Tuesday, September 23, 2014

A Bird's Eye View from the Trenches on the Urgent Need for Bigger Solutions to Systemic Ills

When Longview was built in the 1920s, it was literally a planned city: much of it was built in one fell swoop in accordance with the vision of its founder (and Disciple of Christ), Robert A. Long (guess where the town name came from).  From the beginning, Longview was planned with the center of town as its focus: the civic circle has spokes in the form of city streets radiating from it in all directions, and it hosts City Hall, the post office, the library, and Lower Columbia Community College, among others.  Mere blocks from it is Lake Sacajawea, around which, on one block, sit four churches, one of which is mine.  And on both sides of the lake, palatial homes are shaded by plentiful trees and bordered by beautiful yards.  This area of town, and the scope and grandeur of the churches it contains, was always meant to house the economically upper middle class citizens of the city.

But that was nearly a century ago.  Today, Longview is a town that has been pummeled again and again by poverty: as of 2012, median income is about $16,000 per year below the state average--that's the equivalent of over $1,300 per month, a difference of nearly 28%.  Our median home value is a staggering $80,000 below the state average, nearly one-third below the state average home value of $243,000.  The state unemployment rate may have finally fallen below 6%, but ours remains at over 7%, at 7.1% as of June, 2014...and even that seems miraculous, considering that when I arrived here three years ago in 2011, our unemployment rate was over 11%.

By just about any measurable statistic, we are hurting.  But one of the areas we are hurting most is food.  In spite of our beautiful greenery and vast wildernesses of woods and mountains and beaches, we are fast becoming a desert--a food desert.

Per the data link I provided above, Cowlitz County is below the state average for grocery stores per capita, but well above the state average for convenience stores per capita, a key statistic in determining food scarcity of any metropolitan area.  Because long gone (sorry, Mr. Long) are the days of agriculture wherein the family farm stayed in the family for generations, and going into town usually meant a trip into market to see what wares your farming neighbors were selling that morning.

Now, agriculture is all about access: on the one side, you have the food.  On the other side, the consumers.  And the nutritionally-rich food you associate with a grocer or a supermarket simply isn't present at probably 99% of the convenience stores out there.

But even more than that, it is an indicator that people are going hungry.  And that's where I come in.

Many churches will have something that may go by different names in different places: a pastor's discretionary fund, a benevolence fund, a helping hands fund, but it is basically a line-item in the church budget that allows for the church to step in and offer micro-aid of sorts.  If a family's water is about to be shut off, or if they came home to an eviction notice on the door, churches with these funds are supposed to be able to step in and help.

We have such a fund, and most months, I know exactly when the city or the county have sent out a new round of shutoff notices, because our phone will be ringing off the hook that week.  Then there are the needs that come with renting: said eviction notices, but also deposits and first-and-last-month's rent as move-in costs.  Add to that the people also coming to us asking for gas in their vehicles and food in their stomachs, and suddenly I have to make a very small amount of money go a very, very long way.

A couple of common denominators I have found are that, 1) the people who seek us out are either homeless themselves or are caring for family and/or friends who would otherwise be homeless, and 2) have fallen through the cracks somehow: either they're employed but make just a hair too much to be eligible for Section 8, or they're three days from payday with no milk in the fridge, or they're just plain so far off the grid that there are no governmental support structures that they are a part of.

(And before you say that I shouldn't believe everything I hear: I know, for a fact, that I've been lied to in this line of work.  I know, for a fact, that I have consciously chosen to extend aid to drug addicts who were high when they came to me, not because I endorse or condone their drug abuse (because I don't), but because when you're homeless and starving because you just spent your last nickel to get loaded, the Good News doesn't come in the form of being harangued or lectured by a holier-than-thou preacher man, it comes in the form of a freaking sandwich.  I *still* have to say no to a lot of people, but I'd rather it be for reasons to protect the church's financial interests in maintaining this fund rather than for reasons of whether or not a poor person literally begging me for lunch had adhered to my arbitrary code of morals, because that's just not fair to them.)

And for basically being an amateur social worker without any training, I think I do okay.  But with each passing month, I am increasingly acutely aware that I have been tasked with trying to stem the tide that is bursting through a breached dam, and that all I have been given to do this monumental, herculean task with is some scotch tape and bailing wire.

If you philosophically believe that government shouldn't be in the business of creating a larger safety net for impoverished people, that's fine.  But I'd genuinely like to hear what your alternative solution would be, because after three years of this being one of the most emotionally painful parts of my job, I can tell you two things: first, the need for a greater safety net is there, because I'm the one trying to catch the people as they fall right through it.  And second, "the church" is simply not equipped to fill all the gaps.  In fact, nearly 60% of all congregations, my own included, have fewer than 100 people in attendance on Sundays.  Exactly how many resources do you think we have to spare after fulfilling our own financial obligations to those very same utility companies, the taxman, our denominations, our insurers, and so on?

The answer is: not an awful lot.

I'm no public policy maker, even though I debated public policy for seven years in high school and college.  So I don't know exactly what the bigger solutions are or need to be.  This is someone yelling "FIRE!", not running for the water hose.  But, with the yell of "FIRE!," running for the hose is the next instinctual step.

So, what happens next?  What do you think needs to happen next?  For governments or for churches, for individuals or for communities?  Because I promise you, the status quo is unacceptable.  And despite Jesus having come and gone 2,000ish years ago, it always has been unacceptable.  We are failing our mission.

And I really don't know much more failure on behalf of the poor who are His children God will be willing to tolerate out of us.  I suspect we may be greeted at the gates of heaven not with "Well done, my good and faithful servant," but with, "Why the $#@^$#&#*@! didn't you do more?"

And all we will be able to do is shrug our shoulders.  Our testimony to our faith lives should, and must, amount to more than that.

Yours in Christ,

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