Look for the Helpers

It’s been a difficult week.  Nationally, there is fear about what Justice Kennedy’s retirement will mean for the future of SCOTUS.  ICE continues to separate parents and children.  Personally, I’ve seen some overwhelming and  difficult things, as I do often working in a social service agency.  When I look at these broken parts, all I can see is that we are failing to take care of each other.

Our country claims to be a place with a government that is “for the people, by the people,” but right now that couldn’t seem farther from the truth.  Our government is failing to take care of its most vulnerable citizens.  What’s more, their lack of assistance is touted in the name of Christianity – a religion that espouses care for the poor and marginalized in both Old and New Testaments.  It’s no wonder the Church is dying when its mouthpieces refuse compassion.

On Tuesday of this week, I started the morning by calling EMS for a man who suffers from seizures and was also experiencing alcohol withdrawal.  He spent the night at the hospital and came back the next day to our agency, having received minimal care for his ongoing issues because of his lack of insurance and income.  A few hours later on Tuesday, my coworkers and I bore witness to something terrible.  A man drove a white sedan up the street from our agency, parked it on the side of the road and got out.  He walked across the street, directly in front of our agency to the steps of the Georgia Capitol building.  He doused himself in gasoline and set off rounds of fireworks on his person, causing his whole body to burst into flames.

His name is John Michael Watts and he’s an Air Force veteran from outside of Atlanta.  He was so angry by the lack of care he had received from the VA and was suffering so greatly that he saw no other option but to light himself on fire in front of a government building.  Mr. Watts is still alive, but in the hospital in critical condition with burns of at least 85% of his body.  This is not the image of a nation that cares for its citizens.

States away, children have been taken from their parents who came to our country seeking asylum.  Their countries of origin were so frightening that the best option seemed to be to travel miles with minimal supplies, hoping to be accepted at their destination.  Their children are now alone in a strange country, some of them so young that it is impossible for them to understand what is going on.  Some are infants, still being breastfed, who were forcibly taken from their mothers. While our government has promised to reunite these families, the logistics of doing so seem nearly impossible, with hardly any way to know if the right children are being returned to the correct families.  We are failing to care for those who aren’t our citizens yet, but would like to be.

Every day at my job, I see others who experience the constant failures of a system built for their destruction. Lack of healthcare and affordable housing are some of the biggest problems.  Many of them have physical disabilities, injuries, amputations, chronic health issues, and mental health problems that make it impossible for them to hold regular jobs.  Being on the street exacerbates their health problems, and they fall deeper into the hole of homelessness.  What little money they do have access to is in danger of disappearing.  Benefits like food stamps and welfare are being threatened.  We are failing to care for those who have no option but to rely on the assistance of our government to stay alive.

I am tired of bearing witness to these tragedies.  Lately, I’ve often felt hopeless about changing these broken systems.  My heart breaks over and over for people like John Michael Watts, Marco Antonio Munoz, and the faces I see every day at work.

This past weekend, though, I saw “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a documentary about Mr. Rogers.  Toward the end of the movie, Mr. Rogers cited his famous quote about tragedy , and tears filled my eyes.

“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

People took to this quote after 9/11, after recent shootings which are too many to name, and after Hurricane Harvey, among other disasters.  It is associated with so many difficult moments for me, that to hear Mr. Rogers finally say it out loud was breathtaking.  It reminded me that this is why I come to work each day.  I want to be a helper.  I don’t always do it well, but I’m out here trying.

We are the helpers.  Whether we are holding protest signs, soup ladles, or the hands of another, we are the helpers.  Being a helper also means taking care of ourselves, even in the most simple ways.  Mourn.  Grieve.  Feel the heavy pain of it to free yourself to provide hope.  Rest.  Be present in your body.  Clad yourself for the fight ahead.

We are here, and we are many.  Be the helpers.

Author: Brenna Lakeson

writer. theologian. activist. cat enthusiast.

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