The Other Side of the Counter

Yesterday, I had an interesting encounter at the County Office Building.  A friend was in danger of losing his public assistance check and needed to speak with someone in the welfare office.  I offered to keep him company.

Even though I’ve been in and out of the building for years, this was my first time accompanying someone as they walked through the process.  After obtaining paperwork from the Social Security Office in the morning, he went to the County Building at noon.  After taking a number, he was asked to sit until he was called up.  So he sat there for the next two hours.  I brought coffee and bagels to pass the time.  We joked and chatted for a while.

The room was packed wall to wall with people needing help.  Conversations were periodically interrupted by an unnervingly calm recording saying, “Ticket number 247, please proceed to window 3.”

When my friend was finally called up to the counter, he spoke with the attendant for about two minutes and was sent back to sit down.  We waited for another hour.  It was now three o’clock.

“Maybe they won’t get to me today,” he said.

“What happens then,” I asked, “will they give you an appointment for tomorrow?”

“No,” he said, “I just come back and do it all over again.”

I wish there was something I could have done to expedite the process, but all I could do was sit and keep company.  Being poor is a full-time job for most folks.

People around the room kept shooting me sideways glances as we waited.  I think it must have been disconcerting for them to see a member of the clergy in the holding pen waiting room.  I suppose people don’t think of the County Building as a place where clergy (or God) are keen to hang out.  If anything, most of them would think of God as working behind the counter.  From their perspective, God is the one who holds all the resources and has the power to dole them out.  If you’re willing to jump through the hoops, God will help you out.  But if you don’t play by the rules, you’re screwed.

I couldn’t stop thinking that God is nothing like the county office.  But people in the waiting room don’t know that.  They think that God is like that stoic employee who finally saw us for five minutes after waiting all day.  They think God is too busy to make conversation or ask how the kids are doing.  They think God just wants to look at the facts, to see if they meet the criteria, and then decide whether or not they deserve to be helped.

I believe that if God worked in the County Building, people would be welcome to hop over the guard rails and kick back in the office for as long as they needed to stay out of the cold.  God would want to hear the lame excuses, the sob-stories, and the never-ending drama.  God would bend the rules and grease the wheels for those who hurt the most.

Peter Maurin said he wanted to make a society in which it was easier for people to be good.  I would settle for a society in which it was easier for people to see God on the other side of the counter.

One thought on “The Other Side of the Counter

  1. I recall the scene fromthe movie “Bruce Almighty” when he starts hearing all the prayers out loud, and sets up a computer program to deal with them. Sometimes, as I sat on the employee side of the counter, I got so tired of all the same problems over and over. And so frustrated that I couldn’t do anything to prevent them, just deal with them as they arrived on my desk. I still get a thrill relating the stories of people I helped and how I helped them: the young widow I sent to her husband’s union, the old woman I called the Census Bureau for proof of age, the young man who had lost all his ID during his last binge, and so on.

    There is a joy in finding a small hole in the dyke, even knowing that the whole structure will collapse. Even in the midst of the evil of red tape, I could find ways to witness.

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