Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Book Excerpt

Growing up in a fundamentalist church, I was taught that being a Christian was synonymous with being a Republican.  Apparently this marriage began with Reagan, but since I was five when Reagan was elected, I can’t remember a time when Christian and Republican didn’t go hand in hand.   I never really thought about why we “Christians” were “Republicans” until I was in college; being a Republican was just part of who we were.

I never questioned the political status quo.  In fact, I became a card carrying member of the Republican Party.  I even listened to Rush Limbaugh in High School and college.  Everyone I knew was Republican, as well (except my Mom, but she was crazy).  When I went to college, I learned that one issue kept Christians voting Republican, and that issue was abortion.  By the time I became a junior in college, another major issue would be added: the issue of gay rights.  If you were Christian, you had to vote Republican because the Democrats sanctioned the murder of countless numbers of unborn children and wanted to give equal rights to homosexuals.  Occasionally, I heard people say they would consider voting Democrat if it weren’t for the issue of abortion.  “But I just can’t vote for a candidate who supports killing babies,” they’d forlornly explain.  I completely agreed with this statement.

So all through college and the early years of my adult life I staunchly supported the Republican Party.  I continued to listen to Rush Limbaugh; and I didn’t just listen, either.  I actually liked what he was saying and agreed with most of it.  I never questioned any of my political beliefs until I started working at the Homeless Church.  I hadn’t worked long with the homeless, however, before I saw that a lot of my political beliefs were harmful and damaging to the poor.  It is easy to say that the government should not spend so much money assisting the poor when you have never really been poor and never needed Government assistance. 

I remember listening to Rush Limbaugh one day after a three-year hiatus, which I only took from Rush because he wasn’t on Christian radio—and I ONLY listened to Christian radio.  This shocking break from my routine took place a few years after I had started working with the homeless.  Rush was talking about the Democrats . . . and their spending  . . . and how they were enabling the poor to stay poor.  Not long into his speech, I realized that he had no clue what he was talking about.  I doubted if he even knew a truly poor person.  I knew lots of homeless and poor people, and some of them were my very best friends.  I knew what their lives were like, and I didn’t know many of them, who wouldn’t work and improve their situation if they could.  Most of them were not lazy people.  In fact, as a whole I’ve never seen a group of people who work harder for less money than the poor and homeless of our country. 

The poor people I worked with didn’t stay poor because the government was helping them; they were stuck in poverty because they didn’t have the skills they needed to be successful in normal society.  Every single one of the homeless and poor I knew had tremendous, often insurmountable obstacles to face in order to make their lives “successful.” I knew they could not overcome these obstacles on their own.

One example of these obstacles is exemplified in the life of a gentleman I had worked with from the very beginning of the homeless ministry.  We’ll call this gentleman Teddy.  You wouldn’t have to be around Teddy for very long to see that something is wrong with him.  The entire left half of his face is scarred and misshapen.  Teddy has no left ear, and the eye on his left side is made of glass.  After I had gotten to know Teddy, he told me his story.   Teddy had once been a successful house painter with a wife and three kids.  One day while he was drinking some beers with friends at an apartment complex, two of his friends began arguing.  The argument escalated until one of the friends left in a huff.  A few minutes later the “huffy” friend returned with a shotgun.  Teddy stepped between the two arguing friends to try and keep somebody from getting shot.  Instead, Teddy took a shotgun blast directly to the left side of his face.

Teddy died three times because of the shotgun blast.  He died once in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, but they shocked him back, and then he died twice more in the operating room.  Miraculously, Teddy managed to survive the ordeal.  What Teddy eventually found out, though, was that the shotgun blast had not only taken half of his face, but it had also taken most his life.  Pieces of the buckshot are still lodged in his brain; it was impossible for the doctors to remove every piece from his brain.  As a result Teddy now has unexpected and uncontrollable seizures.  He can no longer work or even drive a car.  Teddy’s wife eventually left him, taking their children with her. At that point Teddy felt as though he had lost everything.  He had nothing to live for, so he began to abuse alcohol and drugs.  Teddy was hopeless, shot up, and strung out when Tina and I met him.  We helped Teddy a lot.  We were surrogate family for him.  He was able to give up drugs and mostly give up the alcohol, but no matter what we did for Teddy, we could never restore all that had been taken from him. 

Since Teddy was unable to work, he was solely reliant upon social security/disability.  I once asked Teddy how much he was getting from the Government each month because I had heard all these stories about how people on disability were taken care of for the rest of their lives, but Teddy sure seemed to be struggling financially.  I can’t remember the exact figure he told me, but I do know it was in the neighborhood of $750 a month.  I was devastated when I found out how little he was expected to live on; cheap rent in our city was around $500 a month.  I couldn’t imagine how he was keeping a roof over his head at all.  Here all these rich Republican Christians were driving around in their Lexus luxury vehicles complaining about having to give the Government a little more money for people like Teddy.  I was crushed by how cold we Christians had become towards the poor.  I have heard Fundamentalists argue that it isn’t the government’s job to take care of the poor, but I don’t see anybody else stepping up and doing anything about their situation.

Teddy wasn’t the only disabled person at the Homeless Church, either. I would say that 95% of the people I worked with had either a major physical, psychological, or mental handicap.  The poor I knew were not poor because they were lazy and wanted the wealthy to take care of them; they were poor because they were sick, and the wealthy refused to lift a finger to help.  I had heard all these stories growing up of the poor milking the system to get rich so they would not have to work.  What I actually found were disabled people, who couldn’t work, but still had to take day labor jobs because they did not receive enough assistance to make it at the end of each month.  I only ever ran across one couple in my twelve years of working with the poor, who were truly playing the system, and even they were just barely making it.  I felt like I had been deceived by Rush Limbaugh and my Republican mentors in the church.

I faced a true moral dilemma when it came time to vote in the first George W. Bush election.  I had to admit that the majority of my beliefs were actually served better by the Democratic Party, but I could not bring myself to vote for a pro-choice candidate.  To this day I think abortion is a horrific practice.  At the time of the election, gay marriage was also becoming a huge issue, and I didn’t want to support gay rights, either, because I viewed homosexuality as sin and couldn’t vote for sin.  What was I to do?  I decided not to vote at all.  For the next three years I became a conscientious political objector.  I could not in good conscience support any of the candidates, so I did not vote.

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