Weary Wings

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Taking Care of the Poor

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. They adored me and did their best to spoil me rotten. My grandfather was a trucker and I can remember riding in his truck watching the road pass by through the little window by my feet. My grandmother loved researching her genealogy and some days after school she would take me to the Mormon library where I did my homework and she researched. And every night they took me out to eat. Mostly at Denny's, which I hate to this day.

They also took me to church. We attended a small Pentecostal church where I learned of a Jesus who loved me and I believed it with my whole heart even if it did take a long time for me to live it with my life. My grandparents are responsible for the seeds that were planted so long ago and because they loved me so much, I could believe in a God who was said to have loved me even more. I owe a debt of gratitude to them for introducing me to my Savior.

They did teach me other things as well though. Lessons that were subtle but very real. They taught me that Christians were Republican. They taught me that I should be suspicious of people who didn't look like me. They taught me that people on welfare were lazy and taking advantage of the government. My grandmother even once told me that Martin Luther King Jr. was a communist. I didn't know what that meant but I did know that it was very bad.

Even as young as I was I had a hard time reconciling the different messages they were sending me. I sang "Jesus Loves the Little Children", "red and yellow, black and white." I heard stories of a God who loved the poor and took care of them. I knew my grandparents loved God, but I was growing to think that the way God loved was different from the way they loved.

Nevertheless, I had some deeply rooted beliefs about what was acceptable for my life. Church, being patriotic, loving your family, those things were all good. Interracial dating (or worse, marriage), getting pregnant outside of marriage, being on welfare, well, those things were bad, to say the least. It was clear what was expected of me. The problem was, I had a hard time caring about those things.

In eighth grade I started dating a boy who was Filipino. Of course I didn't tell my grandfather this because I knew he wouldn't approve. One day though, he saw us walking hand in hand down the street. He called me a couple of days later and said,"Kimberly,I saw who you were with." I hated disappointing him but I also didn't believe he was right. Besides, at least I wasn't pregnant and on welfare. Right?

Fast forward a few years. My grandparents had both passed away but I still felt their disappointment when I did get pregnant, not once, but twice. I consoled myself with the fact that I had two very white babies and knew that if my grandparents had been alive, they would have accepted my children. And, I wasn't on welfare, that is if you didn't count the Medicaid that paid for the birth of my children.

Here's the thing though, as a 22 year old with two kids and no education I didn't have many options. I was working two jobs and unable to make ends meet. I barely saw my children whom I loved deeply and as my friends were busy earning their degrees and getting their adult lives in order, I was doing nothing and getting nowhere. So, I decided to go to school. In order to do that, I went on welfare. I was ashamed but again consoled by the things people said to me,"We don't mind people like you using welfare. That's what it's there for." Oh, so for me welfare was acceptable. For people not like me, it was not.

I worked hard to earn my associates degree at the local community college. I was surrounded by a diverse group of women who were using welfare to do the same thing. Get an education. We were commended for our efforts and I excelled. Around this time I also started going back to church. I was ready to make Christ the Lord of my life. However, I found myself lying to the people I worshiped with. I didn't want them to know I was on welfare. I had been taught that they wouldn't approve. From the conversations I heard and the ways that I was encouraged to vote, I was convinced that was the truth.

As I approached the end of my courses for my Associates degree, I began to realize that I needed to go further in my education in order to put myself in a better position to provide for my children. The problem was, I had signed a "Welfare to Work" contract (as mandated by the Welfare Reform laws) that only allowed me to go to school for 24 months. When my welfare worker asked me what I was doing to find a job at the end of that I told him that I understood my time was up but I planned to transfer to the university and earn my Bachelors degree. I told him I knew that meant I would lose welfare benefits and I was prepared to deal with that. His response was that he would see what he could do. And he did. He sent me a letter that said,"in your case we have decided to follow the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law and approve your case for continued education at the university level." I was thrilled, but, in the back of my mind I once again heard the message,"we don't mind when people like you use welfare."

I excelled in my upper level course work and enjoyed every minute of it. Between my welfare benefits and scholarships and grants, we were also in a pretty good place financially. My little family didn't look like it was on welfare. Of course I did have to use my food stamps at the grocery store and each time I went I prayed that nobody from church would see me there paying for my groceries with them. I had started to confide in some of the people I went to church with and got the same message," But you're using it for the right reasons" I was often told. That didn't sit well with me though. I didn't feel any different from the other women I knew who needed welfare. I also wasn't surrounded by that same diverse group of women who had also worked hard at the community college. Very few of us were granted permission to go on.

In my senior year of college I decided to do my project on the Welfare Reform laws and how they had affected the women and children who needed welfare. It was a huge step outside of the thinking I had been taught as a child. I was finding myself more and more convinced that our country was doing very little to actually help the poor and what's worse is that the Church was doing even less. Add to that the fact that it was within the church that I was hearing the most complaints about the welfare system and the lazy people who use it. The conception was that large amounts of taxpayer money was going to take care of people who wouldn't take care of themselves. Rarely did anyone consider that some of those people couldn't take care of themselves. Always the blame fell on the poor.

As I researched my project and grew in my faith I felt that the thinking of most of the Christians I was in contact with was inconsistent with Scripture. I read in the Bible that it was our job to take care of the poor, I never saw a place in God's Words where we were called to blame them for being poor. In fact Jesus himself said that there would always be the poor among us. If that's the case, then our job of taking care of them is never finished. And as Christians I felt that we shouldn't be complaining about "all" the money the government spent on welfare. It seemed to me that we should have been paying that gladly and looking for ways to do more.

I also found that only about five percent of the Federal budget goes to support welfare programs that take care of poor people. (Here's a link for more explanation on that http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif ) That's only five dollars for every one hundred dollars we are taxed. It's a few cups of Starbucks that we spend to assist the needy in our country. As Christians we should be happy to give that money up and we should be clamoring to find ways to do more and spend more to care for those less fortunate. It should shame the church that our government even needs to have a welfare program because we are the ones called by God to provide for the needy in our midst.

Another complaint I hear is that there are so many people taking advantage of the system. Not "people like me", the other kind, you know. Here's the thing, nobody's getting rich off the welfare system and while there are those who are looking for loopholes (there always are) the numbers are so staggeringly low that it wouldn't affect the welfare system if we could weed them out altogether. Of course I don't want people to take advantage of the system but it isn't a get rich quick scheme and just because a person is trapped in the cycle of generational poverty doesn't mean they are doing anything wrong. When God calls us to help the poor He doesn't tell us to qualify how or why they're poor. It's His job to deal with people's hearts and change their situations. It's our job to be His hands and feet in the meantime.

I know, I know, in II Thessalonians it says that if you don't work you don't eat. I get it. That instruction was written specifically to men who were not providing for their families. Men who were taking advantage of the church. That's not what's happening in our country. First of all, the church is mostly relying on the government to do its job and second of all the vast majority of welfare recipients are women and children. You want to decrease the welfare expense in our country? We should start by actually prosecuting all the men who are not supporting their children making it necessary for these women and children to be on welfare. And then, Church, let's do our job, take care of the poor.

In all fairness I have been involved with some churches over the last few years that make a genuine effort to do that. I applaud that. My gripe, though, is with the Christians I hear complaining about the welfare system as if most of their individual paycheck is going to support people they don't feel are deserving of the help. As I said above, a VERY small portion of your paycheck is going towards actually taking care of the poor. As far as whether or not they deserve it, that's not our call. According to the Gospel, none of us deserve the riches we gain in Christ. We are poor, blind and naked standing before our Savior and He set the example by clothing us and feeding us. And then he tells us to do the same for others.

I have to tell you, this blog was hard for me to write because I know what some of you will say. I felt that way when I graduated from college and invited people I went to church with for a celebration at my apartment afterwards. Instead of proudly displaying the project I had worked so hard on I hid it in my room. I was afraid of what my fellow Christians would think. I am still afraid. But I'm not afraid for me anymore. I'm afraid for the body of Christ, specifically the Christians in America, because one day we will have to stand before Jesus and explain why we were so busy judging the poor instead of doing what we were called to do to help them. We'll have to answer for the fact that we even needed the government to take a few dollars from our paychecks in the first place not to mention that we complained about handing over those pitiful dollars when we should have been giving so much more.

And let me be clear. This is not a political post. I know God fearing Christians all along the political spectrum. Both major political parties contributed to the welfare system we have in place now. This is not about how you should vote. It is simply about the attitude that many Christians have regarding the money that is spent taking care of the poor. If we are to reflect the heart of Christ the only issue we should have is how we can help them more.

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