Are We Going Back to the Workhouses?

by Rev. Peter E. Bauer

By Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) and Augustus Charles Pugin (1762–1832) (after) John Bluck (fl. 1791–1819), Joseph Constantine Stadler (fl. 1780–1812), Thomas Sutherland (1785–1838), J. Hill, and Harraden (aquatint engravers)[1] — http://www.londonlives.org/static/Workhouses.jsp, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16859826

Not too long ago, I was driving in West Houston, Texas and getting ready to arrive at a medium-size church where I would conduct a worship service and preach. I exited off I-10 and stopped at a light. Plastered all over the light posts were stickers which read “I don’t believe in the Liberal Media!” I was starting to get an appreciation of the political persuasion of this community.

I pulled into a gas station and filled up my car’s gas tank, then stopped into McDonald’s for a quick breakfast. I never like to preach on an empty stomach. As I was driving out of the parking lot and heading back towards the church, I saw him.

Here was a man maybe in his 60’s or early 70’s, with wild, frizzy white Albert Einstein hair, dressed in a white shirt, cut-off jeans, wearing techie glasses, carrying a plastic bag filled with unknown items — and he was barefoot. I thought “Buddy, you might get away with walking without shoes in the morning at 80 degrees, but I don’t know if I would try it this afternoon when it is over 90 degrees.”

We have here a dichotomy, a disparity between someone who is perhaps homeless and a well-off, wealthy suburb of a major American city within two miles of each other. What can we make of this inequity? As the Rolling Stones would observe:

“Love and misery jamming side by side on the stage.”

Currently, policy initiatives are being proposed on the national stage that we overhaul health care insurance, potentially leaving 23 million people uninsured. There are also proposals calling for the reduction in Medicare, Medicaid and SNAP funds to assist those who are hungry. The mantra is, “i\If you want assistance, you have to work.”

That’s fine perhaps, if there are jobs out there. Many people have found themselves, for quite some time, working two to three jobs to survive and get by.

By Albert Edelfelt — Sotheby’s London, 23 May 2013, lot 206, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27920786

I’m wondering if we aren’t slowly returning to the Dickensian world of the work houses, to the time when we categorized those in need as either “the deserving poor” versus “the undeserving poor.” If we are heading in this direction, it will be a shame. A time where many people felt that their lives were nothing more than being “indentured servants” with little hope for any mobility.

Also, how will this pernicious trend offer any light to future generations? Already, there is tremendous pressure and odds that those who are born into poverty will have almost no chance of escaping their economic lot. Therefore, the programs of Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP, etc. were set up to assist those who are truly at the bottom of the economic chain of well-being. I hazard to think how we are making our country greater by throwing more people into poverty and economic despair?

Churches have been responding to the continuing poverty crisis by assisting people more with food pantries, clothing and shelter assistance including utilities and transportation. One congregation that is doing an outstanding job proving this kind of caring ministry to the poor is the Decatur Presbyterian Church in Decatur (suburban Atlanta) Georgia. Their program, Threshold Ministry, has provided essential services to the needy:

Since opening its door in the Spring of 2012, Threshold Ministry has served more than 600 men, women, and children. Threshold volunteers welcome those who come to Threshold into a safe place. Volunteers listen attentively, learn one another’s story, share joy over successes, and commiserate during times of misfortune.

Threshold provides the following assistance:

· MARTA cards for medical appointments, job interviews, etc.

· referral for assistance with utilities or rent

· referral to food pantries

· help finding employment and educational opportunities

· referral for medical treatment

· referral for immediate and long- term shelter

Threshold also offers:

· a bag lunch

· a hygiene kit (one per month)

· a winter kit containing a hat, gloves, and a scarf (during winter months only)

· a small clothes closet

A key task of Threshold volunteers is to help clients navigate the maze of resources that exist for the economically disadvantaged.

Visitors are also invited into the life of Decatur Presbyterian Church, both worship and fellowship activities.

The ultimate goal of Threshold is to create — through compassionate outreach — a community of faith that fully reflects the vision expressed in Scripture, where everyone experiences what it means to be a child of God — belonging, engaged, and being transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Source: Decatur Presbyterian Church.

My concern is that we will see more barefoot citizens in parking lots who will be ill-equipped to handle the economic shifts and changes in policy that we are currently witnessing.

As a society, we are better than returning to the days of work houses and almshouses.

Tiny Tim was right: “God bless us, everyone “

We need it more than ever.

Our government needs it more than ever.

May it be so.

The Rev. Peter E. Bauer is a longtime licensed clinical social worker and minister for the United Church of Christ. A LCL, he is also an Army and Navy veteran.