From my earliest memories up until a series of unfortunate grades my junior year of college, I always saw myself being a school teacher. First elementary school and then, as the sarcasm and cynicism took hold, a high school English teacher. But as I finished my BA in 2001, I began to rethink and embarked on a period of corporate work as a book copy editor. So when I moved to NYC in 2002, it was to do this. And certainly my year at the college newspaper and some time textbook editing were enough to get me a stellar job during a recession when most publishers were laying off the majority of their workforce. Of course. So after about 6 months in the City and about 15 temp jobs, I began volunteering on the days I wasn’t working and to rethink my rethinking. My volunteer job was with the GMHC, where I still volunteer today, and I was one of the people in charge of intake there. I would gather each new client’s information and discuss with the person what services were available to them, and then bring this to the social worker in charge, who would assign them appropriately. This social worker and some friends I had made at Manhattan Church were my advisors as I decided to embark on a new career.
Even as a child I had a strong sense of justice and a powerfully empathic heart. This led to a wicked combination of tattling and friendship with the weird kids, which made me very popular. This has followed me and probably led me to some strange life decisions, and to what can some days be called a successful career.
Since I’ve started officially social working, I have worked with a day program and a food program for people living with AIDS; with a home visiting program for the elderly; in a public hospital as a social worker for people with HIV and in supportive housing for people with mental illness; as an outreach worker for people living on the street and as an administrator for a program for people with mental illness who are attempting to move their lives forward. In these jobs, I have been a party planner, a surrogate grandchild, an advocate, a good, impartial friend; I have put on talent shows and fashion shows and planned memorial services. I have purchased cigarettes, coffee, sandwiches, donuts, shoes, soap, medications and once a big TV. All these things in an effort to better someone’s life situation, to bring them stability and joy and safety and understanding. To fulfill the basic human need of love and belonging.
The job is obviously challenging. In my profession, it is a sign of burn-out if you begin to find the work mundane. I have found, as I have been doing this for about 5 years now, that I reach a point every so often when the weight I bear for others becomes too much for me to bear myself. I am learning to carry less and am finding ways to cope with the frequent times when my work seems futile, and my valleys are becoming less frequent and not as deep. And faith is one of the things I’ve learned to turn to.
In preparing for this I was trying to find scriptures to go with what I was saying here. I searched ‘refuge’ and ‘justice’ and ‘poor’ in the online Bible. And then I went to my own, real-time Bible and looked at the things I have marked and underlined in it. And some of those were the scriptures read today. I have always had great difficulty separating religion from life experience. I was reading an editorial about the career of Senator Ted Kennedy this week and it said that he had an “insistence that politics be grasped and administered through the prism of human needs.” At this point in my life, I feel the same way about work and faith. In seeing each person as a child of God, the person is no longer just a client, a number or a statistic. They are a human being in need of, and deserving of, dignity and compassion.
In my work, there’s a very thin line between brilliant success and utter failure. Dealings in the human condition sadly complicate things. A person knows that they are better off living inside, but finds themself afraid and claustrophobic when they are finally moved off the streets. And it becomes easier for them to live in the park during the summers. Great strides might be made toward health and stability for a person with mental illness, but regardless of resolve, the mysterious nature of brain chemistry may still land them in the hospital every 6 months. And so compassion is our highest goal. Seeing the face of God in every man, woman and child, and knowing that they are worthwhile regardless of the hate they may spew or the seeming wickedness of their behavior, and being an example of love in their lives. That is all we can do some days. And I believe that this is enough. For “what does the Lord require of us? To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”