Some of you must feel like me. I am a religious person who leans toward the "help those who are suffering" school of religion. I believe it's the way to the kingdom (the reign of justice on earth). Compassion heals the soul and moves the planet toward wholeness as God intends. I get the change the system part, but I think religious people in particular are called to pay attention to immediate suffering and to do something about it.
But why are so many of those who believe what I believe homophobes? Don't say it's biblical. Too many outdated, bizarr-o things are biblical, and we put them in the box of random things somebody managed to get into the text.
More importantly, what is a reasonable response to those who serve the poor, hungry, homeless and mentally ill, but hate the gays? The people with the red kettles on my street remind me of the dilemma of Christian do-gooders this time of year. Some days I am angry when I walk by. Other days I am happy to be shaken me out of my holiday preparation anxiety with a reminder of the great need of so many.
I have been reading the blogs about The Salvation Army. I am not a disinterested party. I am not cynical about religion. Religion like other human institutions can be horrifying or transcendent and is often simply a gathering of people trying to do the right thing. I believe Jesus calls his followers to save the world from suffering and estrangement and offers a vision of another way.
This conversation isn't for everyone. If you aren't moved by religion, my question might not make any sense to you. For those of us that find ourselves in the pool with the believers, there simply are many people that need help with the basics of survival, and the groups that do that work often perpetuate discrimination in seriously dangerous ways.
So, for those left in the conversation. What do you do?
We live in a nation that has not bothered to care for the poor among us from the private or public sector. We live in a nation that generates poverty by creating a squalid fend for yourself dystopia where education, healthcare, nutrition, basic safety and access to work that pays a reasonable wage are not priorities for government or the private sector. If you live with mental illness or a physical disability good luck. If your parents like to beat you up or just decide to kick you out, we won't even buy you a cowboy hat to go with your boots which should have straps with which you should figure out how to pull yourself up to basic survival.
So charities, primarily started by religious groups, attempt to address that need. Since the early 1900s there has been a move to "better" the poor and disenfranchised by making them clean and middle class, problematic in so many ways, and often the only place for the desperate to get food and go inside. The Salvation Army is a primary example. They began their work of legislative reform as well as direct service in the hell of a newly industrializing London's match factories. New labor legislation was their first big win, decent working conditions and wages for those considered worthless at the time, the scum of the earth, poor, white English people making matches in death rooms.
The Salvation Army does the same work today. It is the only religious group I know of that calls itself Christian and doesn't believe in baptism. They believe faith is revealed and developed in good works. They help the poor, preach and sing. They don't believe in any tomfoolery, except dressing up like they are in God's Army which chose its uniforms at the turn of the last century and of course calling themselves by military titles, kind of church/military high camp, sort of fabulous.
My dad knew a Commander Philip when he was a kid in India. Commander Phillip gave out little loans, microscopic amounts, so that small farmers like my grandfather could pay school fees for his kids through high school. If Commander Phillips hadn't indulged this little operation, that little town would have a bunch of adults with eighth grade educations, what people expected to pay for back then, instead of college graduates.
The Salvation Army has always been like that, and they really don't like the gays. I think it's true that there is enough local autonomy among Salvation Army groups, they don't have a pope, that sometimes you get lucky when you are homeless and gay and desperate at one of their shelters, but sometimes you don't get so lucky, and homophobia is their policy, and a belief that they will fight for legislatively, and they take state funding. You can find their staff here in a report of a press conference with Lila Rose, the extremist anti-abortion campaigner behind the falsified videos that target Planned Parenthood clinics. I expect the Salvation Army to be sophisticated in their legislative strategies. You don't win over evil matchmaking titans with naivete, but wow, Lila Rose?
I want to support them because there are not enough groups out there feeding, sheltering, sobering up, dressing -- offering cheap used crap to buy for the holidays so your kids can have gifts -- do-gooders out there in these mean times. Our leaders tell us as individuals to help a neighbor, because unless the neighbor we mean is a tribal chief in Iraq or Afghanistan, our government itself will not be helping with our tax dollars.
As people of faith, we cannot pretend people are not broke and suffering right here at home, right now, as ubiquitous as the red kettles, many are gay and lesbian and many are not. If we don't something to help them, they won't make it until the next election or the next honeymoon a liberal elected official gets to maybe enact some jobs reform or extension of benefits or reclamation of abandoned housing. People are starving and freezing in this country because our government says we the people don't want our tax money going to create a more just society. Our elected officials are telling us we should not be obligated to help those who are suffering for the millions of reasons lives sometimes fall apart.
I am so glad there are some groups out there who believe it is their primary mission to serve the poor. I wish they could see that the match makers of today are homeless LGBT youth, but until they do, and I believe they will, I can't demonize them completely, although we should be wise as to whose rights they lobby to trample with our money.
I know progressive groups provide services too, but frankly, not at the same scale. I share those politics. I know it is because we are as likely or more likely to lobby our government to create services with our tax dollars, but the Republicans and the Democrats have been very effective since the Reagan administration in devastating public services. If we don't support services somewhere, people live and die in misery as we fight and lose ideological battles.
What do you do?
Follow Rev. Winnie Varghese on Twitter: www.twitter.com/wsvarghese