Let’s do a better job of helping each other

By Jane Harris

Canadians are compassionate – we’ve seen that again and again, most recently with the wildfires in Fort McMurray and the refugees resettled from Syria. But what about when an individual suffers and is not good at getting media attention with her call for help? How can we, especially Christians, do better in that kind of situation?

Jane Harris encourages us all to do better by each other, even as we respond compassionately to disasters.
Jane Harris encourages us all to do better by each other, even as we respond compassionately to disasters.

It’s something I just lived through, so let me tell you about it.

Here’s what I wrote in my journal in 2014: “I focus on bottle picking, selling my household items, and preparing for homelessness. I have no hope at all of lifting myself out of the situation. I am utterly alone and isolated.”

I wrote those words about a year after my husband, high on a cocktail of vodka and prescription drugs, assaulted me, choking me repeatedly and pummelling the back of my bleeding skull with blunt objects.

I scribbled that note trying to understand why so few people in my family, church and community understood. No one seemed to care that I could not work, or pay my bills, or that I was selling off furniture and picking bottles out of ditches to buy bread and bus fare.

Bureaucrats at the Canada/Alberta Service centre didn’t seem to understand that I was a crime victim, or that I struggled with a head injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Helping agencies, including outreach workers at the women’s shelter, said there was nothing they could to do.

I had some pastoral visits the week I was attacked, and one Sunday morning a few months later a church friend handed me an envelope full of tips she earned the night before.

But nobody else came by. Nobody from church brought me a coffee, let alone a casserole. Not one Christian friend offered to sit with me at the courthouse while I waited to testify against my attacker. None of my Christian friends offered to help me move when our house was sold.

I tried not to notice that my name was not read out when the congregation prayed for the sick Sunday mornings. Sometimes, it felt that even God didn’t have time to call me back.

On my worst days, I saw no future but homelessness, no end to my suffering but suicide.

Now, let me quickly add that I do love my church. I don’t think the people in our congregation are mean or ungodly. I really think they just didn’t know what to do or say. I think they are, like many believers, weary of trying to help people who don’t seem to ever get on their feet.

It’s much more gratifying to help a refugee or evacuee who does do better in a very short time.

I still don’t fully understand all the reasons I was so isolated after I was attacked. I do know my PTSD and brain injury made navigating the web of services harder, and put me at risk of falling through the social safety net into homelessness (a common result of traumatic stress, according to a study published in Open Health Service and Policy Journal in 2009).

Gatekeepers charged with making sure I was an appropriate recipient of help, including those who worked for Christian ministries, often re-triggered my trauma. About a year after I was injured, I got a hamper from a food bank founded by several local churches. The workers were kinder than most bureaucrats, but before they gave me anything to eat, they demanded to see my picture ID, asked how much money I had, what had happened to me and why I could not buy my own food.

The support worker answered those questions for me to prevent me from suffering a post-traumatic stress meltdown.

And imagine being a person in my position and hearing about all the special help churches are mobilizing in response to the Fort McMurray wildfires or the needs of Syrian refugees. Ironically, these good-news stories in the headlines can leave marginalized people feeling worse and even more overlooked.

Canada’s faith community moves quickly and generously rescuing victims of earthquakes, wars, floods and fires. But we need to be vigilant about barely noticed victims of less newsworthy traumas – abuse, abandonment, job loss, poverty, family break-up, mental illness and addictions.

And when we do hear their cries for help, we need to keep asking ourselves if our slow, stingy, suspicious gatekeeping might in any way be traumatizing to them again.

With God’s help, let’s raise our eyes to seek out the marginalized brothers and sisters among us, and raise our goals in caring for them.

Jane Harris is a journalist and writing instructor in Lethbridge, Alta. Her latest book is Finding Home in the Promised Land: A personal history of homelessness and exile in Canada (J. Gordon Shillingford Publishing, 2015). 

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