When I was in high school I read a novel called The Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. It imagined an England in the near future when time travel is possible and a young researcher named Kivrin is about to be sent back to the Middle Ages to conduct field research. Something goes wrong with the time machine and she winds up a few hundred years off the mark — in 1348, the year of the Black Death. Although she herself has been inoculated against the bubonic plague, she watches helplessly as one by one the members of the village in which she’s found herself, villagers she’s come to love, suffer grotesque and painful deaths. Only one other character makes it to the end of the novel without contracting the plague: the gentle parish priest who ignores Kivrin’s exhortations to flee the town and stays with her to care for the sick. Finally, when the rest of the town has been decimated and the two companions are saddling up the horses to search for uninfected lands, the priest begins acting strangely, as though disoriented. All of a sudden he keels over and vomits onto the ground, and when Kivrin hikes up his shirt sleeve and looks under his armpit, she sees the telltale bulging bubo. If memory serves (and it’s been a while since I read it, so I may be misremembering), Kivrin’s reaction is to gasp in horror and protest, “No. No, no, no…” And then she says, at the end of her emotional rope, “Not you, too…” Within a few pages, the priest is dead.
It’s a random work to reference, but it sprang to mind the other day in my work at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
My most basic responsibility here at the Church is one I haven’t blogged about yet. The owner of a local produce company donates about $15,000 per year, which funds our social services office. My job is to help the first ten eligible clients per week (three from outside the parish’s geographical boundaries, and seven from within) with $50 each towards a water or electricity bill, or towards their rent, assuming they have a disconnection warning or eviction notice. Actually what we do is pledge the money to CPS (the electricity company), SAWS (the water company), or SAHA (the San Antonio Housing Authority); we don’t give our clients the actual checks until they’ve brought in proof that the rest of their bill has been paid. Not everyone comes back to pick up their check (otherwise, $15,000 per annum wouldn’t be enough), and as I fill out applications I occasionally indulge in a grim guessing game: will it be the ones who owe hundreds more dollars who will never be able to collect the rest, or will it be the ones who owe very little who won’t come back, because they’ll likely be able to get the money together on their own without our limited assistance?
We’re supposed to ask for a driver’s license, social security card, and proof of income (a food stamps letter, a disability check, etc.) before we fill out an application for assistance, but I tend not to ask for proof of income. I find it demeaning to ask people for proof that they’re “poor enough” to qualify, especially when it’s obvious just from listening to them that they are. I am convinced, in fact, that my real job is to listen to people’s stories (what a Jesuit I know calls a “ministry of presence”), and that whether they qualify for our money is a secondary question. No one comes into my office asking for utilities assistance; they come into my office asking for utilities assistance because they’ve just buried their father and their husband is out of work and the three daughters are pregnant and the son is in and out of jail and they are supporting their parents and to make matters worse the car broke down two weeks ago and every demeaning trip to every social service office to beg for money not only takes up valuable time but costs about a dollar fifty (if there are no transfers). Money which could otherwise go towards paying the bills. Bills which only augment when they are paid late. Bills which are paid late because they’ve been augmenting for the last three months while work has been harder and harder to come by. (In her book Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich lashes out against those who would withdraw support from federal aid programs under the illusion that the poor are lazily mooching off the government. “For the poor, there are no hidden rewards,” Ehrenreich observes. “Only hidden costs.” In my limited experience, this is preeminently true.)
Many of my clients’ stories are heartbreaking. I’ve been told of rapes (repeated ones), discovered infidelities, beatings by husbands and by strangers in nighttime alleys, children turned to prostitution, the ravages of drug and alcohol addictions, and more medical ailments than I could count. The women (they are mostly women) who come into my office have all attained a certain uniform image of womanhood by the time they reach forty: they all look as though they’ve stepped out of a Fernando Botero painting, rolls of flesh accumulating on heavy, laboring frames. It begs the question: what is a body? In the barrio, a body is a site of an elastic expansion — the distensions of childbirth through the teens and twenties, corpulence in the thirties and forties — which, one realizes at a certain point, will simply never be able to avoid being besieged, before the age of fifty, by some combination of arthritis, spinal disc disorder, diabetes, hernias, artherosclerosis, asthma, liver malfunction, sleep apnea, and gout. Everyone who comes in to my office — physical collapse claims them all.
And what can I do with fifty dollars and a box of Kleenex on my desk?
As for me, the first time I shed tears at work this year was when a slow-moving, slow-thinking, and sweet-faced twenty-five year-old woman with five kids, facing a $700 eviction notice, slowly realized that even the $100 I offered her as an exceptional case would never allow her to pay the bills by five o’clock that evening, as her landlord had demanded. “No,” she meekly pushed back the pledge form I tried to hand her. “You only got so much to give and I think it would be better if someone else got it.” My stomach plunged; were we both so powerless? The kids looking up from below the lip of my desk didn’t understand what was going on, but their faces were somber anyway. The second time I wanted to cry was at the end of a single morning when a sixty-year-old woman, wiry and distraught, mistook me for a priest and asked me to bless her “broken heart from the death last week of [her] mother”; a woman six months pregnant told me her best friend had raped her two weeks earlier and she was beginning to bleed and to worry about her unborn child; and, completing the wrenching triptych, an exhausted-looking woman came in for legal advice and wound up telling me how hard it’s been not to kill herself since her husband left her for another woman and took two of her three children with him. (“I know I have to live for her,” she whispered, holding her remaining, two-year-old daughter in her arms, “but it’s so hard.”)
I don’t want to sensationalize the misery I see, because it would be cruel; I also don’t want to neglect the extraordinary strength and kindness I see alongside it. (There are, in fact, many smiles and many joys in this line of work. I will save some of those for another day.) But the extent to which humanity suffers deserves to be publicized — as a clarion call to arms against sorrow (“Friends, let us devote our lives to helping one another!”), and as a spiritual exercise.
Because it’s so indicative of something, I will transcribe a letter I received in my mailbox one day. It was written in wobbly handwriting on six numbered pages of lined mini-notebook-sized paper, without paragraph breaks (so the breaks below will represent page breaks instead). An unpaid light bill was enclosed. Apart from that, there is nothing I know about this man that you will not know after reading his letter — except, perhaps, that according to the regulations of my office there was no way I was allowed to pay this man’s bill.
Hello, to the person in charge of Social Services from of Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. Hello, my name is *****. In the past years I have been here for help with my utility assistance when funds were there. I am not able to work anymore, but I get no help from Social Security. I have tried off and on for 9 years. No lawyers want me and I lost everything my mother owned, she passed away many years ago. Now I lost my property to a friend I thought I trusted. A friend is trying to
help me. I have nothing but am to stay in my mothers house until I die. The person is evil and even tried to get me out, I have no place to go, me and 2 old and sick dogs, which are my family. I have a major short in my house, it is very old. I have no water, it must be hauled in. I live amoung spiders, snakes now and then and birds that fly in. I am missing a lot of roof. I do not remember the last time I was there, but it is very hard for me to get a ride and the person that gave me a ride died. But I was very behind on CPS and I was told that they help the first 3 from out of town, not from the
parish. Your parish. I was told I had to pay the remainding balance and they would pay $50.00 for help for me. This has been a good while back. I was able to get other help and did not need your services then, now I do and would appreciate it very much if you can help me. The last social worker told me that if a person qualifys with you, you may come back in 6 months. I was told I was not from Our Lady of Guadalupe, why was I here. I told the person that I used to work down the street many years ago at Memorial Funeral Home, also I know brother then, now deacon Alex.
Brother Alex recommended me for assistance. Now for many years I have not seen no one. I have no transportation and I do not know why they do not come to see me, but life goes on. I am not able to work but doctors and social security do not want to help me because I do not lie, I do not do no drugs or smoke but if I can work an hour or 2 due to my back, I take care of my dogs, get what I need for the house and drink a few beers. Why these people will not help me, I do not know. They will not sign papers for check help, but yet I do not tell them how to run their lives.
Some people don’t care and understand. I am writting this letter to you, the social worker in charge or any other social worker to see if you can help me. I am enclosing the current bill I have received to see if I can get my $50.00 credit from the last time I was there. If you cannot help me, please mail it back to me I do not know what to do. Since I have been here in the past I thought I would ask for your help. Thank you very much for your time and I hope that you may be able to help me. It has been a nightmare the way that I live
and eat. But the Holy Family will help me. I would appreciate any help you may give me and please say hello to Brother, Deacon Alex. May God, Jesus Christ the Blessed Mother Mary and The Holy Spirit Bless you and your family. Your Friend, ****
The Jesuit Volunteer Corps promises that working in solidarity with the poor will change our lives. It’s certainly done a great deal for me. It’s made me realize how necessary a paradigm shift in American discourse may be, how flimsy so many political and philosophical arguments sound because they do not address the entirety of the human race, half of which — I think it is no exaggeration — has never known a day that has not been characterized by stomach-churning hunger. So many of us are rich men who never even notice that Lazarus begs outside our gates. More importantly, it’s put all my own insignificant dramas into perspective, leading me to wonder not why I suffer but why I suffer the least of almost anyone I’ve encountered this year. And it’s true that by the grace of God I don’t suffer much, which brings me back to The Doomsday Book. I cannot help but feel like the researcher Kivrin, plopped down in the midst of an epidemic to which I am naturally immune, asked to be a source of strength for a community in need.
I would make two observations here. The first is that it is not at the price of callousness that this experience has been an upbuilding one for me. I feel closer to God in a setting where sadness is rife, because I feel closer to suffering humanity, which was made in God’s image and whose image He, Incarnated, took on. Sólo el dolor común nos sanctifica, wrote Unamuno: only that pain which is shared can sanctify us. And I do feel sanctified here. It is the grace which flows out from relations of love, and not any virtue innate in me, which makes me able to pray for the very many people who, daily, ask me to pray for them. And these requests, and these prayers, sanctify me, too.
Still, my second observation is that if misery loves company, so does strength. I am deeply grateful for my seven housemates, without whose humanity and humor I would no doubt be a lot more on edge. I guess the challenge is to appreciate their suffering — and, when the time for it will come, my own — whenever it becomes manifest, and not to assign them to an elite which cannot possibly know pain or demand my empathy. This is often the temptation, and this is where the plague-stricken parish priest comes in. The other day I was talking to a member of the parish council whose job it is to count the weekly Mass collections. She is a dignified older lady who wears brilliant violet scarves with aplomb — whose violet eyes, moreover, sparkle with intelligence — and I am tempted whenever I encounter her to consider her one of “us”: the educated, the confident, the put-together, the sure of ourselves, who can bring me some respite from my clients’ anxieties. Yet over the course of our conversation she confided to me all the health problems she’s been having (the symptoms were so familiar to me), all the family problems (these were also so familiar), the crises of faith. “No. No, no, no,” I wanted to protest, full of disbelief and disappointment. “Not you, too…”
But yes. Her too. And I say this — all of this — not to evoke pity or despair, but the necessity of compassion for one another, for only that pain which is shared can sanctify us.