Originally, I didn't know how to start this post. Then my phone went off at 6:42 this morning and again at 7:51 AM. It was Sam.
Sam is a man I helped exactly a month ago. How do I know it was one month to the day? Because this morning, Sam called to see if I could renew his voucher. You see, the furniture vouchers that I give out for the St. Vincent de Paul Society are only good for one month from the date of issue.
Thirty days gives clients enough time to arrange transportation to and from the Vincent de Paul Warehouse with furniture en tow (a daunting and time consuming task in a neighborhood where a car, let alone a truck or moving van, is hard to come by.) It is only on rare occassions that I am able/permitted to help move the clients I help. Even to do that is a complicated process, which includes borrowing a local nonprofit's van, getting volunteers to help move, and taking the time and effort to move bulky pieces of furniture across town and into new homes. For this reason, I only help move women who are moving out of the transitional housing program attached to the community center as a means of helping them to get on their feet as they take their first steps into independent living. At times it can be heartbreaking to tell someone who you know is new to this country and who is sleeping on the floor because they have no furniture whatsoever in their house that they need to locate a van or truck in order to get the assistance you are giving them. Yet, they manage.
Friends, family, new neighbors- it seems that no matter how rough your neighborhood or how impoverished those around you are, there is always something that can be spared or someone who knows someone who might be able to get a van big enough to hold a sofa. I cannot physically furnish every house I go into; I can simply provide the tools for people to be able to help themselves. Ultimately, there must be an effort on their part; otherwise, the social services I provide feed into a vicious cycle of charitable dependence rather than empowered independence. I can lead you to water (give you a voucher) but it is your choice to drink (be there for my home visit and/or redeem your voucher.)
Sam was a thirsty soul. He came to me at the beginning of September having come into the community center without a referral looking for assistance. The recent victim of a fire, he was without furniture and seeking to regain some normalcy in his life. He also suffers from health problems and is currently on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Having made the effort to actually come into the center from his home in Frankford (a neighborhood three miles north of Kensington), I agreed to visit his home during my round of home visits that afternoon.
His house was the last stop on my long tour of homes that day. I met Sam and his girlfriend (/friend/hoe/whatever) in the lobby of his apartment building. To give you a sense of the place, it had a 1920's apartment complex feel to it, kind of how I imagine the Honeymooners apartment building, if only that complex were well lived in and semi-preserved for 2010. Victorian couches dotted the little lobby and the staircase was made of a sturdy, dark wood- a gem to be found in Frankford. To give you a sense of Sam, he gave off the feeling of a used car salesman- gravely voice, deceptively genuine, well worn from a hard life, and tempered with a healthy dose of skeevy.
Leaving his friend in the lobby, we climbed the stairs to his third floor apartment. The aged and worn charm of the building did not translate to Sam's little apartment, which was more a reflection of its inhabitant than the building it was a part of. Mainly the living room had been damaged by the fire, so I marked down an arm chair, small sofa, armoire, and coffee table on his voucher. As is sometimes the case, upon realizing the great deal that I was offering (see: free furniture), Sam began asking for other things. Some requests I was able to oblige, like silverware, plates, pots, and pans. Others I would not and could not honor. (see: sorry, the VdP Society does not give out electronics or appliances, no matter if you make me list them on your voucher or not.)
For the duration of our visit I stayed near the open front door, not liking the overall sense I got from Sam, a feeling that was confirmed when he excused himself to use the restroom, only to go into the bathroom behind a wall of the adjointing bedroom and peed with the door open (no worries, only sounds no sights.) Returning back to the lobby, I issued Sam his voucher, shook his hand, and bid him a good day, glad to be on my way and done with home visits for the day.
Having filed Sam's case away in my database of visits, I had forgotten about Sam until this morning at 6:42 AM when my phone began to ring. You see, in the rush of that busy September day, I had given Sam my cell phone number in case I got lost or if he wasn't going to be home (rookie mistake, I know, but I'd only been on the job two weeks!) Not recognizing the number, only its (215) zip code, I didn't pick up, but soon I had a voicemail, which I promptly and grogily listened to in my bed.
Suddenly, Sam came flooding back into my mind but, loving my sleep, I resigned that I was going back to bed until I needed to be up. The roosters out back thought otherwise, lauching into a chorus equivalent to Handel's Messiah (you know if roosters, especially Kensington roosters, knew who Handel was.) As soon as I was able to settle back into sleep, it was 7:51 and my phone was ringing again. Sam. Another voicemail. And with that, I was out of bed and off to quite a start for my day.
I went to 8:30 Mass par usual & Sam was with me throughout. A Gospel on who and when I must open my door to help- the lesson that persistence will persevere- was just what I needed (I say sarcastically). As I left Mass, I wondered what I was supposed to do. I had yet to call Sam back and I knew that in no time my phone would ring again.
Last week, when I had had a bad outing of home visits (3 out of 4 people weren't home for our scheduled appointments), Sister Linda reinterated to me that we can only do so much. If the people who come to us for help aren't able to be at their homes at a prearranged and agreed upon time, then maybe they don't need the furniture as badly as they say they do.
This morning as I walked up Lehigh Ave. to the community center, I wondered what I was supposed to do with Sam. He had had a month to go to the warehouse and hadn't. I had led him to water but he didn't drink.
That puts us where I began this post from.
Somewhere along the way in my religious education and spiritual psyche I came to believe that God helps those who help themselves. That is to say that, while God can do momentous things for us, if there is a something in our lives that needs to be done that we are perfectly capable of doing, it is our job to use the spiritual and physical gifts we have been given to achieve that end. In a way, this idea borrows from the Catholic Social Teaching of subsidiarity; if the individual or the local community has the ability to act and affect change then the course of action should be left to them and not handled by a power more distant from the reality of the situation. In another way, it is borrowed from the American belief in a meritocracy- if you work hard enough you can and will achieve great things, slowly but surely working your way up the ladder of social wellbeing.
I wonder to what extent I must help him. Does following Christ's call to service mean showing mercy and extending the date on Sam's voucher? Does it mean offering to move those who could not possibly move themselves? Does it mean figuring out how to pay the bills my neighbors can't manage to? or Does it mean giving them vouchers and holding to the standard of that act, not bending the rules? Does it mean allowing Christ to act in them through a prompting to their own action? To be honest, my answer changes daily. Should it? I don't know.
Having this notion implanted on my consciousness certainly leads to a number of problems. It may explain why the concept of grace blew my mind the first time I heard it explained in layman's terms. Revealed like a splash of glorious color across the sky of my being, Grace as God's love freely given without condition and without merit, unable to be won or lost, not curried like favor but forever held in each one of us and shared throughout the world as a sign of God's love, was simply amazing. Cue awe, amazement, happiness, joy, and tranquility. Such a blessed revelation may not seem like a problem (and really, it isn't), but the basis from which it came, the notion I've mysteriously had bound in me, is.
The belief that God helps she who is able to help herself explains my own struggle with surrender. My difficulty in relinquishing control and admitting that what must be done cannot be done on my own comes from this assumed notion. It is a recurring pock mark on my spiritual journey. Yet, I recognize that it is there. By actively acknowledging it, I am able to consciously move beyond it, trust in faith, and find new life in the many graces God bestows. Ultimately, being able to do so is why I am so deeply drawn and attached to "Amazing Grace".
Nonetheless, the idea that God provides for those who strive to provide for themselves, their family, their community sticks with me. Faith calls upon us to strive in Christ, to believe that God will provide. That belief, though, does not permit us to sit idly by. It may mean allowing God to provide through our actions, to allow God to work wonders through the not-so-simple commitment to try, and, in some cases, to admit that try as we may, it is our duty to surrender to the help of others, to become vulnerable and honest enough to admit we need help. In all of that, God provides.
And so, I am torn. I must surrender but I must also strive; I know there is truth for me in the belief that I must act for God to act in me, yet I cannot say that this is always the case. God will provide in every time and every age; God will even provide for those that don't strive to help themselves. And that is where I am most torn. That is where I meet Sam.
Seemingly, I am being called to serve those who cannot serve themselves. And I strive to find Christ's example in that. Throughout the Gospels Jesus does this, so it can't be that far off the mark, but there has to be a difference between healing the blind who cannot see and sorting out a woman's gas bill who is relying on the church to pay her utility bill, between being with the outcast and downtrodden and giving reprieve to a man who has left his voucher for assistance to expire without making an effort to redeem it- doesn't there? Again, I don't know.
I juggle concepts of mercy and compassion, justice and charity. I wonder if I am considering myself any better than those I serve. Is it that they cannot serve themselves or they just don't know how? Perhaps, I must show them the Way, revealing Christ's love and grace through my service, restoring their sight of God by caring and empowering them to begin to believe, even when their own poverty (material, spiritual, and practical) challenges my ability to.
In the end, I can only do so much- on my own and for those I serve.
As I hand Sam his voucher with a three week extension, I wonder if he'll make it to the warehouse this month. "No, I can't move you," I reply to his own disgruntled plea for more help. I remind myself that I can only do so much. Christ serves those who can not help themselves; it is by Grace that I find myself served and able to serve as long as life endures.