked her to stop complaining several times.

Predictably, everything fell apart within the next day or two.  The wife came over here in hysterics, claiming that one of her acquaintances had called the cops on her, not because of anything she had done, but solely due to the woman’s vindictiveness.  “I don’t wanna go to jail!” she wailed.  Pastor Mom prayed with her, calmed her down, got her to leave.

Then it was #2’s turn to visit us solo.  A talented musician, he brought over his guitar and introduced us to a beautiful tune that he said he had just written.  He reiterated that he wants me to help him with his civil case, in which he seeks compensation for injuries incurred during one of his previous stints in prison.  I told him that he has already waited so long that his case has probably been dismissed.  However, I agreed to call the court clerk’s office for him and we were surprised to learn that the judge has ruled that #2 has another month to file his paperwork.  I agreed to help him prepare for court if he brings over all his medical documentation and spends a couple of hours with me to sort it all out.  So far, this hasn’t happened.

He thanked me for my help and vowed his commitment to us, volunteering to wash our cars regularly.  “If you want to do something for me, start going to AA meetings,” I told him.  #2 appears to have had a long-running love/hate relationship with the bottle and I made it clear that he’s going to end up right back in jail if he doesn’t take action.  I didn’t remind him of the night that he woke up in a ditch, soaked to the skin, and came banging on the outside of the parsonage at two in the morning, needing a change of clothes and a ride back to where he was staying.  I did, however, remind him that his most recent stay in jail was due to a parole violation check that resulted from his arrest on public intoxication charges the previous evening.  #2 hemmed and hawed, told me that there used to be AA meetings close by but that there no longer are.  As I was sitting at my laptop, I immediately looked this up and provided him the days and times of three meetings that are held just down the street, plus those of daily AA meetings a few miles away.  He grinned sheepishly.  I knew right then that no one will ever hear him say “I’m Homeless Guy #2, and I’m an alcoholic.”  And I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before I learn that he is back in jail.

Then #2’s wife began texting Pastor Mom and wouldn’t stop.  The fact that her texts went unanswered did not appear to deter her in the least.  #2 is being mean and evil to her.  She needs us to pray for her.  She wants help in drafting a prenuptial agreement.

Say what? You mean tattooed guy is not actually married to tattooed lady?  Lucky for both of them, if you ask me.

The next time I saw our friend, he asked me what I think of the Kabballah, whether he should study it.  “Is it good or bad?”  I explained that it is probably unwise to get into that staff unless one is steeped in God’s Word first.  I told him about an Orthodox Jewish saying that a man should not open the Kabballah unless he has studied the Torah from childhood through to the age of forty.  But the Kaballah speaks of the center of the body being the stomach, he protested, and when he felt convicted (by the Lord, not the law) while in prison, he felt a distinct gurgling in his stomach.  I pointed out that, being a Christian, the study of Jewish mysticism might not be the wisest use of his time.

Then I saw him again, when he popped his head into the parsonage for just a minute or so.  He informed us that his wife was out in front of the church in the car we had sold them and that the cops were with her.  It turned out to be a false alarm.  It wasn’t their car after all.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he remains in jail.  In his short time there, I hear he has already served one stint in the hospital ward due to behavioral issues resulting from his mental problems.  The district attorney offered him a reduced sentence of 11 years in return for a plea of guilty.  He wisely declined.

The word going around now is that the victim of #1’s crime never actually came forward herself.  Apparently, one of their mutual acquaintances, quite possibly out of malice, called the police to report the alleged rape.  At this point, it is unclear as to who is willing to testify to what.  Rumor is that the alleged victim was seen in #1’s tent several times after the supposed crime took place.  I don’t know whether a judge would even allow such evidence.  I think the DA is going to have a tough time making his case.

Oh, and Homeless Guy #2 is now back to living in his car.  This, I think, is an excellent use of the car, as he does not have a valid driver’s license.  That fact, of course, has done nothing to deter him from driving.  Even if he manages to stay away from alcohol and reports for every scheduled appointment with his probation officer, the cops will eventually get him for driving without a license.

It may be August, but we’ve had some seriously chilly nights recently.  We gave #2 our old quilts.  We finally bought new, heavier quilts (turquoise!) that my wife found on sale.  I’m glad that the timing was just right for someone who needed our old ones.  After all, they were given to us as a wedding present.  As soft and comfortable as they are, they had become torn and ratty following 16 years of hard use.

About halfway through the church service this morning, I heard the door open and turned around to see the dynamic duo walk in and sit down next to each other.  He had his arm around her as if nothing had happened.

Toward a Better Understanding of Hypocrisy

A blog comment I ran across last week suggested that “hypocrite” is just about the worst epithet that can be applied to a person.  I do not agree.  Not at all.  It seems to me that hypocrisy has a useful and respectable place in our society and that it has been unfairly maligned over the centuries.

Let’s start by taking a moment to examine the meaning and etymology of the word “hypocrite.”  Much as I esteem the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary, I am unable to tell you how they weigh in on the issue, as the online version is behind a paywall and my unemployed ass cannot afford the $995 cost of the 20-volume print edition or even the $400 cost of the compact CD.  Making use of the tools that I do have available, dictionary.com cites the origin of the English word “hypocrite” as the ancient Greek hypokrites, meaning “a stage actor, hence one who pretends to be what he is not.”

The original Greek appears to indicate that, at some level, hypocrisy was a socially acceptable construct.  Ancient Greek audiences understood perfectly well that the onstage histrionics they were witnessing were the products of talented actors who were not actually being murdered and dismembered before their very eyes.  This is often referred to as “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Once we leave the stage, however, society has always had a much more difficult time accepting one who “pretends to be what he is not.”  Merriam-webster.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”  In modern times, the epithet “two-faced” has been applied to such an individual, but the revulsion visited upon hypocrites goes back centuries.  Arguably, the epitome of the public dissing of hypocrites was meted out by Jesus.  Among the best known statements about hypocrisy is in Matthew 23:14 (KJV), “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer:  therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”

Despite the bad name given to hypocrisy in the New Testament, I submit to you that being a hypocrite was likely quite practical 2,000 years ago and is certainly so in our modern world of the 21st century.

1. We grew up with hypocrisy.  Most of us were introduced to the concept of hypocrisy at an early age, long before the word entered our nascent vocabularies.  Either by inference or (as in the case of my own parents) literally, our folks would tell us “Do as I say, not as I do!”  If you think about it, this makes sense.  All parents have hopes and dreams that their children will do better than they themselves did.  As parents, we have bad habits that we do not wish our children to emulate.  Of course, children are strongly influenced by the actions of their parents, which is why many fathers quit smoking or drinking or swearing when they learn that a little one is on the way.  When we are unable, for whatever reason, to forsake our evil ways, the backup plan has always been to tell the kids to “pay no attention to the man in the mask.”  Hypocrisy:  It’s how we seek to improve the next generation.

2. Hypocrisy as a coping mechanism.  A famous quote from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald posits that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  We may, for example, simultaneously entertain the ideas that “drinking alcohol impairs my ability to function” and “I need a drink to get through the day.”  (In my own case, I suppose I should substitute ice cream and potato chips.)  One may dispute the accuracy of Fitzgerald’s assertion about intelligence, but acting against what we know to be our own best interest is a form of hypocrisy that is a valid coping strategy used to allow us to keep going (and to keep from going crazy) in the face of life’s daily contradictions.

3. Hypocrisy is a reasonable response to society’s persistence in judging us.  Back in the years when I worked in the court system, I would regularly hear criminal defendants bemoaning the law’s condemnation of conduct that they found perfectly acceptable.  Some of this is decidedly solipsistic in nature, but to a great extent, this sentiment is the product of conflicting cultural norms.  As the social workers and probation officers know all too well, the guy in the orange jumpsuit will likely think nothing of committing assault and battery if such conduct is a daily occurrence in his neighborhood, and particularly if he witnessed and/or participated in it as a child and adolescent.  “I’m being judged unfairly!” is the prisoner’s mournful moan.

How does this relate to hypocrisy?  Most of us attempt to stay on the right side of the law in order to stay out of jail, but things change considerably when it comes to matters of morality.  This may seem only marginally relevant today, but in times of restrictive social norms, we may seek to avoid the judgment of society by publicly spouting the party line while merrily pursuing our own agendas in private.  An example I mentioned in a post earlier this week is that many of us kept our criticisms of the government to ourselves in the 1950s to avoid social approbation that could include becoming unemployed and being run out of town.  Similarly, for years most gays remained “in the closet,” some even going as far as entering hetero marriages, in order to avoid being judged harshly by those around them.  So you can see that saying one thing and doing another is a reasonable response (“I have to live in this town!”) to persistent judgment by a society cherishing norms that directly contradict one’s own.  Those who hang out in the third standard deviation pretty much have the choice of being hypocrites or adjusting their behavior to conform with cultural norms.  Those who are unable to embrace either approach often find themselves in those orange jumpsuits, or arguably worse, in padded cells.

I have often pondered that much hypocrisy, as well as outright law-breaking, could be avoided if people would relocate to parts of the world in which social norms are better aligned with their predilections.  We may be horrified at, and quick to condemn, practices such as the use of hard drugs, allowing minors to consume alcohol or eating the meat of cats and dogs, but there are many areas of the world in which these are not the cultural taboos as they represent in North America.  Those who reside here but find it inconvenient to pick up stakes for an intercontinental move to a more compatible social environment often engage in culturally prohibited practices in private while, in public, pretending the horror that our society expects of them.  And let us not forget that many throughout history have found becoming hypocrites essential in order to practice their religions while avoiding death at the hands of an intolerant majority.

Rather than reviling the hypocrite, perhaps we should consider that none of us is perfect and that every one of us is hypocritical in some fashion at some point in time.  For example, we may be staunch advocates of truth-telling, yet accede to telling a “white lie” in order to spare someone’s feelings.

Among the problems that we have with hypocrites is the fear that they will “fool us” and the rage we experience when we feel that we have been duped.  This is symptomatic of a simplistic and childlike mindset that paints every situation in black and white.  We want to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Not only does this sentiment fail to acknowledge the complex nature of modern society, but it also errs in equating the good with current social norms.  Aside from the fact that such norms change rapidly, it behooves us to recognize the value of diversity and multiculturalism in that individuals with widely divergent traditions, mores and folkways can all make positive contributions to our heterogeneous society.

Some believe that once a hypocrite has been “outed,” nothing he or she says may be trusted ever again.  We think of politicians who are elected on a “law and order” platform and then are discovered to be crooks themselves.  A few years ago, a Scientific American article pointed out that our unwarranted emotional responses to hypocrisy (i.e., our unwillingness to put ourselves in the shoes of the hypocrite or, dare I say, to examine our own hypocrisy) “tend to short-circuit rational examination” of a person’s statements.  Just because one acts hypocritically to avoid harsh social judgment in a particular area does not mean that every statement uttered by that individual should be discounted out of hand.  Compassion, particularly among those of us who profess efforts to live a godly life, seems in order.

Yet compassion appears conspicuously lacking by many, particularly by those on the religious right, who chastise hypocrites as “liars” and “haters of the truth.”  It may be more accurate to say that an intolerant, judgmental society is the real hater of truth, the truths that there will always be dissenters in our midst, that there is a place in life for personal choice, and that peaceful coexistence is possible without achieving universal consensus in regard to every belief and practice.

 

 

Billete

Yuba City

We didn’t get one of those luscious looking watermelons this time.  There weren’t enough to go around and I was too far back on the line to hope for such luck.

I have no cause to complain, however, as I did manage to bring home both blueberries and strawberries.  In the supermarket, those berries would have cost close to $15 and we would have passed them up, as we always do, as being far too expensive.  So thank you, U.S. Department of Agriculture, for making fresh fruit possible for many of us who would otherwise go without.

The truck arrived early and honked its horn to request that we move our folding chairs and rolling carts so that it could back up close to the curb.  Shirley at the food bank had clued me in about this particular food distribution, twenty minutes and two towns up the freeway from the church parsonage.  “It’s where I send my older clients,” she informed me, as only about 25 people typically show up in the line, as opposed to the hundreds who snake around the parking lot at the food distribution in our own town.  It’s nice to know that getting old still has a few perks.  Indeed, this whole embarrassing business of collecting free food took us only an hour, instead of half the day.

This event, which occurs monthly, was held in a rundown apartment complex on the back side of an industrial area in the south end of town.  Most of my fellow queuers, who strolled over with their bags and little wheeled carts, appeared to reside in one or another of the identical single-story white buildings with green trim.  The woman in line behind me asked me whether I lived in “the camp.”

Most of the conversations going on around me were in Spanish, and I soon learned the word billete.  Apparently, you must have one in order to obtain your bag of canned goods off the truck.  It didn’t take long for the line to move forward, across the brown, withered grass and down the concrete path to the vacant apartment where a woman was singlehandedly staffing the sign-in table.  As I stepped over the threshold, I was glad to be indoors, out of the intense rays of the sun, already blazing hot at 8:30 in the morning.  When I reached the table, the staffer and a client appeared to be engaged in a detailed discussion in Spanish, complete with much pointing at each of the four fields on the sign-in sheet.  I simply grabbed the other clipboard, signed in and went out to the truck.

That’s not the way it works.  You have to hand the truck driver a billete or no food for you.  So back inside I went to obtain my little ticket.  Fortunately, there were only a few stragglers waiting on line by this point.  Billete in hand, I went back out to the truck and obtained my very heavy bag of cans.

As for the produce and bread, it was a free-for-all.  You just grabbed what you wanted out of the boxes and whoever was fastest got the best of the offerings.  This was very different than the other food distributions I have attended; at one of them, I thought a worker was going to slap my hand when I foolishly dared to reach for a banana.

blueberries
My wife helped me load up an empty bag with those items that we thought we would use.  By that time, the place had already been pretty well picked out, though.  We were thrilled to get the berries, and we did end up with a nice little pile of redskin potatoes, which for some reason no one else seemed to want.  I’ve been eating them for days now, and they’re wonderful.

We were able to get a half-loaf of garlic bread, a bag of rolls, a package of bagels and a loaf of some type of French bread with a crunchy topping.  We ended up throwing all of it out when it went moldy within a day or two.

There was also cake.  I saw several fairly large chocolate cakes that had been dumped by a local supermarket after reaching expiry without being sold.  The frosting on some of them had been melting in the sun, separating from the cakes and coating the underside of the plastic clamshell lids in which they were encased.

One old lady with a sweet tooth piled three of those mushy looking cakes into her bag and was sternly reprimanded by the truck guy.  Warned that they were only one to a customer, she was forced to put back the extras.  But then she surreptitiously (or so she thought) retrieved her extra cakes.  “Go home!” the truck guy yelled at her.  “I’m warning you, get out of here or I’m taking you off the list!”

The list again.  The importance of being “on the list” cannot be underestimated if you hope to supplement this month’s meals with some free food from the government.  Being removed from the list is nothing short of a disaster, as it means no billete and you go home empty-handed.

But as we pulled out of the parking lot, we saw that the woman was not to be deterred.  We noticed that she still had not left, hanging around in the hope for more.  And here comes the truck guy getting up in her face again.

When we unloaded our stash of canned fruit, veggies and tomato sauce onto our kitchen table, we were surprised to find two one-pound packages of frozen ground beef hidden in the bottom of the bag.  We used one of them right away in spaghetti sauce with a box of pasta that we had received in a drought relief package last week (Pastor Mom kindly prepared a vegetarian batch for me).

ground beef

Two days later, we brought my teenaged niece and her little one over to the bi-county food bank warehouse to sign up for a California program known as First Five.  Additional food is provided to poor parents of young children in the hope of giving them a better start in life.  The box she received contained some useful items such as apple juice and pasta, along with a number of inexplicable ones such as hot sauce and butterscotch chips.  It makes you wonder what they think little kids eat these days.

The food we receive when I stand on these lines, sometimes for hours, not only stretches our budget, but also allows us to share with the needy who constantly show up at the door of the church parsonage.  We are now at the end of the month, a time when many run out of food and out of luck.  Even if you know about the county, state and federal food distributions in this area, many of the poorest in our community have no means to get to them.  And even if you are eligible for Food Stamps (and too many don’t know that they are), it doesn’t help very much if there’s only a dollar and a half left on your EBT card and still a whole week left in the month.

So the elderly woman who is our next door neighbor came over and asked if we could help her with some food.  We packed pasta, sauce, soup, beans and canned fruit into a grocery bag for her.  Then it was Homeless Guy #3, and we made up some sandwiches for him.  A few days later, it was Homeless Guy #2, claiming that neither he nor his wife (with whom he no longer resides) had anything to eat.  We gave them ham, turkey and most of a loaf of bread.

Poor Homeless Guy #2.  The next day, he apparently fell off the wagon, yelled some choice words at the wrong people and was picked up by the cops for public intoxication.  He got out the next morning, which was fortuitous since he continues to be such a huge help with the labor necessary to repair the church.

Now he wants me to help him figure out some legal papers that he received in the mail.  It seems he has a lawsuit against the state over injuries he received during his last stint in prison. I told him he can come over with his documents and we can look them over together.

It hasn’t happened yet, however.  In the meantime, he was arrested on a probation violation and is currently serving ten days in the pokey.