the poor do not exist, pt.2

Continuing from yesterday:

The mistake of categorizing the poor inclines us to separate them from ourselves and also encourages the idea that we can meet their needs in some universal, generalized way. Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin challenged these tendencies in their teachings on personalism. They taught that poor people were not so different from ourselves and that we should meet them and offer help as one human being to another. They also taught that we should treat each person as a unique individual, with their own particular needs. Seeing the person in front of us and treating them as a person, just as we would anyone else.

The early Catholic Workers attempted to put this into practice by getting personally involved, by inviting needy people into their own home. These efforts were applauded by many. But, while this inspired other "houses of hospitality" and got many others involved as volunteers, in most communities the house of hospitality has become one more place delegated to care for the poor. Instead of caring for the poor person personally, people now refer them to the Catholic Worker house.

That's been my experience here. We've had people referred to us by the police, the hospital, the bus station, social workers, even their own family and friends. One evening, a woman called trying to refer a homeless woman and her two young children. When I told her all our beds were full, she got indignant, saying she had tried all the other shelters and why wasn't there any space for this mother and her children, did I want them to sleep on the street? She went on and on, even threatening to "write a letter to the editor." Her indignation was beginning to irritate me. So I came right out and asked her, "Why don't you take them in yourself?" She stopped. Then said, quietly, "I don't know them." (We did let them sleep on the couch that night, then found something more suitable for them the next day.) That indignant woman had begun to get personally involved, but not yet to the point of actually welcoming the stranger.

Eventually I grew tired and overwhelmed by the constant referrals. It concentrated those with big needs and big problems all in one place, which is not good for anyone, and they just kept coming. We had to turn many away because we just didn't have room. It reminded me of the overworked, overwhelmed pastor. Why are needs always referred to the pastor? Didn't Jesus teach all of us to love our neighbors whenever and wherever we meet them?