Security, Austerity, and Compassion?

I received a message from my church. A woman, whose name I didn’t recognize, had called for me. The message conveyed the sense that the woman wanted to speak only to me and that it seemed like her request was urgent.

When I reached Emma, her voice was soft. She sounded very tentative. As I inquired about her situation, she said that things had been very difficult for her for some time. I asked about the difficulties. She said that she wanted to speak in person. I asked how soon she needed to speak to me. “As soon as possible,” was her request. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. I told her that I’d be at church that evening and that I could meet her at 7:00. There was silence for a few moments. “It’s a long walk from the bus stop to your church.” My church is located in the woods, up a hill, off a main street. It is a bit of hike to get from the street corner to our location. I suggested meeting at a coffee shop in the morning at a location convenient to her. She picked the location and the time. When I asked why she called for me rather than one of the other ministers on staff, she said, “You know about things like yoga and meditation. I need someone to talk to for spiritual support.”

The next morning I met Emma at 10:30. Looking at her, I guessed that she was in her mid-fifties. Emma is white, educated, but looked very frail that morning. While she had on make-up and looked neat in appearance, she also appeared to be very tired. She wasn’t comfortable speaking in the coffee shop because of the number of people there. We walked outside and sat on a bench. It was there that she told me her story.

Emma had been in an abusive marriage. After previous attempts to solve the problems, some months ago she left her husband. “All my friends told me to get out,” she explained. “So did my pastor.” At this point I learned that she was a member of another church but had attended a couple of events at my church. Because of that, she was on the weekly email list and found my name there.

Emma went on to explain that she first ended up in a shelter for abused women. “I wasn’t like anyone else there. I couldn’t fit in,” she reported. “I was the only white woman and the only woman my age. The other women were hard. They kept telling me that I didn’t know what real abuse was and that I was too special to be there.” She said that the shelter staff told her to try to fit in better or find another place to stay. “They didn’t help me find another place to go and I felt like the situation was more abusive than my marriage, so I left.”

She reported that she showed up at different shelters, used the Internet at the library to find other social services, and looked for help from various churches. But now she found herself homeless. There were no family, friends, or social services that seemed able to help.

While I listened and prayed with her, there was little I could do. I’m simply not familiar with the social service network in my area. I did connect her with another minister I know who is more familiar with resources. My colleague had some ideas about connecting Emma with a case manager.

I gave Emma a ride to her next stop as well as some money. I found someone to provide more tangible assistance than I could provide. I did what I could, but that was really very little. I left Emma saddened, wondering what would become of her and the many other people now trapped without a social safety net.

Because of governmental budget cutbacks, austerity measures, and sequestration, social services are very limited in the United States and most Western countries. The common image of the homeless person is the down on his luck addict or the person who just won’t work. However, the reality is that single women, families, and women like Emma are without support or services.

Emma did the thing that many of us would assume was right: she got out of an abusive situation. She went for help. What was the outcome? She ended up worse than she was with her abusive husband. She’s alone, isolated, afraid, and not sure where to turn. Even worse, her circumstance is far from unique.

If we consider spirituality an important dimension of our lives and engage in spiritual practices for our growth, our spiritual practice should lead us to experience greater compassion and empathy for others. Out of that compassion and empathy, we need to act in ways that are compassionate.

Spiritually based responses to systemic problems of poverty include providing tangible care to others, like supporting food banks or homeless services. But spiritually based values should also lead us to advocate for those who are unable to advocate for themselves. When governments spend unaccounted for money on issues like defense and national security but fail to assure that people can live in secure homes with basic needs, something is terribly wrong.

Today, public policy based on greed leads to government austerity. Thinly veiled rationalizations using unproven or faulty economic principles support austerity measures and the US sequestration. All these things do are hurt real people and bring harm to society. Even the International Monetary Fund has said that these measures are misguided and harm economic growth.

Tending to the spiritual dimension of our lives and engaging in spiritual practice should, over time, bring changes to the way we live. Those changes should enable us to reach out with compassion toward others while working to make society a place where others can live securely.

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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