Monday, April 19, 2010

My Story - The Sharing Begins Here

I've been talking about the need to share personal stories of how we - as individuals - have arrived at certain sets of views. Before we debate, Americans - Left, Right and Center - must understand where we've come from. Otherwise, the bridge-building that is so necessary to a healthy country cannot take place.

There's nothing wrong with standing one's ground in fidelity to principles one holds to be supremely important. There is something wrong, though, with hyperpartisanship. This is not the fault of individuals, but more a national contagion which must be confronted from all sides.

In the effort to initiate storytelling, I can only try to set a positive example. This blog post, then, will hit the high (or low!) points of my journey as a political, ideological, religious and moral creature living in turn-of-the-millennium America.


In 1989, when I was 13, my mother joined the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul from her Catholic parish in Phoenix, Arizona. St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP) initiates its services from individual Catholic parishes but has some central offices and locations in Phoenix and other cities where SVDP exists. My mother took me on trips to the main cafeteria, clothing bank, and counseling center located south of Downtown Phoenix, but our main work on behalf of SVDP took the form of the most central Vincentian ministry: home visits.

The Vincentian home visit requires that at least two Vincentians come to the door of a needy neighbor and deliver either in-kind or financial assistance. The arrangements for a home visit involve a few steps: First, the person (household) in need calls the city's main SVDP office/hub; the hub re-routes the request to the specific Catholic parish. The parish chapter, which meets at least once every two weeks (and is supposed to meet weekly), discusses its ability and/or capacity to serve the various clients that call in. Then, clients are called back and home visit times are arranged.

Until I graduated from high school in 1994, I accompanied my mom on SVDP home visits, usually during weekends. We visited dozens of dumpy apartment complexes, at least four or five trailer parks, and many homes with barren, dusty (non-)yards and cracked sidewalks. We served African-Americans and Hispanics; individuals and families; people with TVs and VCRs and clean floors, and people without them. My mom and I served some people who were clearly hiding some of the more intimate details of their lives and tried to fast-talk their way through; we also served many families who were crushed by strings of hardships that came in rapid-fire fashion and put parents near the breaking point.

After graduating from Seattle University in 1998, I would join my parish's SVDP chapter in Seattle and performed home visits for four more years (2000-2003). In many ways, the subculture of the SVDP chapter (and of SVDP in Seattle at large) was very different from what I experienced in Phoenix, but in other ways, it was quite similar.

One of the scandals of the SVDP chapter at my Seattle parish was that it did (and still does) keep about $65,000 in the bank, for a "rainy day." This runs counter to the Vincentian mandate as laid out by founder Frederic Ozanam, the Parisian student who gave life to this ministry in the 1830s, modeled after Vincent de Paul, a 17th-century saint. I had to leave SVDP due to health problems in 2003, but I've had no desire to return to my Seattle parish chapter precisely because of its shameful practice. A lot of Seattle families could use the $65,000 being held onto in the parish SVDP treasury. A longstanding battle between conservative-minded Vincentians and progressive-minded Vincentians has focused on the interpretation of "stewardship." For the conservatives, who skew toward an older age demographic, "stewardship" means keeping money in the bank as a safeguard. For progressives (like my mom), it means spending whatever money comes in and giving it to the poor in the form of rent help or purchased groceries. I will always stand with my mom on this issue.

Now, what were/are the takeaways of my Vincentian experiences, which - at least in some ways - have been replicated in subsequent stints as a soup kitchen assistant manager and a case manager (now grant writer) at an eviction-prevention agency?

One realization about my experiences is that service to the needy acquires all sorts of dimensions. There are people who are lazy and who have become poor as a result of bad personal decisions. There are also people who are poor in spite of their best efforts, people who have truly not chosen or brought about their own suffering. There are people who are all too prepared to tell specific stories that have been rehearsed after many hours of internal practice, and are savvy enough to pull off the trick in public. There are other people who can't pull off the con, and there are others who humbly ask for service and are often quite embarrassed that they must do so.

Serving the poor is not different from any other endeavor in the sense that people are different in any socioeconomic stratum of society. No two poor people or rich people or middle-income people are alike. Each person demands specific attention on a case-by-case basis. "The poor" are not one monolithic group, but should instead be seen as a collection of diverse stories that offer different snapshots of a larger problem.

Flowing from this realization about the diversity of biographies presented by "the poor," it also follows that giving to the poor inevitably involves being taken advantage of, at least to some extent. Yes, one's skills of discernment - otherwise known as a "bullshit detector" - need to improve with age, but helping out people with disordered lives is a messy enterprise and an art more than a science. It always helps to create and facilitate accountability mechanisms, but sometimes, that's not entirely possible; or at least, the accountability mechanisms might occasionally lack the ability to verify every aspect of a person's sob story. This certainly holds true for interactions at a soup kitchen, where a group of 25-40 people might become intimately known over the course of four years as a worker (I worked at a soup kitchen in Seattle from 2004-2007) or 14 years (1994-2007) all told.

At certain points along the way, urgent requests for extra assistance - which sometimes transcend the boundaries of a specific ministry or job description (serving a hot meal) - will require a certain amount of trust. If other avenues have been pursued to no avail - shelters quickly fill up in Seattle, and there are no nighttime food banks in the city, despite its considerable offering of food programs - I and the people I've worked with in faith-based ministries have tried to offer a helping hand to others. Some successes were achieved, but other stories turned into portraits of frustration. Still other people, it was learned, played a con job... but only after years (in some cases) of subsequent revelations that simply couldn't have been foreseen at the time.


What does all this say (and keep in mind that this just scratches the surface of years spent amidst at-risk/homeless/low-income/mentally ill populations)?

Well, for one thing - and this will sound like Yogi Berra - my experiences can't say everything that really needs to be said. I'm only one life with one story in one pair of cities. I'm only one person who has been inspired by one mother and one set of other role models in the Catholic Church, SVDP, and at the Seattle Catholic Worker (which takes its cues from the Christian example of Dorothy Day, Peter Maurin, and other Catholics with a life story different from that of many others).

I will make two very general conclusions about my work and my evolving views:

1) If a family or individual has undergone certain unchosen hardships, and the Catholic parish (or SVDP center) in that person's (blighted, underdeveloped, underserved) neighborhood is underfunded, and the shelters are full at night, and the county government lacks funding, and the city is similarly hamstrung, society has a moral obligation to help that particular kind of family or person. To not do so would be immoral.

2) The progressive model of stewardship that should prevail in a Vincentian or other faith-based context - the model I long thought should apply to the federal government - should indeed NOT apply to the United States government. When other people's money is on the line, full-scale accountability must exist, without question. The track record of persistent poverty in America, plus widening income inequality (among many other lingering social ills), reflects a landscape in which the public can't know where or how its dollars are being spent. A model of subsidiarity - a core Catholic principle in which services are delivered by the most localized outlet possible - does need to be promoted in American governance.

How to reconcile points 1 and 2? Tough question. In many ways, this challenge - the challenge which has emerged from my story - is one of the three greatest tests facing human beings (not just Americans) in the 21st century and beyond.


  1. Matt,

    You're a good man. I've always tried to set aside money every month to give to charity. Rarely do we miss a month. Sometimes the amount is more than other months, but we always try to give at least $30 to worthy orginazations that feed the poor and/or aleviate suffering, and I try to give up to $300 a month, though I haven't been hitting that goal lately, I'm afraid.

    That said, I've been much more stingy with my time. Much more. You're a great example to me. I can always come up with excuses, and with a 50-60+ an hour a week job plus a family of four (soon to be five), I've always got excuses, but the reality is that I've always got time on Saturday afternoons after kids' sports is over and Sunday afternoons after church. Sigh.

    I would like to make one small quibble with your first view: You said, "If a family or individual has undergone certain unchosen hardships, and the Catholic parish (or SVDP center) in that person's (blighted, underdeveloped, underserved) neighborhood is underfunded, and the shelters are full at night, and the county government lacks funding, and the city is similarly hamstrung, society has a moral obligation to help that particular kind of family or person. To not do so would be immoral."

    Personal charity should come REGARDLESS of whether the church or city or county or state or federal government spend a dime on these programs. (And, the federal government SHOULD NOT spend a dime because it has no constitutional authority to do so, but that's another discussion.) One of the problems with the government taking over the charity business is that it conditions people to think that they have no obligation to do so. After all, they pay their taxes, right? (Joe Biden is a particularly egregious example of a person who has been blessed with so much but given so little back from his personal wealth.) Europeans, who have been fully conditioned to accept a cradle to grave welfare state, give MUCH, MUCH less per capita than Americans. Liberal Americans, who are thrilled with the notion of spending other peoples' money on charity, give less than conservative Americans. Conservative Americans give less than they should. We all have a personal responsibility to give our money (and our time!) to help others and should not expect governments to take on that responsibility. This is one of the biggest pitfalls of modern progressivism, in my opinion.


  2. I totally agree about time, & most people could surely do more, including me.

    One thing that always amuses me is that it seems that so many conservatives and liberals actually want the same thing - a happy society - we just prefer different ways of getting there. I am a bit surprised by how savage the wars can be between the two tribes at the time, and how each side can demonise the other. (I am not excepting myself from this, I am as prone to do it as anyone else.)

    My main trouble with relying on personal charity is that it is so likely to be patchy and partial when looked at across society as a whole. Some groups are easier to raise money for than others, but they are not necessarily less "deserving".

    FWIW I do agree that government coverage & help, paid for by people's contributions, should not allow us to sit back and think that our job is done.

    My faith in the role of government in helping to build a happy society might be naive, but on the other hand - I don't think it's any more naive than faith in individual charity.

    I feel that we tried to move more that way in the UK in the 1980s, and, because of other strands in society around selfishness and ideas of hard work & meritocracy meaning that those in lack were so often seen to be undeserving, allied to some deep recessions - it had some pretty awful consequences.

    I don't think either way is perfect - but couldn't there be some way of compromising and combining both ways? Does it have to be one or the other or could both individual responsibility and charity, and some form of government or government backed coverage, have roles to play?

  3. To very (very) briefly weigh in, I tweeted this morning (April 21) that as I see American political life unfold, the USA needs 50 percent of Ron Paul and 50 percent of Harry Emerson Fosdick.

    If Walter Rauschenbusch was substituted for Fosdick, no complaints at all.

    I could also substitute Richard Rohr, John Dear, Joan Chittister, or other Catholics I admire, too; it's just that Fosdick and Rauschenbusch spent more of their ministries talking in (somewhat) more political and social terms. Rohr/Dear/Chittister remain mostly in the spiritual realm, at least from my vantage point.