“Has anyone seen the line at the door?” I must have heard it five times this morning over an hour before we were to open the door for a financial assistance day at Greater Birmingham Ministries. Each time I heard it, the mixture of amazement and anxiety was a little deeper, each time becoming a little more a real question and not just one of the ways we shake our heads at the reminder of how poverty badgers so many people. Finally the question was really a question. It translated into, “What are we going to do now?” We all came and looked.
There is a heightened sense of concern, bordering on tension, in the days before the morning on which we take applications for financial assistance at Greater Birmingham Ministries. You can hear it and feel it among the staff, and it comes through in virtually every phone call we get leading up to the scheduled time. It is that growing anxiety that the needs are deep and real, the workers few, and the dollars inadequate. The question is how it will turn out for each person and for every person. Everyone senses that there will be a lot of bad news to hear and to tell, on both sides of the desk.
This time I should have realized something when Ernestine came into my office the afternoon before, handed me five or six stapled pages, and asked me if the congregations on the list were all that we could call for financial assistance. I told her it was as far as I knew, as I leafed through the papers. Her voice was tense and serious. She had a sense somehow. “I’m just trying to find some help to get ready for tomorrow.” Everyone else on the list was either already out of funds or had sent their contributions in for us to distribute along with our funds.
Even after the last several long months of agonizing over welfare reform, I was not prepared for what “financial assistance day” brought to our front door this morning. A full hour before we were to open the doors, the line of people already reached from the front door to the sidewalk, up 11th Avenue a full two-thirds of the way down the block to 23rd Street. This was easily five times the “normal” line of 20 to 25 people this early in the morning. The phone was ringing endlessly, and the realization was inescapable that not only would we not have enough money to help the people already in line, we would not even be able to have time to listen to their stories. We were going to have to tell people, large numbers of people, that there was not even going to be room in the building for them to wait, much less find assistance that day.
We hurriedly readied the numbered card system that we normally use for the very long lines at Christmas time in order to keep people from having to wait for hours on end. We knew that 45 people at most would be all we could see and talk with, and it would be sheer fantasy to think that we could help all of them. In the few minutes it took to ready the cards, the line grew by another 20 people.
Sarah Price, Ernestine and I stepped out of the door with those ridiculously small and clumsy cards with little red numbers on them and stepped into the world that lives outside our doors so full of need. Handing those cards out was easy for the first few steps. They brought tense smiles from those who were near the front door. There was a sense of communion and hope that they brought. Just silly yellow and green cards with red numbers. Symbols of hope, at least a little hope. At least a ticket to wait to see. I felt a sense of dreadful arrogance, distributing hope like this. I hated the truth of my privileged status. Who am I to be handing these out? Why not one of these handing them to me?
Within seconds I saw how pitifully little of the line the cards were going to reach. I looked up to see the line now reaching around the corner at 23rd Street and still growing. I noticed people in passing cars looking at the line with downcast faces. They simply slowed down or stopped for a moment. Many were likely like the folks standing next to me. They had recruited a friend to carry them to GBM with hopes of getting help. Now they just kept on going to return home with nothing to show for the thought or effort.
We began to try to explain that the people with cards were all the people we could see today. Still the line kept growing in the back. There were small children in their mothers’ arms, old women with crooked backs and silver hair, working people, people with disabilities and illness, people laid off, people with invalid parents, a social worker standing in line for a client in a hospital across town. God, I thought quite literally, I hate dismissing people like this. Not even to know who I am telling that there is no point in waiting. What suffering was I dismissing, what stories, only deepening the sense of loneliness and isolation.
Several people simply left wordlessly and painfully as soon as we began to explain that we could see no more people. But others pleaded with me to start a waiting list and just put their names on it. I explained that it was a shortage of money that was at work here, not a lack of belief that the needs were real. “What would be the point?” was my not so subtle question. I knew all too well the loaves and fishes story that would be going on with the needs of the people inside with cards. Surely it was cruel to raise these folks hopes by adding their names to a waiting list. Waiting for what? Waiting to wait? Waiting for such a thin possibility of hope that it was thinner than the paper I would write their names on? But they pleaded, and so I finally relented. Not to write people’s names down was more “dismissing” than my conscience–and their humanity–would allow.
I went back in and got my notebook, my leather notebook with a gold monogrammed plate on one corner that a friend had once given me, and I walked back outside to write down the names of those for whom I could see no tangible hope right now. I wondered whether this was wise, and whether I was somehow not serving the truth of our situation by writing down their names on the yellow notebook pad inside it.
I must have said the same thing fifty times. “We will have used all the money we have available with the people who are inside. Some people wanted to put their names on a waiting list just in case we have money left over or get some more funds in.” Each time I added the chilling words I felt truth demanded. “I do not think that there will be any funds for those on the list.” Still they stood and I stood, and so I wrote. I wrote name after name, getting the spellings all wrong and transposing phone numbers. And as I wrote, they told me their stories, their truths, compressed and to the point, but poignant and devastating. I wrote, “gas off,” “has no power,” “disconnect notice already past,” “has until the 12th on rent,” “disabled,” “no water,” “needs food, too.” One or two asked me to write, “Emergency” beside their names. I did.
They passed the word to each other what was happening as those near the back asked what was going on. And to add to the growing sense of desperation, people were still coming. I reiterated my words about the money, and I increasingly tried to find ways to discourage people from adding their names to the list or even bothering to wait to go through the motions of it.
I watched old men on walkers turn and go home. I pointed people to the phone to call their rides that had left already knowing that the wait would be long if they were to get help. Two people needed to get letters to verify that they had been here to show the people who had let them off work to come. They were white and black, men and women, babies in arms and people who looked old enough to be my great grandparents. They were all God’s people, people in whom God takes such great delight and joy. They came here in hopes of being remembered as that, welcomed as such, because life on most other fronts was dealing them fits.
And so I “dismissed the crowds”, or more accurately, “kept on dismissing the crowds,” as a combination of truth and failure demanded that we do. Truth that we were unable to pay their bills. Failure that we as a society have sanctioned this scene to be visited on the human beings standing here on this street. A powerful sense of injustice welled up in me, and the urgency of the voices around me touched off unmistakable agitations of anger within me. I wanted to run and hide. I wanted the lines to shrink. I wanted the needs to disappear. I felt the wrestling inside to dismiss the people in order to not be overwhelmed with their need. It would have been so easy to lash out at them, to drive them away, especially as the steady stream of people kept the line forming in front of me. I was embarrassed by the temptation.
I might have given into the temptation, left to myself. The temptation to panic was real enough. But the people themselves would not let me. They were veterans of struggle. Panic was a luxury they could not allow themselves, even though I knew they were well familiar with it. I heard it in their stories, even the short versions I was hearing. I had heard it in too many other voices on other days sitting inside across a desk, trying to figure out with a person how to keep the lights on or eviction at bay until they could get back to work or get their disability application approved. Their voices kept me in reality, held back my panic and fear, and pulled my humanity out in me, despite myself. They stood and talked with me about their problems, and they thanked me for listening. Some wept. Many thanked me for keeping them from having to wait. They asked me if I knew where else they could go for help. They said, “God bless you,” more times than I have ever gotten at any worship service. And there were those who were angry, who wanted to know how decisions got made. Then those who were still on the sidewalk began to try to cope and tried to help each other with ideas and plans. They were all trying to improvise one more time, this time in spite of us, rather than with us.
But in their own way, they had left their mark on GBM that day. The needs would not be so easily dismissed. They were there on those pages in my hand that would make it into the building even if they could not. Like notes in a bottle, they were the cries for help thrown into GBM’s sea by people marooned in poverty, sinking in the waves of an economy that provides so much to so many others. “I was here,” those names all proclaimed. “Where are you?” was what they all implicitly queried of more than just the staff of GBM.
I am sure that at least 200 people stood on that sidewalk beside me this morning, probably closer to 250. I finally took my leave of the people still left standing outside, and “made it in” the door and over to my office through the waiting room packed with chairs and people standing. My notebook had never felt so heavy in my hands. I think my heart was still in there when I closed it. I tore the pages loose from the pad and laid it on Ernestine’s desk as she sat with one of the “fortunate 45” with the words, “I’ll talk to you about this later.” I wrote the letter for the people needing a note for their employers, and then I went upstairs to the meeting I had missed.
I could hear very little of the meeting, my head filled with the street out front. I stumbled from my meeting down to Scott Douglas’ office, as I do so often in this work, seeking a little relief, a little community in the midst of my staggering emotions and thoughts. He had been busy on the inside with people. He had a whole set of stories from there. We talked a few minutes comparing what we had heard.
As I got up to go back to work, I asked him, “So what do you think the message is for GBM from what we saw out front this morning?”
“That’s a good question,” he replied. “This is what we have been talking about being out there with welfare reform and all the rest of it. We have got to deal with it, and somehow we have got to get that question out there for everybody else.”
I walked back to my office and heard the voices in the waiting room slowly fade away with the last people to be seen for help today. Now there is no line at the door. Two bright yellow signs have taken my place in notifying people that there is no reason for one. One reads: “We’re Sorry. No food is available.” The other says, “No Requests for Funds Will Be Taken Today.” Those signs keep the lines away. The needs seem to have disappeared because those signs are up.
Putting up signs is easy. It keeps the needs away. Our society is becoming increasingly quick and easy with signs like these, to keep the needs away. But the needs are there. This morning, every morning, speaks that truth whether we open the door or not.
Taking the signs down and letting the needs in, that’s the mandate of faith. When will we need the signs less because the needs and the resources are in closer match? When can we forget a waiting list, not because there is no point, but because there is no need?
“Has anyone seen the line at the door?” There’s a question for GBM.
It’s a question for all of us.