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.

Paper Armor

One of the most impressive things about our society is the efficiency with which we armor ourselves from one another.  Yesterday, I had a run-in with an SUV at an intersection in Utica.  Thankfully, no one was injured.  What’s even more remarkable is that when we got out to inspect our vehicles, neither of us could find any damage on our cars.  On this occasion, efficient armor was most welcome.

Later in the day, I encountered another kind of armor for which I was not so glad.  A disabled veteran informed me that his social security check had not arrived since December.  His shoes had worn through so that his feet were getting soaked as he limped through the snow, but there was no money in his account for new shoes.  After some bureaucratic wrestling, it was determined that the checks were being sent to his previous address.  His previous caseworker had quit and paperwork had been lost in the shuffle.  The error has been corrected, but he still won’t be able to get money for shoes until Tuesday.  I hope the weather warms up this weekend.

Later still, an elderly woman showed me a letter she received from an insurance company.  She was in the hospital last month and the company just now decided that her visit would not be covered.  The letter was so full of jargon that neither of us could understand it.  We had to call someone in North Carolina to serve as interpreter.

Our healthcare and social service systems seem to be designed to isolate the rest of humanity from the suffering of the weak.  Whether the system is privatized or government-run, red tape will still protect the person holding the checkbook from the person who needs help.  Their paper armor is thin but impenetrable.

I could pontificate about bureaucracy all day, but if I’m truly honest with myself, then I have to admit that I share the desire to run and hide from the suffering of others.  I sat with someone today whose perspective on reality is all but lost in a fog of alcohol and insanity.  I try to listen attentively, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand.  The better part of me wants to believe that I can still be an effective pastor.  The rest of me wants to dump him in rehab and come back when he’s sober.

Sometimes, I think it would be so much easier to recite a biblical passage and then be on my way.  Who knows?  I still might do it.  There’s something to be said for the pastoral rites of the church, but they’re not meant to be used as cop-outs.  What I want to resist in myself is the desire to put on my own paper armor: whether it’s a bureaucratic form, a liturgical service, or a biblical passage.  I want to stay engaged with the real suffering of those who live in the darkest corners of this community.

What I need is for the love of the Suffering Servant, who “has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases”, to flow through me in fresh ways.   His love gave him the strength to stand in solidarity with outcasts, to touch lepers, and to do all that without hiding behind the paper armor of bureaucratic systems.