My sister Marie was at the bank last week, and the man at the window next to hers was making a balance inquiry. He had a job interview, and wanted to see if there was gas money in his account after he paid his phone bill. He had one job, but needed another to get by. His calculation was that he needed a dollar or so. He was dressed for an interview, an African American, living in the Detroit area. He was not begging or scamming- just trying to get on, trying to get by. She was paralyzed- she had just turned over her money and was overhearing a private conversation. She did not wish to humiliate the gentleman. The line behind her deterred her from making another transaction to withdraw money. She left, hoping that he had a balance that would carry him to additional employment. She was haunted, and relived the moment with a menu of "should I have's?" She was so upset that she called me. She wanted to fix it.
She and her husband work hard, and spend conservatively. He is a teacher, and takes on any extra income opportunities: driver's ed, coaching, small engine repair, even the occasional gutter cleaning. She works in a pediatric office, and rarely says "no" to an extra shift. They both are accustomed to saying "no" to big spending. They are saving for retirement, and they calculate the bills and mortgage with that in mind. They wonder if the cost of living will eventually snip them from their home. They contest taxes. At the same time, Larry works with St. Vincent DePaul to help families in need. Marie is always of service, to anyone who asks. In short, they are like all of us. Most days, they do not see desperation, but they know where it lives. For a brief time, it resided at the counter in Marie's bank.
Detroit is a rusty town, desperate for some superglue to fix it. Larry's school in Hamtramck has turned from blue collar Polish to Black to Middle Eastern. Hundreds of tribal dialects are spoken. He teaches small engine repair and a shop class that teaches kids to wallpaper, plumb, paint and maintain a home. He hasn't had a raise for years, as his district threatens to go bankrupt. He would love to retire, just so that he did not have to worry about his tools disappearing or being used as weapons. But in Detroit, he is a lucky man. His job is secure. All over the socioeconomic spectrum, many are not as fortunate.
For most of us, poverty is abstract, and hunger is relative. We can say, "I'm starving" but in fact, we are not even close. We can hate our jobs, but are glad to have one to go to. We can cut back, edit and discipline our needs. This year, the astronomical unemployment numbers remind us that many Americans are darning together survival strategies. One in ten is without work. People are hungr
y. Cold. Scared. Losing homes and health. Misery trickles down to children, the poor and the elderly. Those without the means to cope are most buffeted by the collapse of the economy.
At this same time, the state of Illinois has gutted its support for outreach programs. They funded the first half, and provided nothing for the second half. My elementary school math tells me that they cut funding by 50%. Local service agencies are scrambling to apply for grants, arrange fundraisers, or trim service. It is institutional begging, and shame on Illinois for putting these agencies in that position. Offloading the most desperate in our state is cruel. The people manning these agencies wish to help. They want to say, "come in, we can help" and not "we will have to check." It is the season for us to help, in whatever way we are able.
This time of year, we are trained to think of others. Often, that means the "others" who live with us, or work with us. In these times, I believe it would be a fine mission to look beyond our selves. We can help. We can create communities of support, and these communities will lift us up along with those who are lost.
Most churches have outreach programs to feed the hungry. Food pantries have seen their shelves stripped. Every day's mail brings entreaties. Adopt one organization, or spread your contributions among those you favor. The Chicago Tribune provides services through its McCormick Charitable Foundation
, and they help dozens of needy organizations and hundreds of individuals. If you are struggling, and money is too precious, think about service. You can drive someone, knit a blanket, tutor, babysit during a job interview, look in on a senior in the neighborhood, or visit a nursing home with simple gifts. You can rake leaves or shovel snow. There is great need, and we have great hearts. To start- just ask if you can help. Ask a person, ask a church. a school, a hospital or an agency.
I hate to go all corny, but as Mother Teresa said, "We cannot all do great things, but we can all do small things with great love." Tell your family that you are expanding and reorganizing the gifting circle; encourage them to share as well. As Christmas nears, the lights and the love will remain. They will be brighter and warmer. And you will be just fine without an electronic hamster or a glowing beer mug. I promise.