Sunday, June 01, 2014


When I was working for the City of Portland, Bureau of Buildings, in Portland, OR, during the Nineties, my job was in part to answer questions from citizens calling on the phone almost randomly.  They didn’t even know where to call or what to ask.  They had no idea about the differences among laws that are written and recorded, between criminal felonies and misdemeanors, regulations, administrative policies, why permits are required for some things, what the UBC standardized building practice codes were, or even the difference between laws on the books and civil tort law, which means you can sue anyone for anything, so long as you’re willing to pay for the court costs and risk whatever penalties might be involved.

What this meant in practical terms was that a lot of people needed to be referred to other agencies of many different kinds.  Those dealing with hoarders in their own families might need to talk to a psychologist.  Those in property disputes could use arbitration services or maybe a surveyor.  The hardest were bad landlords who refused to fix properties.  Finally that issue was taken on by a Presbyterian minister, in fact the one who served the church I attended as a child.  He organized a coalition of concerned citizens and started a publicity campaign: identifying a “dirty dozen” landlords, picketing, starting a fund to help people find subsidized housing, and so on. 

Our subdivision of the Bureau had a bad manager.  She was a little hen of a woman who was simply overwhelmed, partly because every time there was a problem, she didn’t investigate for causes or work to simplify process but simply added another layer of complexity for us phone answerers.  There were a half-dozen of us and none of us answered questions quite the same way or knew the same places to seek help, but each of us did have a lot of information.  So I organized three-ring binders that pulled all the information together.  I didn’t ask permission -- I just made them and shared them.  The day I transferred to a different job, the manager collected all the binders and trashed them.

When I was in the ministry, people sometimes came in from outside the congregation to ask for counseling, often marriage counseling but sometimes about money or children -- whatever.  One woman brought in her daughter-in-law because the woman’s husband had said that if she wanted the children to go through college, she would have to find a way to pay for it but she couldn’t.  So she intended to kill herself.  After reflecting a while on the idea that this wasn’t a good solution, we looked for other answers.  One doesn’t have to start college at an Ivy League super-expensive school: a year or so at a local community college is perfectly acceptable -- not a handicap.  This woman was computer-adept, so she could easily search the Internet for scholarships, loans, work-study, and so on.  In fact, if she kept good notes, she could probably end up with enough valuable information that she could put it into a book to sell or share at workshops.  

Ministers could use a decent handbook of referrals, from lists of triggers for serious matters like a possible impending mass shooting to general helpers for something like a failing aged parent.  It would have to be local, with real names, addresses, phone numbers and people who could be asked afterwards how well things went.  This is best used for one’s own congregation.  But the pages should reach out to specialized lawyers, sympathetic cops and judges, health advocates.  Since it takes time to find these local folks, the book should be left for the minister’s successor.  But there are national helpers as well.

Bully problem

Sources like Dear Abby are always recommending that people get counseling from their ministers -- esp. marriage counseling, but ministers are rarely educated to do this.  The most counseling training might be ten weeks of chaplaincy in a hospital and many don’t even get that.  This is because different religions have different “rules” about marriage and many only prescribe conformity.  In Saskatoon when I was serving that congregation, the social workers of the city organized a workshop to educate ministers, particularly those from the right wing, about abusive behavior.  The social workers handed out lists of how to make preparations for escape: a duplicate set of car keys to hide somewhere, a stash of baby supplies in a bus depot locker, a number to call for help getting to a safe house.

Obeying the laws of medieval institutions, those abusive men (all were men) believed that wives and children should be absolutely obedient to the head of the family.    The father was the person responsible for righteous behavior.  The trouble was their methods: verbal abuse, violence, locking them out of the house in brutal winter weather, prevention of friendships or even interaction with extended family, restrictions of food and clothing, prevention of medical care.  They actually killed those they were responsible to protect, and believed it was their victims who went to hell.

In medieval terms, a hierarchically higher religious leader had the power to curb such a man if he would use it.  They couldn’t see past blind rule-based obedience, had no wish to look into dynamics or predict consequences, and made attempts to evade all secular law.  In short, these were Old Testament men pretending to be Christian but entirely disregarding Jesus, who came with Good News, a major paradigm shift.  Nowadays, immigration brings into our communities people who have very similar views to the prophets: that women and children are owned chattel who can be treated like sheep or dogs.

First make sure you have a book.

But many problems brought to ministers are not so drastic.  I once accidentally overheard an earnest young mother asking our dignified and rather remote minister for advice about toilet training her toddler.  His floundering answers were pretty funny.  Sometimes a congregation has enough people concerned about an issue to organize a study group.  In the Seventies, when people had just discovered that Unitarians would not criticize divorced folks or even people who had intimate relations outside marriage, many single women came into the congregation with a lot of questions about managing their relationships.  One study group invited a high class prostitute (an “escort”) to come and tell us what she had learned.  She was very attractive and patient (job qualifications) but I always wondered how the minister found her.

Most seminaries teach theology, theories, basically bibliographies.  They don’t teach what to do if a parishioner calls at 2AM to get help because his son was just arrested; what to do if your wife is a drug-addict; how to organize a family intervention for an alcoholic; what to do if the hospital wants to mark your mother “do not resuscitate” but you feel as though that would be ordering her death, murder.  Seminaries don’t suggest markers for when a marriage is over.  Even little things like how to handle grief when your dog dies, what to do if your child has constant nightmares, all that Dear Abby stuff.  Like the media, seminary professors are hypnotized by the nature of God and neglect the nature of human beings.

When I was doing my internship in Connecticut, I refused to marry a couple and got into trouble because of it.  The church made good money by renting the building and the large reception hall.  But the young woman was childish and her intended had inflicted a lot of bruises on her.  Both were defiant about abuse, assumed it was normal -- inevitable -- when people lived together.  They refused all counseling and basically felt they were buying services and therefore were entitled to what they wanted.  My supervising minister thought that since they didn’t belong to our church, they were right.  Or rather, they didn’t matter.

The nurses in that town organized a whole panel of religious leaders to educate the nurses about what the different points of view had to say about impending death.  The man just before me was a Russian Orthodox priest.  He said that they should be sure that the dying person repented and confessed to his priest, because they all had always beaten their wives, stolen money, and cheated in various ways -- if they didn’t have a chance to repent, they would go to hell.  

Then I said there was no hell.  Make peace on earth.  And if you need a little help, there’s no shame in it.  A 3-ring binder with local references might be exactly the help a minister or priest needs.  A Good Book.  The days when a priest/pastor/minister could be an austere, remote ritualist or a fiery preacher are gone.  Today the job means ethical and emotional advice, community support, referrals and connections, hospital visits, maybe a few plumbing skills, and always money raising.  Oh, and being a good example.

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