I was tired, bone tired. It was a tiredness that went beyond mere physical exhaustion to conquer my every thought. It pumped through my heart to poison my entire being. This exhaustion festered in my soul, and there it sat.
My toe nudged the carrier holding my sleeping son (son #5) forward. His sleeping was a small blessing. It was a miracle that I still recognized small blessings. If I hadn’t been so exhausted, I may have recognized more. I might have realized sooner that God hadn’t abandoned us as I had accused Him of doing. Instead, this belief is part of what brought me to this place.
The line shuffled forward again, and I again slid my son’s carrier a few inches on the dirty floor. He slept as men on lines across the room shouted in loud greeting to someone who had just arrived. The new man waved and, crossing the big, crowded room, joined them. Their greeting spoke of reunion. Their words talked of fun they’d had at a club the night before.
I kept my eyes lowered. I didn’t fit in. I was the minority, but it had nothing to do with gender or skin color or economic status.
On the line next to mine a woman swayed. Her eyes were unfocused as she half-yanked, half-pushed a little girl forward on her shuffling line. The girl caught my eye before her glance quickly returned to the dirty floor at her feet. I watched her pushed ahead in a manner just short of abuse. I watched silent tears roll slowly down her dark cheeks. I watched as no one helped this child. I wanted to hug her. I wanted to tell her everything would be okay, that she was special and loved. I wanted to take her home with me. I watched but did nothing.
I was desperate, alone, overwhelmed, and confused beyond imagining as I stood in line at my county welfare office. Child support was sporadic, and I needed help. I had five small boys to feed, clothe, and house. Winter was here, and our house was always cold. I had some savings but no job and piles of attorney fees for the divorce I never wanted. I’d been a stay at home mom and part-time youth minister. I’d never felt the need to be rich, but I suddenly understood what it meant to be broke.
It was finally my turn. Government agencies changed, but words were always the same, “Sorry. We can’t help you. Try (another government agency).” The cycle continued.
Private vs. Public Assistance
I would not have believed it had I not experienced it. I know what it’s like to suddenly lose your security and be left alone in a scary world fending for yourself and small children with limited resources and even less hope. I know what it’s like to look in the mirror and avoid eye contact with your reflection as you decide to plead for public assistance. I knew what it’s like to make that decision because not making eye contact with yourself is easier than not making eye contact with your children as their eyes seek answers to unanswerable questions.
I wasn’t looking to get rich. I was looking for food for my children and myself since I was nursing my newborn. I was looking for heating help so we could turn our thermostat up to 60 degrees. I was looking for some way to make life work while I went back to school and looked for a job. I was looking for hope that I could be a hand up for my children and others one day.
Instead, I was turned away from every government agency for one reason or another while watching able bodied men cheerfully reunite and pick up government issued welfare payments. I watched as a little girl cried unnoticed in the crowded room, ignored by the deputy hiding behind his newspaper, overlooked by social workers who had seen this type of thing so many times that they stopped seeing it. To them this child was an occurrence, added paperwork, an invisible “it,” but she wasn’t an it at all. She was a little girl.
I left hopeless, but God already had a plan in motion. Our local elementary school provided Thanksgiving dinner for “Family #7,” a phrase I’ll forever remember with mixed feelings. Our local Lyons club provided food for Christmas and a truckload of firewood. A friend brought more wood when that ran low. The local hospital provided Christmas presents and a Green bay Packer cake for my son who was born on that special day. The Lutheran pastor stopped in weekly to bring supermarket rejects and Biblical encouragement. We were given food and gas cards donated by our small community. Our local priest gave us a check for heat donated by an anonymous parishioner.
Somehow we made it through those years. We still struggle, and there are days worry could wrap its stranglehold around my hopes and dreams if I let it. There are days I feel its grip tightening around my heart, compressing my lungs so it is hard to breath, so that I want to give up and
walk run away.
Then I remember those who helped us and the generosity I can never repay them but that I hope to pay forward one day. At times like these, it is impossible not to contrast the experience on those impersonal government lines with the hugs and humbling gifts given by neighbors. The help we got from friends, family, and churches was priceless, motivating, and far exceeding any government benefit. The help we got from private donors gave us hope and renewed our faith.
Catholic Social Justice Can Do What Government Cannot
In a recent post to a private Catholic Facebook group about the upcoming presidential election a woman mentioned she was having trouble voting for one candidate because of the social justice issues of the candidate’s party. The general consensus seemed, even among faithful Catholics, that we need government to provide when times get tough.
I gave a short recap of our experiences. I explained how the government did not help but actually caused us to feel further rejected while local charities did an amazing job providing and encouraging. One woman immediately countered with her own experience and went so far as to say private charities like the Church cannot supply enough, especially for people with special needs. She insisted we need the government’s “care.”
The pro-government assistance crowd heated up, and I stopped replying. Instead I silently wondered what had gone so wrong among faithful Catholics. I didn’t doubt the group’s great love for the Lord. I didn’t doubt the sincerity of their beliefs or the validity of their experiences, but by relying on the government, they missed so much.
I wondered what Saint Mother Teresa would say about relying on government assistance or about the Church being unable to provide for the needs of the suffering. I wondered what Saint Kateri Tekawitha would say about the government’s ability to protect those in its realm. I wondered what Saint Thomas Moore would say about depending on the ruler of the land as a role model for the leader of a thriving family.
This time I watched from virtual sidelines. I again did not speak up. I wondered if Jesus is now the child standing with silent tears rolling down His cheeks as we question what His Church is capable of.
Social Justice Issues: Government vs. the Church
Government agencies, by design, serve the government, not God or His people. They cannot serve, as Jesus said, living water so that those in need will never hunger or thirst again. The bread governments serve gives false promises and demands the soul’s return. It requires a dependence on government offices being open when those needing employment would most likely find honorable work. It requires dependence on government court systems determining definitions of poverty. It requires those making decisions to dictate outcomes without actually knowing their clientele. It requires social workers, who get into the business with the best of intentions, to harden their hearts so they can turn away the needy who don’t fit a mold and overlook a child with silent tears rolling down her cheeks.
Catholic social justice requires sacrifice of time, money, energy, and resources. It requires giving more of ourselves when we already feel tapped out. It requires those in need of humbling themselves by looking into the eyes of their benefactors. It requires benefactors to personalize suffering. It requires both donors and receivers to leave home and step out of comfort zones. It requires communion with neighbors and a reaching out to one another. It requires living as God tells us to live. It requires dependence on one another, on God, and on systems He put into place rather than on systems an impersonal government puts into place.
Catholic social justice also gives more than it requires. It gives dignity, hope, and purpose beyond that of meeting up with friends on the welfare line. Catholic social justice means meaningful work and value in God’s design. It gives shared experiences and the knowledge that we are never alone. It gives selfless love, which is always returned in one form or another.
The unfortunate truth is that in many modern countries more people get assistance from the government than from the Church. This is partly because laws make it difficult for private entities to provide care they once did and partly because private entities weakly handed over their abilities.
Even in my rural hometown, the outreach of the Catholic Church as an institution was limited although individual parishioners were amazingly generous, but those facts do not change what the Church, as the hands and feet of Christ, is called to do or capable of. The Church cannot separate itself from social justice or rely on the government to provide though implementation of programs may vary.
Matthew 25 tells us very plainly that we are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, invite in a stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and reach out to the imprisoned. There are no ifs, ands, or buts to these callings. If we feel we need to turn to the government to meet these callings, we must ask why and what can be done to rectify that. We have no excuse. God never asks us to do the impossible, but He never imposes His will over ours. He patiently waits for us to ask and to lift the hand that lifts our neighbors.
Social Issues & Catholic Voting
I often think back to those men laughing and greeting one another across the crowded room, to the little girl with the tears silently rolling down dark cheeks, of the harried young mom with eight children in tow, and so many others I saw there those days. I wonder, as the weather changes and temperatures drop, where they are now. I imagine most of them are returning to the government for help, getting what they need physically to survive another day but starving for the encouragement to thrive one day, and longing for the spiritual hope to embrace a new day.
I was disappointed in my government but in the long run, those sacrifices drove me to do more for myself, to humbly seek help in more personal places, and to appreciate those around me that much more. I wish I could thank everyone who helped us through those darkest of times. I wish I could find those people at the welfare offices and spread the messages of hope and love they miss when on government welfare lines.
Somehow, some way, one day, I will.
If you are voting strictly on social issues, I urge you to consider how government policies restrict the implementation of Catholic social justice and tie the hands of the Catholic Church. If you believe the Catholic Church cannot provide all the government does and far more, I urge you to look to the Saints who refused to take no for an answer. Most of all, I urge you to see Jesus waiting on line, silent tears falling down His cheeks as you question what His Church can do when we live His two greatest commandments and when we truly believe.
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