“Dear M”: Answer to an Anonymous Letter

I recently received an anonymous letter.  Now no leader is immune to these things, and I’ve gotten a few in my day.  Generally they are nasty and often incoherent ravings which I don’t bother reading.  This one was decidedly different.  This one was a cry for help.  But since I don’t know who sent it, I can’t respond.  I know only what she has told me about herself in a 3-page letter. 

M is a person not unlike many of you reading this blog.  She says she has a good sense of humor.  She is a single woman from a middle-class, two-parent family who has worked hard to create a good life for herself.  She has struggled successfully with health problems and problems of self-esteem for the past 10 years and has learned  to cope, in her words, “without self-medicating (food/alcohol/drugs).”

M successfully bought and sold her first house, making a tidy profit.  She re-educated herself about U.S. history from the working people’s point of view and found her life’s passion as an activist. She opened the first fair-trade shop in her area and created a peace movement in her hometown.  Having previously lived in Portland for a short time, she decided to move here and dedicate herself “to creating a just and equitable society with the good people  in the City of Roses.”

But job hunting in Portland has been daunting.  After a life of successful employment, she can find nothing.  When she wrote the letter, she was less than two weeks from being kicked out of her rented room and needing to live in her van.  She needs money for food, medical care, and transportation.  She is asking herself the question, “How is it that an able-bodied person with good work skills and a positive mental and spiritual outlook . . . who comes from a solid middle-class family with loving and supportive parents be standing on an economic cliff, just waiting to be pushed off?”

Dear M–

Had you come to me for counseling, I would have given you a cup of tea.  We would have sat quietly together, and I would have listened.  I would have tried to get to know you not only by your words, but by your facial expressions, by the quality of your voice.  I would have tried to be fully present with you during our time together.  I might have said some of the following things:

I’m so sorry that you are in such a state of fear and pain.  You may feel alone in all of this, but so many people in our church and in Portland and all over the country are facing similar frightening circumstances.  You may feel alone also, because you’re new to our city–but  there are many compassionate people who care, and some of them may be found in our church.  Come to the church and visit with one of the ministers, or a lay minister.

Please do not blame yourself for the situation you’re facing–it’s all too easy for an unemployed person to think that there’s something wrong with them.  That’s just not true.  Our unemployment rate is in the double-digits in this state–and those stats don’t include all those who have given up looking for work and all those who are under-employed.  You’ve had problems with self-esteem in the past, and these same demons may reappear while you’re going through this vulnerable period.  Keep telling yourself that you are not the problem.

In your letter you say that this economic crisis is proof that the current economic model is not viable.  I couldn’t agree more.  We are trying to “bail out” a system that is corrupt and finally imploded upon itself.  We are going to have to reimagine how we want to be together as a people, and we’re going to have to create an economic model that is inclusive of the well-being of all, not just the wealthy.  With your understanding of class and your commitment to change, you will be a part of creating that new future.

As to how we got in this fix–and it is a world-wide phenomenon, of course–the short answer is “sin.”  Too many people were willing to look away from what they knew to be true, because they were being enriched by a system that had no integrity, that was bound to fail.  Government and business ane functionally interchangeable, and one might even say that the main purpose of government in this country is to protect and support big business.  Until the people say “no more!” shameful economic inequity will continue,  I hope that the bankers and money brokers and government officials who turned a blind eye to our economic disaster-in-the-making understand that real human beings like you–millions of them–are suffering terribly because of their selfishness and lack of responsibility.

The last question in your letter is “When will it end?”  I wish I could prophesy, and tell you.  But no one can, because the situation we are facing is unprecedented.  Thus far, we have been throwing old solutions at a new problem–kind of like treating AIDS with lots and lots of penicillin. 

I will tell you this–it will end, though, because human beings eventually figure stuff out.  All of us have to be a part of the new age that is coming.  In the meantime, find a community.  Know that you are not alone.  Know that you a good person.  Know that the future will open once again for you, as it has in the past.  

Bless you, my dear, wherever you are.  Though I don’t know you, know that I’m thinking of you.





Where Would Jesus Go to Church?

A new study by the American Religious Identification Survey has shown a sharp decrease in the number of people who claim to be religious.

–the number of people who call themselves Christian is at 76%, down from 86% in 1990

–30% of couples who marry do not bother to have a religious ceremony

–when asked to speciify their religion, 8.2% said “none” in 1990; in this study, 15% said “none”

So what’s the deal?  Have people given up on God?

I think people have given up on the kind of religion that they see in the media.  Almost every story about contemporary religion is about fundamentalist religion, and almost every story has to do with some scandal or some abuse of the cloth or some terrible lie or some hypocrisy–or just some nonsense that people who have gone beyond the fifth grade find difficult to respect–like God made the earth in 7 days. 

I have been to the Hall of Justice in the State of Alabama and seen in the rotunda the huge boulder inscribed with the Ten Commandments, plus quotations from our alleged “Christian” founding fathers (it has, thankfully, removed).  I have talked with the creationist who explained that her mentor has 2 large stones on which are pictured dinosaurs and humans, proving therefore that dinosaurs and humans roamed the earth at the same time.  I have seen on TV the woman who says that God brought her dead chicken back to life, through prayer and mouth-to-beak resuscitation.  I have been confounded by the Ph.D. theology professor who told me that Gandhi was in hell because “he did not accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior.”

Worse than this, I have seen my gay and lesbian church members fear for their safety because they have been told they are sinners and less than whole by fundamentalist Christians.  I have known Catholic “good old boy” church bureaucrats that have sent priest sex offenders from parish to parish, to molest other children.  I have known people crippled with guilt, running from God, because they had been told they were bad and were going to hell.  And now the latest: the Pope has denounced the use of condoms in Africa to prevent AIDS.  He added that he was bringing  “the Christian message of hope.” 

The way I read the New Testament, Jesus is all about love and tolerance, compassion and forgiveness.  How did so many Christians go so wrong?  Are they reading the same Bible I am?

Of course, there are liberal religious people–like Unitarian Universalists and many liberal Christians.  If we got a little more press, perhaps religion wouldn’t have such a bad name.  At least I would like to think so.  God is obviously a liberal–who could be more bounteous, generous, beneficent, caring, more lavish, prodigal, profuse, and charitable? 

Why are people giving up on church?  Because church has given up on them.  Churches of whatever name or theological persuasion had better get back to the core message.  It’s the shortest verse in the Bible, and it’s pretty simple: “God is love.”


Let Prisoners Out !

Well, I don’t mean let out all prisoners, or let them out for the full duration of their sentences.  But Oregon should listen to State Rep. Chip Shields, who wants to explore new ways to save money in corrections.  Right now the state plans to cut police hours, cut parole and probation, and shut down Oregon courts one day a week.  The only problem, says Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, is that a backlog of cases could keep the state from providing speedy trials, thus violating the civil rights of those accused.  Muniz also points out that the $3.1 million saved in salaries by closing courts will cost the state about $5 million in lost revenue, because fewer defendents will be ordered to pay fines and fees, and the state will have 4 days and not 5 to collect them.

Shields is suggesting that one way to save corrections money would be to expand “transitional leave”–that is, the final 30 days of an inmate’s sentence.  Cutting their prison time could save millions of dollars for the state.  Seems to me that this is a no-brainer.  Why, then, are legislators not rushing to support Rep. Shields’ suggestion?

There are two main reasons, I suspect.  First of all, Oregon voters have this idea that they should make laws instead of their legislators.  Trouble is, the voters rarely study the issues in depth or understand the implications of their vote.  They passed Measure 11 and then just last year, Measure 57, both of which set mandatory sentences for certain offenders.  Do our citizens understand what kind of money it takes to keep people in prison?  Have they considered the trade-offs?  I think not.  They think, “Punish, punish, punish.”  And rehabilitation is not much of a consideration these days, so these same offenders who are punished will of course be likely to “strike out” and be permanent residents of our prisons, at huge expense to the public.

And then the second reason lawmakers are balking at Shields’ suggestion is that prison is a business.  Lots of people make money from the prison industry, and these folks will lobby hard to keep our prisons full.  This is a shameful reason to keep filling our prisons–to make a buck on the backs of the most miserable and forelorn of our society.

I’m not saying that no one should be in prison.  Some people need to go there and stay there, for they are violent, and unlikely to change.  We can’t risk letting them loose.  But most prisoners are not there because of violent acts.  There are ways of dealing with misdeeds other than putting people behind bars and isolating them from society–generally leaving them embittered, without much hope for a future.

Certainly a step in the right direction for prison reform would be to let non-violent offenders out on probation earlier, thus releasing millions of dollars for more crucial concerns.  Oregon, take this tiny step in the direction of common sense and creativity.