The past two weeks has been something of a roller coaster of emotions as I took personal time to first celebrate with joy and pride my son’s graduation from college and then flew to California for what is probably my last visit with my sister who is in the late stages of breast cancer.
My sister has worked hard her whole life in a variety of low paying jobs, mostly waitressing and factory work. She always enjoyed her jobs and the people she met and made the most of life. But now she lives only on her Social Security check, in Southern California where rent is so expensive she is left with $40 a month to live on.
She lives in a cockroach infested apartment on a busy street. But she does have a place to live. There are many homeless who sleep in cars and under shopping carts on her street. She knows and speaks to many of them.
When you are poor you wait for hours in the clinic for care.
Even if you have cancer you can wait months to see a specialist. She needs to give herself shots after her chemo treatments and one time the doctor forgot to include a prescription for the needles. The doctor is only available on Wednesdays.
She needed to give herself the shots beginning on Thursday. My sister is good at coming up with creative solutions to problems. She walked down to the local homeless shelter which has a free needle exchange program for drug addicts and talked them into giving her some needles.
When you are poor you have to be clever to survive.
People who think the poor are lazy and dumb must not actually know any poor people.
One of my sister’s neighbors spent two days, 12 hours a day wearing a hot costume and dancing on the street to attract attention to a local business for a few hundred dollars. Out of her $40, my sister gave him $10 to wash her floor for her.
She gets food stamps. A few times a week she has someone take her EBT card (they don’t use stamps anymore) to the Jack in the Box on the corner to buy her a hamburger.
A lot of people resent that the poor can use food stamps to buy fast food. But remember she has 4th stage breast cancer and is undergoing chemo. She doesn’t always feel like cooking.
While I was visiting she bought us a couple of steaks with her food stamps. People with money resent that too. But she only gets a set amount of money for food each month. If she spends $12 on steaks this week, it means she will eat rice and beans the rest of the month (which she likes).
But why should we begrudge her the ability to buy her sister a nice dinner? Why should we insist she buy hamburger every week rather than steak one week and beans the next?
I went grocery shopping for her and she gave me her EBT card but I refused to use it. Of course I had money and wanted to buy her groceries so her food stamps would last longer.
But there was a less noble and generous reason I refused to use the card.
I was ashamed and did not want to be seen using the card. “Oh don’t worry about that,” she assured me “Everyone here uses that card. You will fit right in”
The truth was, I did not want to fit in. I did not want to be seen as one of “those people”. But as I spent the week with her and “those people” and saw how much they cared for and took care of my sister, how hard they worked for the little they had and how clever they were at surviving, and what positive attitudes they had, I realized I could do a lot worse than “fitting right in” with this crowd.
As Christians we know we are obligated to help the poor. But I know we can be awfully judgmental about the poor and we don’t often actually get to know them.
Jesus was about more than just “helping” the poor. He was about abolishing the barriers we put between “us” and “them”. This past week has challenged me to think about ways we can move beyond charity to expanding our notions of who our neighbor is.
*Update: My sister died a year later in May, 2015
Pastor Joelle Colville-Hanson
Director for Evangelical Mission, ELCA