by Bob Lupton Jimmy is gone. Cancer got him. He was the anchor of his family. Not too bright but hard-working. Kind-hearted and law-abiding. Small in stature, with a tendency to exaggerate, not to deceive as much as to inflate reality to bolster an undersized self-image. What strength Debbie lacked in controlling their four unruly boys Jimmy made up for in inconsistent discipline. When one or more of the boys allowed drugs to get the upper hand, it was Jimmy who forced them to move out until they got cleaned up. Jimmy kept the chaos to tolerable levels. But now he is gone.
Debbie is overwhelmed. A charming, attractive woman before her teeth rotted out and lupus ravaged her body, she was the love of Jimmy’s life. His childhood bride, both from the projects, she married him at 16. She was smart enough, and caring, but lacked sufficient character strength to mother well. None of her boys finished high school – most dropped out by middle school or before. Debbie dodged school officials by claiming to home-school. And now they are men, irresponsible, illegitimate children by multiple women, in and out of jail, abusing drugs, and taking shameful advantage of their mother’s weak and loving nature.
Debbie called me the other day. Asked if I had seen the evening news. Chuck, her third-born, and his wife Sharon had been arrested for child abuse and neglect and were hauled away in handcuffs. Debbie was notified by neighbors and rushed over to the house to rescue their two toddlers. The house was trashed, she said, dirty diapers and animal feces everywhere, not a morsel of food in the cupboard or refrigerator, stripped of every furnishing that could be sold. The babies were filthy and not a stitch of clean clothes for them anywhere. Debbie asked if I could give her grandbabies some clothes from our thrift store.
Our ministry is about development, not emergency relief. But when you know someone personally, it’s harder to hold to those distinctions, especially when the need has risen to crisis level. Of course we would help. A few toddler clothes would assist with this immediate need but it would certainly not solve her problem. Debbie’s family has degenerated around her into a clan of self-serving predators who have taken over her home, taken advantage of her good heart, and routinely manipulate her out of her meager government disability checks. Her extended family has often tried to intervene, from time to time taking her in to their homes, but the never-ending stream of grandkids dropped off for her to care for eventually becomes too much. The drama that seems always to follow her becomes intolerable and she ends up back in her stripped out house once again scraping money together to get her utilities turned back on.
What does a ministry committed to moving people out of poverty do with Debbie? I know quite well that she will call for help again, and again – at back-to-school time, at Christmas, when crises arise. Does our giving not perpetuate an unwholesome dependency, or worse, support an entire pathological family system? And yet Debbie is doing the best she can, given her poor health and soft-hearted personality. She has always loved her babies – her boys and now her grandchildren – but she has loved out of weakness and not strength. Volunteers have tried for years to bolster her mothering – parenting classes, budgeting help, mother’s morning out, getting the boys re-enrolled in school – but nothing seemed to last. Eventually the best hope was that the boys would pick up on their father’s work ethic and get steady jobs. They did not. Drugs ruined that. We can’t even give them a favorable reference for a job any more. Without Jimmy to provide a semblance of order, Debbie is left with problems that overwhelm her.
So as friends, as a ministry whose purpose is to care for “the least of these”, how are we to respond to Debbie? Pull the boys aside and give them a stern talking to about caring for their mother? That’s been tried repeatedly with no lasting effect. Or advise Debbie that she must not allow the boys in her house when they are on drugs. But then, they know how to work around that decision by appealing to her heart to take in the babies, save them from being taken by the state. And what kind of mother would deny babies the right to see their daddy, especially if he is trying to go straight? So the drama continues.
The reality is we can’t fix Debbie or the dysfunctional family system that entangles her. This is one of life’s tragedies that has no solution. A miracle could happen, I suppose, that would change things for the better. We can hope and pray for that. But in the meantime our only alternative seems to be to continue providing a listening ear and periodically give her clothes for her grandbabies. This will not change her plight, I know. And it compromises our principle of exchange that opposes one-way giving. I guess sometimes we have to put people above principles.