We Share the Same Sun and Rain (October 18, 2015)

I live in a town with a huge drug problem. In my naiveté, I knew there was a lumber company called Green Diamond. I thought “Emerald Triangle” referred to another lumber business; I had no idea it referred to what is probably the area’s largest cash crop, marijuana.

I was incensed when I had to sign a drug contract with my physician to have my daily pain medication renewed, agreeing, among other things, to random drug testing and not filling my prescription at multiple pharmacies, but apparently drug contracts are standard procedures up here. In my town DUI can mean under the influence of alcohol or drugs, and both are dangerous and often fatal. Robberies and thefts are on the rise, usually to pay for drugs.

We have a panhandling problem on a par, I’d say, with San Francisco. You see it at the entrance to the large shopping mall, at the strip malls, and at Costco. Some claim to be broken-down drivers needing gas, some say they need money for medicine, or pet food, some say, “Why lie, I need it for drugs,” or booze. Some claim to be disabled vets, although I understand it’s now illegal to claim that status unless you truly are a veteran. And we do have some very active veterans’ groups here that take care of their own.

We are also a town with a homeless problem. We’re not the only community with a homeless population. Even Bishop, the small town where I used to live, had homeless people. But this is the first place I’ve lived that is so vocal about its homeless – and where so little is actually done about it.

We have a wonderful woman, Betty Kwan Chinn, who finally brought her drop-in center to fruition last year. It provides free day services and case management. We have a Rescue Mission that provides separate men’s and women’s emergency shelters (the women’s shelter accepts children as well). They also provide extreme weather shelter, but nothing permanent. The St. Vincent DePaul Society has a dining hall and some “safety net” services. Most people are left to live on the streets; for the past few years they have been living in a marsh area behind the shopping mall in what is called “The Devil’s Playground.”

Now the effort is on to clean up the Playground, in the guise of cleaning up the marsh out of environmental concerns. An ordinance concerning how many possessions a homeless person can have has been enacted, as well as a ban on camping in the Playground. Unfortunately, although the City owns land set aside for homeless housing, it has done nothing about setting up homeless housing there, nor has it opened it up for campsites. The campers were given 24 hours to remove their property and store it within a 60-gallon garbage can that the City would safeguard. Any items too bulky to fit in the garbage can, with the exception of tents, would be removed without notice. The City Manager has stated several times that it is not the city’s responsibility to solve homelessness.

I think the biggest problem we have is heart disease. Drugs and homelessness and even panhandling are all difficult problems. But hearing “they’re all drug addicts” or “thieves” or “dirty” or “they all want to live that way” each time we try to discuss the homeless situation, or try to offer solutions, hurts me. I’ve never lived in a place that had so many “Bathrooms for customers only” signs in the doors, nor have I seen so many shopping centers without garbage cans. And then I wonder where people are supposed to go to the bathroom, or throw away their garbage, if there are no facilities?

The last Point-In-Time Survey I could find of the homeless in my town was conducted in 2011. It found that 45% had a physical disability (43% permanent), 50% had mental health issues (24% serious), 22% were homeless due to domestic violence, 20% served in the military, 25% were once in foster care, 36% completed high school or a GED, and 26% completed some college or trade school. So a good number have been abused, need medical assistance, and are educated. Twenty-five percent have been homeless three years or longer. Contrary to popular belief, most want to get off the streets. It’s not easy. Just getting into an apartment here costs about $2,000.

In my town we have an unfortunate habit of grouping the panhandlers and the addicted and the homeless together into one supergroup, and throwing a large cloak of shame over all of them. Most people, if they want to feel charitable, will concede that “some people” might want to help themselves and climb out of their situation, but “most of them don’t, so why should we bother.” As a person of faith, I can’t help but see the spark of God in every person and know that it’s my responsibility to respond to that spark, just as Christ responded to the thieves on the cross. One thief may have scorned him, but Jesus did not rebuke or condemn him. And the other thief Jesus welcomed into Paradise. It is never too late. We never know what is the word or gesture that will make the difference in that life. We have to try.

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” Matthew 5:44-46

Prayer requests:

We celebrate the news from our UMAMD Seminary Relations and Higher Education Committee that a DVD about people with disabilities who feel a call to ordained ministry and seminaries who are making strides to welcome them and make reasonable accommodation is in the planning stages, as well as a fresh online and paper brochure about UMAMD that can be distributed at General Conference and countless national and global events to encourage people with disabilities to answer the call to become deacons and elders in the church. The group is also going to investigate the current state of the certification process for persons who would like to take the course to be certified in disability ministry. Praise God!

Holy Spirit, We thank you for inspiring and equipping our Seminary Relations and Higher Education Committee to leap out in faith to draw more people into ministry. The excitement is palpable. Our hearts and our spirits are dancing. Embolden each of us to join in this outreach in our own areas, in our own ways, to create a vibrant body of ministers for your kingdom. Amen.

Are We Listening? (October 11, 2015)

I have been reading and hearing a lot lately about people who need hearing aids but refuse to use them – even the AARP waded into the foray with an article entitled “Invisible Hearing Aids’ Misguided Message,”* the implication being that hearing aids, and hearing problems, are so shameful that one must hide them.

I am dealing with this very problem in my own family. I have a beloved family member with noticeable hearing loss. Three years ago we convinced him to have his hearing tested and yes, indeed, he needed hearing aids. We convinced him to get the hearing aids; he we found some very good (and very expensive) ones that blended into his hair color, fit behind his ears, and were relatively unnoticeable. His medical insurance picked up perhaps a third of the cost.

Unfortunately, he refuses to wear his hearing aids. Although they are nearly invisible, he is afraid someone will see them, and think that he is “old,” or that he has a disability. I am worried that he will not hear, or mis-hear, something important at his job and a bad mistake will be made. How does one deal with theses fears, rational or irrational, and convince someone that their job or their reputation is not at stake if they wear hearing aids?

Grey and/or balding hair certainly belies one’s notions of youth, so what is the stigma of a hearing aid? (And people certainly notice if we dye our hair!) A cane or walker surely indicates one can’t walk as freely as they did once upon a time. Isn’t asking someone to repeat themselves over and over again an indication there is a problem? Audiologist Mark Ross writes that “rejecting a hearing aid is no way to recapture one’s youth. As a matter of fact, well-fitted hearing aids, because of the way they will improve communication efficiency, can help one function in an apparently more youthful manner.”

Is the stigma of wearing a hearing aid so severe that people will risk their jobs, their friendships, perhaps their lives in misheard and not-heard conversations rather than placing that little receiver in their ear? I am baffled. But then I remember that at first I was hesitant to use a wheelchair. I thought I could get by with a walker, even though I was causing more pain and injury to my body, and probably making more people uncomfortable as they witnessed my struggle. We all have our hills to climb.

. . . let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill. . . Proverbs 1:5

Dear Creator God, We live in a marvelous time, with wonderful devices made to help us when our bodies fail us. Wheelchairs that can operate with sip-puff technology, lens implants that can restore vision, hearing aids, amazing prosthetics, cochlear implants, home braille printers, computers that can operate with eye blinks – we are blessed to live in an era when creative minds are expanding our world. Help us to accept the changes that our bodies are experiencing, and to reach out for solutions that will help us remain faithful, lively members of your family. Amen.

*http://blog.aarp.org/2015/10/07/invisible-hearing-aids-misguided-message/

The Wrong Scapegoat (October 4, 2015)

My husband and I were so excited when Pope Francis visited the United States, and so inspired by his outreach. But we were secretly frightened that there would be an ugly incident of good old American gun violence while he was here. We both held our breath until he was safely on his way to his next port of call.

“I want to talk about pretending. . . In the face of the killings in Oregon yesterday, I honestly don’t know what to do or say, other than that our hearts are broken for those struck by this senseless tragedy. . . I can’t pretend that it didn’t happen. I also can’t pretend to know what to do to prevent what happened yesterday all the times it has happened before. But I think pretending is part of the problem. These things happen over and over again, and we are naturally horrified and shocked when we hear about them. But then we change nothing, and we pretend that it won’t happen again. I (don’t) know what the solution is, but I do know that one of the definitions of insanity is doing nothing and then pretending that nothing will change.” – Stephen Colbert

Pretending is part of the problem. A bigger part of the problem is blaming it on mental illness. That’s another game of pretending. And it’s another form of stigmatizing anyone who has a mental disorder, and discouraging anyone who might think of seeking treatment from getting it. Shame on anyone who uses mental illness as the reason for mass shootings!

I did some research on mental illness and violence, and found an eminently readable report in the November 19, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, “Is There a Link Between Gun Violence and Mental Health?” I have included a link so that you may read it for yourselves. Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, Professor of Psychiatry at Duke University, has spent thirty years researching “the perceived intersection of violence and mental illness.” http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/almost-link-mental-health-gun-violence

“When Swanson first analyzed the ostensible connection between violence and mental illness, looking at more than ten thousand individuals (both mentally ill and healthy) during the course of one year, he found that serious mental illness alone was a risk factor for violence—from minor incidents, like shoving, to armed assault—in only four per cent of cases. . . When Swanson broke the samples down by demographics, he found that the occurrence of violence was more closely associated with whether someone was male, poor, and abusing either alcohol or drugs—and that those three factors alone could predict violent behavior with or without any sign of mental illness. If someone fit all three of those categories, the likelihood of them committing a violent act was high, even if they weren’t also mentally ill. If someone fit none, then mental illness was highly unlikely to be predictive of violence.”

In 1963 President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act, providing for deinstitutionalization and the establishment of community-based mental health centers. “Unfortunately, only half of the proposed centers were ever built, none were fully funded, and the act didn’t provide money to operate them long-term. Some states saw an opportunity to close expensive state hospitals without spending some of the money on community-based care. Deinstitutionalization accelerated after the adoption of Medicaid in 1965. During the Reagan administration, the remaining funding for the act was converted into a mental-health block grant for states. Since the CMHA was enacted, 90 percent of beds have been cut at state hospitals.”*

Our treatment, or lack of treatment, for our brothers and sisters with mental illness is shameful. Our silence when others make jokes or blame them for society’s ills is disgraceful. Our stigmatizing of them as the cause of gun violence is unpardonable. We need to treat each other with love and respect – that means everyone. And we need to stand up for each other, and to make sure that each of us gets the care we need.

“Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.” 1 Corinthians 12:14-16

Forgive us, Dear Lord, when we close our eyes to the problems around us, or choose to lay the blame at the feet of others. We know that no problem is too big for you. Help us to seek answers, and to make them happen, for every one of your children is precious and beloved. Amen.

*SMITH, MICHELLE R. (October 20, 2013). “50 years later, Kennedy’s vision for mental health not realized”. The Associated Press.