Monday, June 12, 2017

The Progressive Ethos of the Episcopal Church USA

This morning, Trinity Sunday, as I waited with other choir members for the processional hymn, a man, whom we heard was today celebrating his ninetieth birthday, walked past us with his wife on their way into the sanctuary.  The woman next to me, grey-haired, grandmotherly, a veteran choir member asked me if I had attended the talk by Father Antonio Illas about immigration, and if I had heard “Dean’s rant”.  Ninety-year-old Dean is one of a few conservatives in the parish who have ever come out of the closet.  I was not too surprised by this question, but I wasn’t expecting it from this woman.  Of course I had heard Dean’s question about the legitimacy of the immigration restrictions attempted by the Trump administration.  I have some opinions about how Dean’s suggestion that immigration restrictions might be legitimate was disallowed in the discussion.  It was anything but a rant, more a question, very tentatively asked.

It’s difficult not to notice how the Episcopal church ethos empowers a monotonous perspective on certain issues.   Compassion for undocumented people and assistance in their dilemma is a fine Christian impulse.  The politics of sanctuary cities and open immigration are other matters entirely.  An aristocracy of shepherds in all the mainline churches indoctrinates people in the reigning ideology of the Democratic Party.  Wolves in bishops’ clothing, they conflate personal ethics and government, and advocate policy that transmits a blight already covering the wider culture. Their high sounding rhetoric about “social justice” and “structural evil” maligns Republicans and the “privileged”.

My own rhetorical ire is peevish today because yesterday, and for most of last week, members of our parish have been assisting a church member in good standing, active on several committees, choir member, and organizer of blood-bank events at the church, who found herself overwhelmed by events following the sale of her house.  She, her daughter, and her son lived in the house for about fifteen years, the daughter now in her late twenties, her son a few years younger.  He recently enlisted in the army and is in boot camp.  The girl, young woman, must be wondering about her options for the long term.  Boot camp might be preferable to continuing to live with Mom.  I had some idea of what to expect moving this household because I used to be the guy in the church with a truck.  In this case several women of the parish scheduled a moving company to get our friend from the house, which is actually a double-wide modular home in a reasonably nice subdivision, to an apartment a few miles away.  But, when the movers arrived, they looked around and flatly refused to attempt the job.  The boss said being in the place for any length of time would be hazardous to his employees’ health.  None of us who were there last week would disagree.   

Today I talked with another church member, who had also volunteered.  She had worked as a caseworker in social services and confirmed my opinion that it is not uncommon to find women living in houses without functioning plumbing and with garbage rotting in every room.  Our priest and the choir director, God bless them, were there with the rest of us, trying to salvage enough furniture to get this parishioner out of her corner of hell.  The Rev purchased masks to keep all of us from inhaling fecal matter floating in the air from cat boxes and a bird cage.  Everything was covered with suffocating dust and filth.  I killed spiders on nearly everything I touched.  It was a nauseating environment, but people worked, paid for truck rentals, and offered emotional support to a woman who was trying to maintain self respect and remain in denial about her plight.

Like Christians who voluntarily walked into suffering during a medieval plague, churches are on the front lines in these situations.   We meet people where they are and help as much as we can, attempting to blunt the effects of years of dysfunction and decline.  But this isn’t the Bubonic plague.  It isn’t poverty!  How do people descend into seemingly needless misery?  Without any visible means of support, this woman had leisure to spend her days and nights, when she wasn’t in church, watching thrillers on a widescreen TV.  We moved out boxes of DVDs and romance novels.  She has a car, computers, a cell phone, an iPad.  Her malnutrition is not that of deprivation.  What is the source of her paralysis?  

My opinions are partly born of experiences growing up in the now derided 1950s.  I knew women with children who struggled.  My aunt lived with an alcoholic husband and had six children.  Her husband, Scotty, was a bricklayer.  In the early years of the marriage the growing family lived in a mobile home, a trailer thirty feet long and ten feet wide.  The location I remember was in the backyard of a house along a highway, surrounded by weeds.  

As I recall, when there were five or six children, the family rented several rooms on the upper floor or an old house adjacent to a parking lot.  The inevitable divorce was stormy.  Scotty showed up at our house and assailed us with language that was then shocking.  Now twelve year old girls spew the F-word as liberally.  Irma and the younger children moved in with my widowed grandmother, into a house of maybe 800 square feet.  There was room for a garden in the back yard and Grandma made good use of it.  Grandma didn’t have much either because my grandfather spent much of his paycheck buying drinks for railroad officials, and he often didn’t come home.  Dad remembered finding him sleeping off his drunken binges in somebody’s garage or at the train station. He died in his early fifties. Grandma kept votive candles burning under bleeding-heart paintings of the saints.  The church excommunicated Aunt Irma.  She voiced her criticism of the holy fathers when the thalidomide babies began creating an early controversy about abortion.  I recall the wounded tone of her voice when she held up the pictures in Life magazine of deformed children born with the blessing of the church.

Irma lived with Grandma until several of the children were out of high school.  She worked at a beauty salon and other low-skills jobs.  I have a friend, who on his first job as a teenager, worked with her in a supermarket bakery.  He remembers her fondly, especially her cynical sense of humor.  After a while she remarried.  The man had a ranch and money, but he was no prize.  When Grandma died, he ransacked the little house, looking for money or jewelry, tearing apart the frames of family pictures, dumping things on the floor that had intangible value to the rest of the family.  Irma survived another divorce.  She never had a house that amounted to anything.  But she took out the garbage.  She ended her days in a small rental where she could invite us to dinner without embarrassment.  She read, with amusement, magazines featuring Elizabeth Taylor beyond her prime.  But her children did well.  They worked. Their marriages succeeded. They didn't forget their mother.

What is the contemporary plague that puts women, and often enough, men, into a downward spiral that eviscerates their chances for a life of self respect?  I don’t think it is unrealistic to assert that what is missing in the current scenario is community.  Without connection to family and/or community, the infection that takes hold, after some years, is so virulent that love, compassion, practical assistance, and subsidized health care can’t remedy it.  

But, community is motivated by economic interdependence.  Dysfunctional behavior is dysfunctional.  Subsidize it and it continues.  It metastasizes.  The community of the church can provide companionship and moral support, but the global economy has cut people off from the sources of their basic needs.  It’s bad enough that Walmart has supplanted local businesses in Great Falls, Montana, Boston, and Seattle.  Add a welfare check to this already pervasive alienation and you have a drug that is fatal to motivation and human ecology.  People used to rely on one another to build and plant.  Not anymore.

The statistics about poverty and dependency are not ambiguous.  There are more fatherless children and hopelessly dependent women than there have ever been in America, this in an era of unparalleled affluence and after fifty years of the “War on Poverty”, the “Great Society”, AFDC, and now the “War on Drugs”, which is a fire fueled by money poured into the others. The truth about fatherless children is also indisputable.  They have more problems getting an education, making successful families, staying off drugs, and out of jail.  The difference in Irma’s case was community and family support, which she had to find to simply survive.  The plague destroys incentive and obliterates the resourcefulness that makes us human.  There have been times when the church has provided assistance without unconditional financial support.  Now the church has become another megaphone for demagogues shaming people into continuing trillions of dollars in government subsidies.  

The last time I saw Irma, I didn’t even have to know her address to find her.  Then in her sixties, she was working as a waitress in a small town coffee shop.  I started to ask around town, but the first person I talked with could tell me where she lived.  We had a pleasant afternoon together in her small, threadbare house.