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July 9, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 18






– Necrology


How does the Church help Mr. Dignity?

I would like you to meet someone. He is typical of the folks I work with and of the many folks helped by the Catholic Church in the Richmond Diocese and most likely not unlike those helped by the church throughout the country.

To protect his identity I will call him Mr. Human Dignity. It is not always easy to see the human dignity behind Mr. Dignity. He is 63 though you would think he was 20 years older.

He has no teeth, he has asthma and is officially disabled and collects a social security disability income.

Folks may think there are too many people on disability but of the many cases I work with there are a good number trying to get on disability. Most appear to me to be very deserving as work truly would be difficult if not impossible for them.

Everyone I know who has applied has been turned down the first time and usually the second and third as well. Mr. Dignity is always asking local churches for help. When you turn him down his reactions are nearly predictable; he will cry and if you still say no he will get angry and say bad things about you.

This is part of the reason why it is not always easy to see the human dignity in him.

Mr. Dignity has been asking for help for many years. Most in this business say they have been helping him for 20 years.

He is always asking for gas money or money to repair his car or insurance money and the list goes on. He will say he needs his car to get to work or find work or to see his mama who lives out of town.

Once he came in asking for money to meet a monthly payment on a loan. He says if he doesn’t pay it they will take his car away.

photo: Paul Amrhein is Director of Human Concerns at St. Bridget Parish in Richmond.My mama done bought me this car so’es I could visit her,” he says.

I asked him for his loan documentation and he hands it to me. You see we always make a check out to the business that is owed the money — never give cash or make a check out to the person asking for the money. He knows this and one may say he qualifies as a pro in this business.

“Mr. Dignity, this is a car title loan,” I say. “Do you know how much the interest is? THREE HUNDRED FIFTY PERCENT,” I nearly shout to him.

“Do you know what that means?”

He looks sheepish and I could tell he hasn’t a clue. I try giving him an example he could understand and make it real obvious that this is something he should not do and at the end I say would you go for a deal like that?

“If I need the money, I would!” is his reply.

So he came in one day and asked for $75. What for, I ask?

He tells me he wants a converter box and rabbit ears so he can watch TV. He went to Walmart and he could pick one up for that amount.

First I tell him he might want to go to Good Will. I shop there myself and for stuff like this you can get some real bargains and I would not be surprised if you find what you need for $10 or less. Then out of curiosity I ask “what have you been doing to watch TV before?”

This much I will say for him — he is honest for the most part when you ask questions. He tells me he had cable.

I explain to him calmly as I could (while blowing up like a Volcano inside) that many people coming to me for help are being thrown out of their apartments or homes, living without electric and other utilities. He still did not understand it was more important to help them than give him money so he could watch TV.

Someone might say this guy needs to take responsibility for himself. But you know, when he got a car title loan he wasn’t thinking about paying 350 percent interest. He was thinking about paying off his debts.

After the TV incident a bunch of church folks got together and told him no more help until he takes a financial management class at Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

He took the class with no questions or fuss. Will it help? His expenses are twice what his income is. That is a problem.

So one place he was told he could cut back is on his phone. He qualifies for a free phone. But he would have to give up a redial feature on the phone he has now. A week later he applied for the free phone.

We are also trying to get Mr. Dignity into an adult reading class as he is illiterate. Maybe this is the issue with his not wanting to give up his phone.

Playing amateur psychologists, we are hoping that being able to read will boost his self image and give him more confidence as well as help his cognitive skills.

Mr. Dignity, if he is to be truly helped, probably needs a case worker who would need to make a big investment in time to get him on the right track and keep him there.

My colleagues and I are doing what we can. As of this writing he found a job painting.

For those who know him it is a difficult image to conjure up. We don’t know how long that will last with his asthma. He seems to be able to get jobs now and again. Most are temporary or he gets sick or something happens and he loses the job.

So here are some questions. Whose responsibility is Mr. Human Dignity?

Do we continue to cut services to the poor like food stamps, Medicaid, social security and other safety net programs?

Do you think everyone in this world has the same or similar gifts and talents as you who are reading this?

Do you think the church should keep helping him? Where is the church going to get the money to help him? Catholic Charities and most of our parishes do what we can, but the need is always much greater than our resources.

The church gets significant funding from the government to help the poor. If the government cuts funding to these programs that help the poor, how is the church going to make up for those lost funds?

What do you think Catholic Social teaching tells us about the responsibility of folks like Mr. Dignity?

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