The day my joy ended

This was the day we learned that Mike would not survive. It was also the day a homeless man named Tommy McMahan died alone in a jail cell because he didn’t want to leave the hospital and die on the street. I grieve them both today.

This was the day I knew I’d never be joy-filled again, that every happiness I might manage to experience was to be marred with unfathomable loss.

This was the day 13 years ago that we learned the cancer was back and we knew there would be no cure.

This was the day we learned my son would die. And every year, I am forced to relive those last weeks of his life, and finally, his death.

I can still hear the echo of his voice. “Mom, the cancer’s back. If we’re lucky, I might have a year.”

We weren’t lucky. He would have just six weeks.

I don’t remember much of what was said after that, other than, “I’ll be there this afternoon.”

I was on my way into work and my husband was a few minutes behind me. I decided to go into the office and not say anything to anyone until he arrived, and then it would be OK if I fell apart.

All of this was because no doctor would see him because he didn’t have insurance. And he didn’t have insurance because a birth defect was a pre-existing condition. And doctors were allowed to turn him away, even though they knew to do so was a death sentence. And the only ones who suffered were Mike and all the people who loved him.

When my husband got to the office, I went to his desk and tried to tell him quietly, but I fell apart and sobbed uncontrollably.

How was I going to go on without my son?

That might have been the moment I decided my heart would stop when his did. Of course it would. There was no way I could outlive him.

“I have to go,” I said. “I’m heading out there now.”

My husband decided it would be better if both of us went, so he went in to the editor’s office to tell him. The editor never came out to face me. I remember how upset I was that this man I had worked with for several years couldn’t even bother to come out of his office to say he was sorry about my son.

I remember my colleagues hugging me and offering whatever words of condolence they could muster, and most of them only finding, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.” Surprisingly, those words from people who cared about me were enough to help me pull myself together.

It’s a nearly four-hour drive from where I live to where Mike lived, just outside of Raleigh. I don’t remember a moment of that drive. I hadn’t seen him in several weeks and I was shocked to see how much weight he had lost and how close to death he looked.

This was really happening. My precious son was dying because no one had cared enough to help him before it was too late to save his life, because our system was — and is — so damn broken.

We spent a couple hours with him, his wife (they’d had to split up so he could get Medicaid and have any chance at all of surviving, but they never stopped loving each other) and his best friend, and then got a motel room.

I had wandered across the street to an electronics store because I couldn’t just sit in the room, and as I browsed, I saw a photo printer and thought to myself that Mike could help me set it up if I bought it.

Then I remembered that Mike would be gone soon, and I was overcome once again. I ran back to the motel room and fell apart again.

My phone rang a few minutes later and it was a colleague asking for numbers of people to call who could comment on the death of a homeless man named Tommy McMahan. I was the reporter covering social services issues, so I would have written Tommy’s obituary. I had the contacts for a story like this one.

Tommy had gone to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing, and it was frigid outside. They diagnosed him with pneumonia and discharged him with medication, but he begged not to be turned out into the sub-freezing night. So, someone called police so he could at least be in a warm jail cell.

That’s where he died in the early hours of the morning. Alone.

I knew my son would have people who loved him by his side when his time came. Tommy had died homeless and alone. It was unbearable to think about it.

This has stayed with me almost as vividly as the news that my son was dying. That we as a society can allow people to die from lack of access to even the most basic necessities is so deeply immoral that I have no words to express it. Even now, 13 years later, I cry over the loss of both of these precious human souls — and the hundreds of thousands — more accurately, millions, when you consider all the ways poverty causes premature deaths — of precious human souls who would follow because we love money more than life itself.

We still haven’t fixed any of this. And don’t tell me the Affordable Care Act fixed it. Insurance companies have subverted the law to their own advantage and more people were dying from lack of access to care before the pandemic hit than were dying in 2008 (45,000 a year then, 68,000 before the pandemic hit). The ACA helped some people. But the average deductible now — the amount people have to spend out-of-pocket before seeing any benefits — is more than $3,000 in a time when nearly half of Americans say they have to borrow money to pay a surprise bill of $400. The ACA did not fix this.

Every year on this day, I weep from the overwhelming grief of watching my son die from medical neglect, but also for Tommy, and for all the people who are still unhoused.

I fume as I see people praising someone for building coffin-sized boxes for fellow human beings to “live” in, but who then stand firmly against paying people a living wage in exchange for a week’s work. I live in a perpetual state of grief and outrage, and I can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t, too.

I think of today as Tommy McMahan Day, a day to remember this man I never met, but who touched my heart so deeply.

I continue the anti-poverty work in memory of my precious son and in memory of Tommy. May they, and the millions who have died prematurely from poverty in the 13 years since their hearts stopped, rest in peace.

It’s a trap

All of a sudden, I’m seeing a ton of ads for stock trading on my Facebook feed. And as soon as I hide one, another pops up.

I’m looking at these in the light of the Robinhood/Game Stop fiasco this past week. This was a scheme by rich people called shorting, where they manipulate the stock of a company (in this case, retailer Game Stop) they’re betting is about to fail. Last week, middle-income people who saw this happening, went to the online trading company, Robinhood, and bought so much of the stock as a group that the price rose precipitously. The Robinhood traders made millions selling this stock back to the wealthy traders. The rich people lost a ton of money, so trading was stopped to protect the wealthy.

So now, we’re seeing ads for “discounted” stocks all over because rich people are going to prey on the hopes of people who can’t afford to gamble with these schemes.

Headlines are promising unimaginable wealth from new tech stocks, or 50 percent off trading fees for hidden gems in the market. I have hidden the ads of one company (Motley Fool) three times in an hour.

Meanwhile, most of us are drowning in debt, from student loans at 12 percent interest, four of five credit cards, all maxed out at 29 percent interest, and now we have payday loan apps on smart phones.

I get emails from Experian every day — every damn day — telling me I can have this credit card or that one to “rebuild” my credit rating.

I cut up all my credit cards two years ago after struggling for years to get them paid off. One of the most popular ways to get people to keep their debt is to offer another card at lower interest rates, say, 12 percent, for the first year. They’ll transfer your balance.

Except they won’t.

They’ll leave $1,000 or so on the original card, so now you have another payment to make, and in times like these, the minimum payment is all people can afford to make. And, since you now have a credit card that isn’t maxed out, when the car breaks down, you put the $1,500 bill on the now-almost-cleared card, at — you guessed it — 26 percent interest.

I struggled with this for years before I finally figured out I’d already paid more than double what I had borrowed. I cut up all the cards and signed on with a debt-reduction service. Instead of struggling to pay nearly $1,000 in credit card bills each month, I pay about one-third of that. The downside is that I have a crappy credit rating. I mean, really crappy.

That means I have to pay a higher interest rate if I borrow money. But with $600 a month freed up, I can pay cash for what I need. I don’t need credit for everyday expenses anymore. The debt-reduction service is negotiating settlements with all four credit card companies, and I’m able to save a little money for when I have a big expense.

For the first year, these credit card companies filled my inbox with threats of court action, but the service I contracted with told me not to even acknowledge those threats, and after a year, they stopped.

Wall Street and Big Credit don’t want you to know these things, and I think the rich are rather amused at our efforts to catch up and live debt-free.

They punish us with a bad credit rating if we don’t play their game, and your credit rating is everything. It’s even used to determine whether a company will hire you, whether you can rent an apartment and have a roof over your head.

If you can get an apartment by paying three months’ rent up front, you’ll also have to pay a hefty deposit — perhaps the equivalent of three months’ service — for utilities.

If you can get a loan, it will be much more expensive because you’re going to pay a much, much higher interest rate.

These are the ways our current system extracts the last drop of blood from the poor. It’s how they drive middle class families into poverty, where they, too can be exploited.

Historically, it reminds me of the way my grandparents had to live in company housing and buy from the company store as employees of textile mills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You never had quite enough to cover everything, so you just went deeper and deeper into debt, so the company pretty much owned you.

Today, it’s not the company, but the banks who own us. They control the narrative because they control the money.

We the People are not being represented in Congress anymore, they are. That’s why minimum wage hasn’t budged in more than a decade, even though the cost of living is three times what minimum wage is now. That’s why interest rates that once were illegal are now considered low. It’s why car title companies and payday lenders are thriving.

We’re not supposed to be able to dig out.

We’re entering serfdom from the first time we borrow money, and now credit card apps are available for children to teach them how to “manage debt,” so we’re not even able to reach adulthood anymore before being ensnared.

And nearly half of us are voting for people who stand against helping any of us dig out.

I can’t say what the solution might be except to push the new Democratic majority to change some laws:

  • Raise the minimum wage to $15 immediately and plan increases over the next five years to get it to where it would be had it kept up with inflation, and then tie it to inflation.
  • Re-establish usury laws to keep interest rates in check. Put caps on what banks can charge for various loans. Close payday lenders.
  • Establish a massive public works program to shore up our crumbling infrastructure and electrical grid.
  • Break up the banks and tech monopolies.
  • Provide real, ongoing relief to people whose jobs went away because of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, forgive their rent and pay the landlord. Pay their utilities and make sure unemployment compensation pays for the bills they still have. Make sure they have health insurance (this is especially urgent in the 12 states that have not expanded Medicaid).
  • Treat us like human beings. All of us.

To love each other, we must seek justice for everyone

Demonstrators in Minneapolis demand justice after the murder of George Floyd by four police officers who ignored his pleas for almost nine minutes.

I’ve seen a meme on Facebook this morning, posted by several friends, calling on us to love one another.

But as sweet as it seems, it just calls on us to agree to disagree, and that will never contribute a thing to the justice oppressed people are seeking.

“We’re one race—the human race. You want to support President Trump? You do you. It’s your choice. You want to support Biden? Fine… also your choice! You want to believe in God? Okay, believe in God. You want to believe in magical creatures that fly around & sprinkle fairy dust to make life better? Awesome… you do you.

“BUT stop thrusting your beliefs on others & not being able to deal with the fact that they don’t have the same exact mind-set as you. Having our own minds is what makes us all individual and beautiful.”

I have a problem with this — a big problem.

The entire thing (it has several more paragraphs) seems sweet, but it isn’t. It offers a pass to racists and bigots.

“Just do you …” means I’m not going to challenge your beliefs that people of color are stupid or lazy, that poor people don’t deserve more than slave wages or that they don’t need a decent place to live or healthy food and clean water, that immigrants belong in cages because they came here seeking safety and perhaps a better life for their children — the same thing every one of our ancestors came here seeking.

“Just do you …” means I’m OK with your bullying demonstrators and legislators by carrying a military-grade assault weapon around and demanding we reopen the economy in the midst of a deadly pandemic because you want a haircut.

“Just be you …” means you’re OK with cops killing unarmed black people and then looking to justify it by saying, “he had pot in his system,” or “he was arrested for breaking and entering six years ago …” None of these things is a capital crime, and everyone deserves a trial, not summary judgment and execution.

“Just be you …” means you’re OK with the 1 percent grabbing all the stimulus money and leaving small-business owners desperate enough to feel they have to open up or starve.

“Just be you …” means you’re privileged enough not to be experiencing these horrors.

We need to be talking about inequality.

We need to talk about how we love and support people who are forced to work low-wage jobs or starve in the middle of a pandemic.

We need to talk about those who are fine with children, stolen from their parents and held in filthy cages, are being lost in the system or dying from preventable causes.

We need to talk about the number of unarmed people of color shot and killed by cops, who then face few, if any, consequences.

We need to talk about people who are marching for their very lives are being doused with chemical weapons (tear gas is a chemical weapon that’s banned in war by multi-national treaties) and shot with rubber bullets.

We need to talk about poisoned water in Flint and other cities.

Yes, the meme is sweet and feel-good, and it’s privileged.

Those of us who have enough food and water, who can feel safe walking or jogging pretty much anywhere, can feel this way and feel good about calling to love everyone.

But to love everyone, we have to advocate for those who aren’t privileged. I don’t feel like pointing that out is “thrusting an opinion” on anyone. People are dying because of inequality. Love can only solve these problems if we who have privilege act to secure what we have for those who are oppressed.

My faith calls me to do that. What about yours?

Denying food to the poor is violence

Have you ever had to go to bed hungry?

I have. I know what it feels like to only have enough food for the kids to eat supper, so you say you had a big lunch and assure them they can eat their fill as your stomach growls.

And when it causes you to lose a few pounds, people tell you that you look great, and they ask, “What did you do to drop that 10 pounds?” you smile and shrug because you don’t want to say that you go without supper a couple nights every week so your kids can have enough to eat. There was –and is — a stigma to being poor.

One person, a close friend, once asked me why I didn’t just make more money, as though that were an option I had overlooked.

I was working full-time, but my kids’ dad wasn’t paying nearly what he should have been, given that his income was four to five times greater than mine.

I was in the biggest group of people in poverty in this country — single white women. I was working and trying to pay rent, utilities, a car payment, child care and all the other things a family needs to pay for just to scrape by.

That was 40 years ago, and people are still being asked to make it on the same income I had in 1979. And they’re being called lazy and immoral by people with more money than they can ever spend in one lifetime.

Now this administration is attacking food stamp eligibility, narrowing the number of people who can get the help they need to feed themselves and their children, all with absolutely no consideration of how we might get some of these people out of poverty.

Will we raise the minimum wage to a living wage? Nope. People just need to work more.

Well, it takes double to triple minimum wage to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment in every single county in the nation. That means a single mother who has two children must work two to three full-time jobs to be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment.

So, she works 16-hour days and then we criticize her for not being there for her children.

If mom drops health insurance because that $50 monthly premium is also about one-third of her monthly grocery budget and then she gets sick, we criticize her for wanting a “handout.”

The problem here is that when you make public policy that impoverishes people, you shouldn’t then be allowed to criticize them for being poor. When the only jobs people can find are part-time or in the “gig” economy (meaning freelance, with no health benefits, no paid vacation or sick days and absolutely no job security) and the pay is less than $10 an hour, and then you work three of those part time jobs for a total of 80 to 90 hours a week, you shouldn’t need food stamps to put nutritious food on the table, but you still do.

This is not a moral failing on the part of the poor person, as much as you might like to think it is; it is a failing on the part of policymakers and of everyone who supports these immoral policies, including you, if you’re one of the people clapping gleefully at each cut of public assistance.

I have to keep saying this to “Christians:” Jesus never said, “I got mine, get your own.”

What Jesus did say was “For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was cold and you didn’t offer me your cloak. I was a stranger and you didn’t welcome me. … Whatsoever you did unto the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did also unto me.”

Poor people are mentioned more than 2,000 times in the Bible, and not once are we told they are lazy or immoral. We are called to help them, as are the adherents of every major world religion.

Every faith has a version of the Golden Rule, which calls us to treat others the way we, ourselves, wish to be treated.

When we ignore the immorality of policies that impoverish, sicken and kill other people, we become the oppressors of those people. And when they sicken and die, their blood is on our hands.

Morality — compassion, empathy, the ability to love — is supposed to be written into our DNA, but we seem to have found a way to ignore that small voice that tells us we need to help.

Cutting food stamps means denying other people the food they need to live. If you think that’s OK, you’re wrong. It is violence. It is immoral.

If you’re not standing up to say this is wrong, you’re the oppressor. You’re the sinner. And you have the blood of innocents on your hands.

Why do I feel so angry all the time? Why doesn’t everyone?

With my vacation half over (I spent a week on Cape Cod camping with my sisters and leave tomorrow to spend a few days with friends before my granddaughter and her husband and daughter come to visit next week), I feel rested and restless at the same time.

I had an argument with my sister over whether we should shoot for an immediate move to Medicare for all, or whether it should be done gradually.

“I’m done with gradualism, ” I told her.

During the 12 minutes we’d been talking about this, another person died the way Mike did. I’ve heard every argument, and in the time it will take you to recite them to me, another person will have died the way Mike did. When you add them all up, it’s about a half million human beings, just in the 11 years since Mike died.

And now you want me to wait some more. Are we waiting until my other son dies? Maybe one of his kids or grandkids? How long are we supposed to wait?

I didn’t get all this out before she yelled at me to let her finish her argument. In that time, another person died. and since that time, another 100-plus people have died. I turned my head and started reading something on my phone because I didn’t want an ugly scene, but I knew I couldn’t convince her I’m right. She pays through the nose, but she has access to care. She had surgery in the last year for a condition that would have killed her had she been uninsured.

I can’t even begin to say how grateful I am for that.

I tried to tell her all this, but I just started crying instead because even after 11 years, the pain of my son’s death is as fresh and raw as ever, and in the time I took to try and explain that, another American died from lack of access to health care and his or her family is plunged into the same endless grief I experience every day.

Meanwhile, children languish in filthy cages with no sanitary supplies and no beds, separated from their parents in a strange land where they don;t know what people are even saying to them.

Meanwhile, the Earth continues to burn, hurtling us toward extinction in a few short generations.

Meanwhile, we contemplate war on Iran.

Meanwhile, the water in Flint and dozens of other American cities is still poisoned.

Meanwhile, the election districts are still gerrymandered and the elections are controlled by two utterly corrupt parties.

Meanwhile, the wealthiest of us continue to steal and hoard our wealth while half of our families live near or below the poverty level because those with the most money won’t pay a living wage for a week’s work and then they get to call poor people lazy because they don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs.

Meanwhile, we all go about our business, taking care of ourselves but not noticing how much trouble we’re in as a nation, as a species.

Meanwhile, a third of our nation continues to defend the hatred and ignorance spewing from the Oval Office, and we have yet to rise up in sufficient numbers to prod our so-called leaders into action to remove this criminal from office.

All the while, complacent people scream at me to “VOTE BLUE, NO MATTER WHO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

No. No to all of it.

I will not shut up. I will not wait. I will not be patient. And I will not vote for another Wall Street-sponsored candidate.

I’m done with all of it. This is more than a national emergency, it’s a planetary one. It’s about our continued existence as a species, and you’re asking me to wait patiently?

Every day we wait, dozens more people die.

Every day we wait, children in Flint and other cities face irreversible brain damage from lead in their water.

Every day we wait, people languish in jail, losing their jobs and homes and children because they don’t have $500 bail money. So they wait in jail for months to be tried for a crime they may not even have committed.

Every day we wait, we edge closer to extinction.

Wake up. Stop waiting for somebody else to save us. We have to save ourselves, and we can’t do that by being patient.

‘What are you gonna do?’

Sherri White-Williamson, a specialist in energy regulation and law, who is retired from the EPA, now works to make all out energy safer and renewable, issued a challenge to everyone on the Poor People’s Campaign Truth and Poverty Bus Tour to go home and DO something.

In the three years my son battled cancer, he often played the Cancer Card.

What that meant was if he wanted something, or if he didn’t want to do something, he would whine, “But I have cancer!”  Then he would laugh, whether he got his way or not.

In the days before his death, he told me I was about to get a card that would be hard to top — the Dead Kid Card.

“I don’t want it,” I said. “I want nothing to do with it.”

He shook his head. “Doesn’t matter what you want. It’s there. It’s being dealt as we speak. What I want to know is what are you gonna do with it.”

I told him I didn’t know and he shook his head again.

“Nope, I want to know. What are you gonna do?”

I thought for a moment and told him I will work for access to health care for everyone. Real access, not a high-deductible insurance policy that just puts money in the pockets of the 1 percent, but real, meaningful access.

He sank back into his pillow and smiled.

“Good. I approve. You have my blessing,” he said. “Go get ’em.”

Eleven years later, I’m still working on it.

Last week, I went with some of my fellow activists in the NC Poor People’s Campaign on the National Emergency Truth and Poverty Bus Tour across the state to visit people affected by poverty.

We saw people doing, including the first homeless/formerly homeless Street Medic Team, based here in Asheville. We met homeless activists in Charlotte, several of whom got on the bus and traveled with us.

We met environmental activists in Robeson, Scotland and Duplin counties. One of them was Sherri White-Williamson, who retired from the Environmental Protection Agency and now works across Eastern NC as an activist fighting the deforestation causing catastrophic flooding, the proliferation of industrialized hog and poultry farming and the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and other fossil fuel enterprises.

Sherri spoke to us in Robeson County and again in Duplin, and she told us to go home and do something.”

“You’re all excited now, enthusiastic about working to improve things,” she told us. “But coming here and learning what’s happening is not enough. You have to go home and do something.

“What are you gonna do?

In the 11 years since my son breathed his last, somewhere near a half million Americans have died from lack of access to care.

I worked for the Affordable Care Act, even though I was uncomfortable leaving insurance companies in the mix because I feared they would work to sabotage the law — which is exactly what has happened.

So, I continue to work to educate people about why we need to do what every other so-called developed country has done — find a way to get access to health care to everyone.

But I can’t work in a vacuum. Health care is not the only issue we need to address because if we get health care to everyone and we don’t fix the environmental devastation or raise the minimum wage, stop the endless wars or fix voter suppression, we’re still screwed.

We need activists for this fight. We need people to work with us.

We as a nation need you to pick your issue or issues and join the fight.

We don’t need online petitions because they never, ever, ever result in any change. Never. Sitting at your computer and typing in your name, e-mail address and phone number does nothing more than give some political hack your contact information so they can inundate you with requests for money.

Donating to a cause is great — the Poor People’s Campaign could sure use some financial help, as could any number of other causes — but these are perilous times and we need people to be in the streets.

We need people who can register voters and educate people on the issues — God knows the corporate media don’t peddle much beyond propaganda.

We need people to run for office — school board, city council, county commission, state legislature — and work for real change.

We can’t do this if people just stay home and go along to get along.

We need you in this fight because this is a fight for our very existence as a species.

What are you gonna do?

Think about it. We don’t have a whole lot of time left.

 

A lesson in what Jesus would not do

El Greco, “The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind.”

Walking around the Legislature Building the other day, talking to Democrats and Republicans about the necessity of expanding access to health care, it happened again: Every Republican asked me whether my son was working when he got sick.

I gave them my usual answer: Yes, he was working and he was a full-time student with a 3.75 GPA. Now let me ask you a question. When did unemployment become punishable by death?

Every one of them replied, “Well, you know, some people just want a handout.”

“No,” I replied, “nobody wants a handout. I’ve worked with people in poverty. I’ve been in poverty. Nobody wants a handout.

“And another thing. Health care is not a handout. Never. Health care is a basic human right.

“And do you know what we call people who deny basic human rights to others?

“We call them fascists.”

I’m pretty sure every one of these Republicans calls themselves a Christian, so I’d like to offer a little pop quiz to them.

Question 1: Jesus is walking along and a blind man approaches him, begging for help. Does Jesus:

A) Tell the man he needs to get a job with health insurance.

B) Ask to see the man’s health insurance card and then say, “Oh, this isn’t covered under your plan. We can squeeze you in this afternoon, but you’ll have to bring $2300 cash. We don’t take checks.”

C) Tell the blind man to go to the Emergency Room so someone can take a look at him there.

D) Heal the blind man, no questions asked.

Question 2: Jesus is walking along the road and he feels as though power has drained from him. He turns to see an old woman, stooped low, who has had vaginal bleeding for years. She has touched the hem of his robe, hoping to be healed. Does Jesus:

A) Recoil in horror at the unclean woman and demand she be removed from his presence.

B) Tell her she can get free feminine hygiene supplies at the County Health Department.

C) Tell her she’s guilty of Eve’s Original Sin and what’s happened to her is exactly what she deserves.

D) Smile and say, “Your faith has healed you,” as she stands straight, no longer bleeding and thanks him profusely.

Question 3: Jesus is walking along and a man comes to him in a panic. The man’s son is possessed by a demon and the father is afraid it will kill the child. Does Jesus:

A) Tell the father there’s no such thing as demons and he should take the child to see a good neurologist.

B) Tell the father this looks like a mental illness and that’s not covered under his employer’s plan, but the next time the child has a “fit,” the parents should call the police, who will come and handcuff the boy, throw him in the back of a squad car and take him to the ER, where he’ll be handcuffed to a gurney until a psychiatric bed becomes available. Could be a couple of days.

C) Tell the father the demon is punishment for his own sins, so he’d better figure out what he did and pray really hard for forgiveness, and if he prays hard enough, the child will be healed. If the child remains possessed, it’s because the parents aren’t praying hard enough. (The irony here is that the disciples asked why they couldn’t heal the sick and Jesus told them their faith wasn’t strong enough — just in case you thought I didn’t know my Bible stuff.)

D) Heal the child, no co-pays or deductibles charged, no questions asked.

I’m not going to tell you the answers. You can figure them out for yourself. I think if you’re the Christian you say you are, if you read the words of the man you claim to follow and take them seriously, you’ll get the answers right.

I think if you truly believe we can and should allow people to die because those of us with the privilege of access to health care think they’re somehow undeserving of what we have, then you’ll fail this quiz.

What’s worse, though, is that you fail as a moral human being, no matter what faith you claim.

Poverty is lethal — and it’s not necessary

These things all take time, something that poor people have very little to spare.

I saw a meme the other day about how to nurture a child. It included things like reading together, praising, practicing relaxation exercises together, taking walks together — the operative word here, of course, is together.
It all boiled down to quality time, and it set something off in me.
I commented that people in poverty, people who have to work two and three jobs just to keep body and soul together, might not be able to do all these things, and some woman said, “These things don’t take money, LOL.”
I was furious.
LOL? Really? I asked her whether she had ever skipped a meal to make sure there was enough, for the kids, LOL. I mean, that one’s a regular LOL riot, isn’t it?
People with the privilege of a living wage have no idea what it’s like to live in poverty, of how the system keeps poor people down.
Let’s say your three $8-an-hour part-time jobs pay the rent and for food, but just barely. You’re already working 60-plus hours a week, so you can’t just get another job. Your crappy apartment is $1,200 a month and the landlord won’t take care of the leaky faucet or the hole in the kitchen floor. The heat quits regularly. But this is the best you can find for what you can pay.
Poor people can’t afford a flat tire. Poor people can’t afford to be sick.
So, let’s say the flat tire means the utility bill is late. When the power gets shut off, you don’t just have to pay the amount due, you have to pay a service charge, which might make your rent late this month.
When you get home to your kids, it’s already supper time. Have they done their homework? Well, you can ask that after supper, unless, of course, it’s already bed time. Should you read to your child or do the laundry? Last time your kid showed up to school in a dirty shirt, the school threatened to call in Child Protection Services for neglect. So you do the laundry.
If you can’t afford a car — and  millions of low-wage workers can’t — you need bus service, which just isn’t available in rural areas, and in bigger towns and cities, a bus ride across town can be an hour and a half.
And what about when you have to work evenings or weekends? There are no child care centers open for evening, overnight or weekend shifts.
Poverty is completely unnecessary. It is a political construct designed to create a permanent underclass to serve the very wealthy.
When my boys were little, the only way I could get help with day care was to quit my job and go on Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
I decided to work. I worked hard, but I just couldn’t get ahead. Every time I got caught up, something happened to set me back — and when you’re barely getting by, a flat tire can set you back six months. Forget about a new starter or alternator. I once spent a month parking my car on hills so I could do a rolling start because I couldn’t afford a new starter.
When my older son was 7 he became a latchkey kid because I had money for groceries or day care, but not for both. He would call me when he got home from school, and when I hung up, I would go into the bathroom and cry because I couldn’t take care of him the way I wanted to.
The school was constantly after me because my younger son was severely ADHD and they wanted him on drugs, even though his grades were stellar and he consistently tested in the 98th and 99th percentile in verbal abilities, reading and math. Finally, they reported me to Child Protection Services for neglect. I couldn’t afford an attorney to fight it, so we tried the Ritalin. He hated it. Said he didn’t feel like himself when he took it. But the teacher was happy because he wasn’t up out of his seat during class.
After 3 months, he begged me to take him off the drugs. I told him he would have to find a way to sit still because the risk of him being taken away from me was very real.
I couldn’t afford private school, which would have recognized his abilities, so we had to do this right in a public school setting where the most important thing wasn’t his brilliance, but the teacher’s need to have a quiet classroom.
Michael stayed in his seat every day for three months. When his teacher called to say he’d been disruptive that day, I confessed we’d thrown away the last three months’ supply of the drug and we would not put him back on it under any circumstances. I threatened to go public if they attempted to take him from me, and they let it go.
By this time, I had remarried and although I still couldn’t afford an attorney, I was not in poverty any longer.
But then Michael started experimenting with drugs, and by the time he was 15, he was dabbling in all kinds of stuff. Later, after he’d been clean and sober for several years, he told me the gateway drug had been Ritalin. It had altered his mind when he was on it, and made him wonder what other drugs might do. He insisted he wouldn’t have tried other drugs if he’d not been on Ritalin. I believed him.
At age 19, he took some time off school and was removed from our insurance plan. We didn’t realize that time off school would mean he’d never be able to buy insurance again, and in Savannah, Ga., no doctor would do a damn thing for him until it was too late to save his life. That time off school turned out to be a death sentence for him.
Poverty is lethal. It is deeply, deeply immoral. People who are affected by it suffer and die needlessly, while people of privilege call them lazy.
Poverty is a choice made by legislators and policymakers to allow some people to suffer. And it must end.

The sacred walks among us in many unexpected forms

Onstage at the annual Moral March on Raleigh, from the left, NC NAACP President Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman; NC NAACP Health Care Committee Chair Rev. Dr. Rodney Sadler; Debbie Bracer, whose son died from lack of access to health care, and me. 
Yesterday, I stood onstage at the 13th Annual Moral March on Raleigh, in solidarity with a woman whose son died from lack of access to health care.
Debbie is a couple years younger than I am. She still has two sons, but she weeps every time she utters the name of the one she doesn’t have anymore. Still. Two years out.
He was denied the drug he needed to survive because he wasn’t rich enough to afford it, and he died. She spoke about the pain of not being able to touch him, or hear his voice, as tears dripped onto her jacket.
She used a cane to stand, and I stood on her other side, my arm around her shoulders. Others stood with us to emphasize that we stand together for access to health care for everyone.
Before she spoke, she looked out at the crowd. Previously, she had told me she didn’t know if she could get through her speech, so I told her I’d be there to finish it for her if she couldn’t get through it.
But as she looked out at the crowd, she stood a little straighter. She handed the photo of her son to me and whispered, “I can do this.”
And then she did.
He looked just like his mama. They had the same smile, the same eyes.
Debbie feels as though the world doesn’t just hate her for being black, but also because she is a lesbian. She left a bad marriage after her third son was born and realized she had married for all the wrong reasons.
I wondered how anyone could hate a loving mother, a woman who fought so hard for her child’s life, when she told me, “I have two strikes against me in the eyes of powerful people.”
As I left the stage with Debbie, I recalled a middle school Sunday school class from a dozen or so years ago.
The lesson was “The Unexpected Jesus,” and the kids and I discussed what Jesus would look like if he came back today. We discussed the parameters first: It would have to be someone reviled by many Christians. It would have to be someone powerless in today’s power structure.
We talked about the Unexpected Jesus, the Jesus who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, who spurned and challenged the powerful. We talked about the carpenter’s son, who recruited a few fishermen and changed the world.
So, we agreed that this Unexpected Jesus could come in many forms, not just that of a Jewish carpenter’s son from a small village in Galilee.
Suddenly someone said, “I think he’d come back as a big black lesbian.”
The room was quiet for a moment, and then we all blurted out something to the effect of, “Perfect!”
Now every time I see a black lesbian suffering because of her skin color and/or sexual orientation, I see Jesus.
I saw Jesus in Debbie yesterday, in the kindness and love of a woman who has lost something so precious it can’t be verbalized. All she can do us weep at the mention of her precious child’s name. I saw a woman whose human value is called into question because of her skin color and sexual orientation instead of a woman crushed by the grief of losing her child to injustice.
But I don’t see Jesus only in the life of my new friend. Jesus is so much more than that.
I see Jesus in the Latino child in a cage.
I see Jesus in the veteran who can’t get treatment for PTSD.
I see Jesus in the girl who has been kidnapped into sexual slavery.
I see Jesus in the faithful Muslim.
I see Jesus in the bereaved mother whose son died from lack of access to health care.
I see him in the low-wage worker whose rent and electric bill are coming due the same day and whose children are hungry and ill-clothed, and in the trans man who’s being harassed in the rest room, and in the homeless person who’s being chased from the sheltered doorway during a rainstorm.
I do not see him in the people calling for a wall at the Southern border, or in the people refusing to vote to increase the minimum wage to a living wage. I don’t see him in the people who make excuses for racism or misogyny. I don’t see him in the people who deny others the health care to which they themselves have full access, or in the people who accuse poor people of being lazy.
If you see Jesus in the powerful and not in the powerless, perhaps you need to re-read the red print in the Gospels. Perhaps you also need to go back and read the laws in the Old Testament — not the ones that talk about sex, but the ones that talk about treatment of the poor and downtrodden.
I’m tired of white privilege. I’m tired of the vitriol against people who are different, whoever or whatever they are.
I’m tired of the war on the poor.
Remember, Jesus was a poor man, likely a dark-skinned man. He spoke out against wealth and the privilege it brings. If you don’t see the sacred in Debbie, you need to re-examine your faith.

‘It’s not what we serve …’

Rev. Dr. Shannon Spencer speaks to volunteer servers at 12 Baskets Cafe.

A year ago, I was arrested in Washington for disrupting the Senate as its members prepared to debate repeal of the Affordable Care Act. I was  sentenced to 48 hours of community service.

I went straight to 12 Baskets Cafe, where I’ve volunteered a couple of days a week since — long after my sentence was completed.

Almost every Tuesday and Thursday, you’ll fine me standing near the door, scraping plates into a large compost bin. My position allows me to greet everyone who comes in and to make sure people have had enough to eat before they leave.

I see all kinds of people, not just poor and/or homeless, but working people, retirees who want to stretch their budgets with some good, nutritious food.

The cafe is in Kairos West Community Center off Haywood Road at State Street in West Asheville, and it was classed as a community center when the permits were issued for the cafe to open.

The Rev. Dr. Shannon Spencer, who opened the cafe through the nonprofit Asheville Poverty Initiative, puts it simply: “It’s not what we serve, it’s who we serve.”

Apparently, that changes everything. When you help people who have nothing, you become a “shelter,” and the city tries to shut you down.

The excuse is that there’s a school nearby and people have found some used needles in the area. So, the cries of, “Save the children!” begin, as though no people who suffer from addiction should be allowed to travel in circles that come within a few hundred yards of a school or church.

The trouble began when a group of itinerant people came through, enjoyed lunch and then set up camp in the side yard of the cafe.

The television news came in and interviewed tourists across the street at Sunny Point Cafe, and the tourists didn’t like looking at poor people while they were on vacation.

So, the local newspaper jumped on board to do a story and no one spoke to anyone from the cafe, even though there’s someone there who can speak every single weekday from about 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. The story just said no one was available for comment.

When I worked as a reporter, the story would be held until someone could speak for the cafe. We didn’t print one-sided stories without several attempts to speak to someone. I have encountered public officials who refused to return calls, and in those cases, the stories that ran detailed attempts to reach someone — “So-and-So did not return seven calls to his office, three to his home and six to his mobile phone over the course of three days.” This one would have read, “We tried to call 12 Baskets at 6 p.m. one night.”

So, viewers and readers are left with the impression that homeless people are doing drugs in the yard, that neighbors are at wits’ end with the chaos and cafe staff are allowing it, when the reality is that our neighbors support us. Some bring us food from their gardens, others come in and enjoy a meal.

The problem here is that we live in a society that drives people into poverty with low wages and few worker protections and then vilifies them.

Many of the people who eat at the cafe are working; some have disabilities that keep them from working. A number of them are in recovery from addiction, and some are still using.

Every one of them is human. Every one of them deserves the dignity of a good meal and human contact.

If we’re a community center when working people eat with us, but an illegally operating shelter when our patrons are poor, the problem isn’t with us, it’s with the community.

If you want to know more about the cafe, come have lunch with us. The food comes from some of the best restaurants in town, from EarthFare, Mission Hospital and others. We seem to specialize in curry dishes from Indian restaurants’ buffets, but we have fresh fruits and vegetables, breads, muffins, pasta dishes … it’s different every day, and it’s all delicious.

What’s more, the company is wonderful. Just because people don’t have homes doesn’t mean they don’t deserve respect and human contact.

The name 12 Baskets, by the way, comes from the story of Jesus feeding the multitudes from 12 baskets of fish and bread.

Yeah, if you have to ask what Jesus would do, the answer is in our name. He took 12 baskets of food and fed 6,000 because they were hungry. He didn’t ask whether they could pay, he just fed them.

 

 

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