Thursday, March 21, 2013

"What Saved Grace?" Explores Expressions of Compassion

Nancy, Pastor Rick and Sister Mary spar over how best to offer compassion in "What Saved Grace?"

"What Saved Grace?" will be published as an
ebook via Smashwords in March 2013.
This is an excerpt of a chapter of "What Saved Grace?" It's a short novel about the beauty and complexity of compassion. I published it as an ebook  via Smashwords on March 23, 2013.

View excerpts and purchase "What Saved Grace?" here.

     Pastor Rick raised his hand to speak and was recognized by the Interfaith Food Pantry Committee chair.

He reasoned with the Committee. “It looks like we've all been taken advantage of again. I know that seems frustrating. But it doesn’t sound like this woman was trying to milk the system or circumvent our intended policy. It sounds like she just needed food for her family and presented the same story at each pantry. Each of us felt right about giving it to her. I'll tell you, the folks at First Wesleyan aren’t too concerned about a person or family slipping through our policy a time or two.”

A few agreeable murmurs filtered through the room.

He continued. “We started our food pantry, frankly, to help folks like the one just described. It’s not very likely we’ll turn anybody away the first time or two they come to us seeking food. Giving some groceries is one way for us to share the Gospel and try to connect folks to the ministries of the church. We’ll certainly begin to raise some questions if someone perpetually works the food pantries without getting involved in our congregation or programs. But it seems we need to make some allowance for the difference between what this woman has done and those who are just working the system.”

Nancy responded tartly. “I'm not sure we have the luxury of picking and choosing whom we let take advantage of us. If all the pantries start making exceptions and letting folks slide through, as you suggest, we may all be overwhelmed. On the other hand, if we all do a proper intake and explain the food pantry policy the first time at the first pantry, theoretically, we will be able to assist more people without incurring more cost.”

Sister Mary, taking in all she silently could, interrupted. “I'm not interested in what we might be able theoretically to do.”

She rose to her feet and the chair recognized her.

Sister Mary launched a pointed response. “Assisting the poor people of this neighborhood is not about doing proper intakes and tightening policies and theorizing about how many we can assist. The fact is, when a person shows up at our doors for food there’s more at stake than whether or not a policy is going to be upheld or ignored, or,” she said, turning to Pastor Rick with a wink, “whether or not the person gets a good dose of the Gospel on the side.”

Pastor Rick smiled and nodded nervously.

“We've got to consider the person at the door is Jesus in disguise,” she declared. “And we've got to ask ourselves in our hearts, how we should best respond to this particular person and help change their situation. I'm not sure this policy of ‘one family, one pantry, once a month’ helps us do that. And I'm not sure we've really helped a family by just giving a half a week’s supply of groceries and an earful of the Gospel.”

Sister Mary’s comments lingered in the air with a biting sting, even if they also had the ring of truth. No one had an immediate response to her little diatribe, which seemed to be directed at the Third Presbyterian volunteer as well as Pastor Rick.

As she sat down, Sister Mary tried to moderate what she’d said. “I'm not saying I know what to do, or that what each of us is trying to do is not good or not important. Lord knows, we’re all trying to be faithful to our neighbors and to our God. But once you’ve come close enough and spent time to know the hell on earth some of our neighbors routinely endure—as I'm sure most of us have—it just seems like we can make a more careful response.”

Seated now, she paused and then turned in her chair to look into the eyes of the Committee members. She spoke more reflectively. “Compassion’s not as simple as it seems, is it? Sometimes it feels good to offer what you have. Other times it seems like you can’t do enough. And then there are times folks just baffle you with their ability to work the system and manipulate. Compassion can be complicated. It’s not cut and dried. Sometimes it's hard.”

She sighed and then added in a falling voice, “I just try to keep in mind that most folks we see are victims of poverty and caught in a hurtful system as much as anything else. I hope this group keeps that in mind. And I hope, someday, we’ll work together to try to make a bigger impact together on the nutrition and food issues our neighbors face.”

Copyright John Franklin Hay 2013

"What Saved Grace?" walks with a struggling young family as they navigate the crosscurrents of compassion in their new urban neighborhood. It explores the heart-warming and gut-wrenching impacts of varieties of well-intentioned help in the lives of Theo and Grace. This story will change the way you view compassion. I will announce its publication as an ebook here, via twitter (@indybikehiker), on Facebook, and at my Smashwords author page.

John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA

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