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too good to be the 'neighbor'

My oldest daughter, due to a variety of known and as of yet unknown issues, has been recommended for a root canal. Our dentist pled incapability because true to this daughter’s dramatic nature, the root for this particular tooth is “special” and requires more expert care. This is how we found ourselves in a waiting room of a dental office that clearly caters to the less financially privileged in our area for a second consultation.

An important part of this story is one that I typically don’t share. First, there are seven people in our family living on a single income, so it’s not like we’re rolling in money. In addition, tax laws are weird, and when you work for a church or non-profit, often the way you get paid is in allowances and stipends, which do not show up as actual income on your tax returns. Lastly, the way the ACA works is complicated, and if you’re forced to use the marketplace to find your insurance, they do not make it possible to just choose whatever you want because it’s all based on taxable income level. As a result, we find ourselves currently on state insurance with no other option, even though we truly desire it. The relevant part of this story is that when you have Medicaid (or Caresource, in our case), you are extremely limited in choice of providers. That pretty much catches you up to the reasons for which we found ourselves in this provider’s office.

After wading through the cigarette smoke in the parking lot, we found ourselves in a waiting room filling out laminated medical records with a dry erase marker, a first for me. Why were these clients not worthy of actual paper and pen? Unknown. We were ushered back eventually to a small room with two folding chairs. I’ve spent some time at our county courthouse, and this room felt for all the world like a holding cell outside out of chambers. Eventually we made it back to the procedure area. An open room, separated by half walls between the chairs, and every single wall was covered in plexiglass screwed on over the paint. It was, by far, the most interesting and demeaning office I’ve been in in some time.

And I struggled. I don’t belong here, I thought. My daughter doesn’t belong here. We are not the people that you need plexiglass walls for. When the assistant went behind us as we were leaving with her sanitizing spray, wiping down everything we touched or were near, I was vaguely humiliated, but also relieved that this doctor didn’t feel like he could take care of her tooth issue either. I wasn’t crazy about coming back here for an actual medical procedure.

After I dropped my daughter back at school that day, I spent a lengthy amount of time feeling weird and sad. I was disgusted at the way I felt like we’d been treated – not that any person in that practice was mean or inappropriate; they were all extremely kind and generous. I was offended that we had to go there in the first place. I know there are fancy-pants dental surgeons in our area. We’re just not allowed to go to them because they don’t accept government insurance.

The whole time I’m working through these thoughts, it’s all touched with guilt. I profess to be someone who wants to show up for the marginalized. For the poverty-stricken. For the addicts. For the less fortunate. And I’m disgusted and humiliated because I’m too good for the dental care that they can receive? Seriously Suzanne?

How do we show up for the poor when we feel like we’re too good for them? You think people can’t figure that out? They know, friends. They know. Is that the kind of person I want to be? One who’s too good for the medical care that most of my neighbors receive?

What does it say about me when I’m willing and invested in “helping” the poor, but unwilling to be viewed as one of them? When I won’t wear certain things or appear in public a certain way for fear of looking “trashy”? When I internally recoil at plexiglass covered walls, toothless smiles, and an incredible stench from the person next to me at the dentist because I deserve better treatment than this? I want everyone to have access to appropriate medical and dental care, but I don’t want to have the same access they do. I want better. I’m not one of those people.

When I went to edit this piece, I was confronted again with my failings in this area. You know that whole awkward paragraph at the top where I explain that we have state insurance but we don’t really qualify for state insurance? That’s an unnecessary paragraph and poorly written at that. It’s nobody’s business why we have Medicaid, but I felt a compulsive need to explain it to you so you all know that while I might look like I’m one of the poor, I’m not actually one of those people. I want to take that paragraph out completely, but authenticity demands otherwise.

What’s wrong with being viewed as the poor? What’s wrong with qualifying for Medicaid? What’s wrong with wearing clothes that don’t match and don’t fit? What’s wrong with looking ‘trashy’? We say to judge people by their hearts, but that is not what we practice, not by a long shot. Why do I deserve better than plexiglass and plastic chairs that a dental assistance wipes down with bleach spray immediately after we leave?

The answer is fairly self-evident. We think poverty is a moral failing. Oh, we may never say that, but our actions betray our true beliefs. We think that people in poverty have done something wrong. We scrunch our noses at certain lifestyles. We make memes about people and how they dress when they shop at Walmart. We talk about the people in the food pantry line who have their cigarettes and tattoos as if we know how they should best be spending their lives and their money even when we have no actual knowledge of their lives OR their money. We do everything we possibly can to avoid being associated with the people that we profess to care for. We move to different areas of town so we don’t have to have those kind of neighbors. We attend different churches. We ship our kids to different schools. We choose the fancier doctors and dentists, and God forbid that we ever drive down those streets. ESPECIALLY in the dark.

If we’re a part of church culture, we talk about being ‘missional’ and ‘evangelistic’ and all the code words we use to indicate that we’re the other in this scenario. People are a project, a problem to be solved, a pedestal for us to use to talk about how service-minded we are. We talk about loving our neighbor, even down to the nitty-gritty, but not a one of us wants to be viewed AS the neighbor.

And friends, if this is our attitude, we’re never ever going to be truly loving. Love means there is no ‘other’. Love means we give dignity. Love means we’re in this all together. Love means each soul has equal worth. Our actions betray our true hearts, which aren’t all that loving at all.

Pope Francis, shortly after taking office, said, “I want us to be a church that is poor and is for the poor”.

We’re all on board with the ‘for the poor’ part. The ‘is poor’ part? Pass us by, thanks.

I wish I had something pithy and tweetable and Christian-y to wrap this all up with so we all feel better about ourselves and our life choices. But sometimes, as a friend says, we need to sit in the suck with each other. Here’s what I know today about myself: I’m not great. I’m not noble. I’m not anything but a woman who wants to be different. Who wants to willingly open her heart and her home to anyone who wants to enter, regardless of how I feel about them. Who wants to accept the services that the masses receive without feeling gross or dirty or better than. Kindness, compassion, grace, mercy – those are the words I want to define my life. That’s the kind of woman I want to be, and yet I find myself so far away most days.

I think there’s no better way to close than borrowing the words from one of my very favorite books, Tattoos on the Heart. Father Gregory Boyle says this all better than I ever could, and he describes the life I want to live.

Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. The prophet Habakkuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and it will not disappoint…and it if delays, wait for it. ”Kinship is what God presses us on to, always hopeful that its time has come.”

No daylight to separate us.

Make my life this prayer.

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