I love the solitude of the weeks when María and Sherod are off on one of their adventures and I especially love when Friday comes around. It’s been a stressful week with work. More than usual, we have had drop-ins at the church, folks who were lost and at their wits’ end and desperately alone. One of them came in and visited for a while one day and two days later, yesterday, was back. A distinguished-looking person in his late fifties who once had a good job and a good life, he fell through the cracks with the Great Recession of 08.
M recently got a 2-week gig with a large temp agency to do heavy labor in a warehouse. When he went to deposit the paycheck in his account, just in time to pay rent and avoid eviction, it didn’t clear. He tried again a couple of days later and it still didn’t clear. No one from the temp agency would work on this with him face to face—he had to call a service center and would find himself waiting up to an hour on hold, listening to god-awful Muzak. He was shuffled from one person to the other. It was all made worse because, though he is here legally, his English isn’t great.
Finally desperate, he went to one of these check cashing places, the ones that are so exploitive, and got the money he needed. Except that, even though this was now 10 days after having received the paycheck from this global temp agency, there was still a ‘stop payment’ on the check. Now the harassment began. At all hours of the day and night. By the time he came to see me, M could barely hold it together because he was so distraught. The A/C in the parish hall had not been working, I kept losing internet connectivity all week, a couple of other things were pressing in and here was this person struggling to explain it all to me, shoving little pieces of paper across my desk, giving me wrong phone numbers to call, getting me on calls with people who put me on hold as well or, worse yet, were insulting and demeaning to us both.
After about 20 minutes of this, I’d had enough. I followed him in my own car and we went to the nearest office of the temp agency. The only ones there were the site supervisor and another person sitting behind a desk who might have been a temp worker himself. Basically, I pulled out all my big guns. I said I was M’s pastor, I was trying to help him resolve a problem caused by the temp agency and if the agency didn’t get it resolved quickly, I had lawyers and the press lined up to demonstrate how this multinational is exploiting a person legally in this country.
At first, I got the run around. I must have looked pretty determined because the young woman got someone on the line and we were able to explain the situation to a person who could do something. Again. But first we had to hold for 20 minutes. The agency called the check cashing folks to confirm that a new check had been issued to them and had been mailed and got a commitment from the check cashing folks that they’d back off the harassing calls. In these situations I always try to emphasize that I understand that the person interfacing with me probably has their hands tied and I try to treat them with respect. There was some small amount of humanity and humaneness in the encounters with the temp agency staff.
I also talked to someone who is probably either Pakistani or from India, at the check cashing place because I wanted to be sure that the agency service center people really had talked to him. When I had first called this person from my office earlier in the morning he was just awful. When he figured out I was actually trying to fix the problem, you could hear the weariness slide into his voice as he explained about the boss getting on top of him because so many people kite the system. M didn’t necessarily get much dignity back but hopefully will not get harassed any further. And I got back into my car and struggled not to sob.
I am a powerful, privileged, competent person and I am in ministry, what someone beautifully described as the last great generalist position around. I can tackle a broad range of problems and meet a lot of different kinds of needs. I write applications for grants where I get to throw around phrases like, “we leverage the resources and generosity of two different faith communities”. It all sounds so hopeful and I want to be clear, I am in awe of the fact that I get to be a priest. But the extent of the exploitation I see is appalling.
I curled up on my spouseman’s easy chair this afternoon and read a book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming which traces a person’s exile from and return to a small Southern Louisiana town. It’s all about belonging and being claimed. Even the land claims this particular prodigal son as he returns home. So many of the good people I know around here are not claimed, have no notion of what it means to belong in and to and with a community.