On this day of Thanksgiving, we can no longer turn a blind eye to those who lack everything simply because we feel blessed by God.
by David Todd McCarty | Thursday, November 25, 2021
A few months back, I wrote a story about a woman who I called Mary. She’s a middle-aged woman with a history of trauma who suffers from a multitude of mental handicaps, including paranoid schizophrenia, which has led her to a life on the streets.
Originally from Montana, she became homeless when her mother died. She was put on a bus to Atlantic City by some enterprising local official who wished to be rid of her; from there, she found her way to Cape May which is where she’s been, in some form or another, ever since.
Despite a great deal of attention by mental health professionals, advocates, law enforcement, and county officials, she remains on the street.
“There’s nothing we can do,” they say. “She’s not a danger to herself or others.”
In 1863, at the height of the civil war, President Abraham Lincoln addressed the nation with a proclamation of Thanksgiving.
“The year that is drawing towards its close,” he wrote, “has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”
From that moment on, Americans have joined together, as a nation, on the third Thursday of November “with humble penitence to…commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged….”
Mary has the mental capacity of an eight-year-old. If you ask her a direct question about whether or not she intends to harm herself or others, she will say no. This seems to be the extent of the analysis and evaluation.
But if she were really an eight-year-old, sleeping out of doors on nights when it drops below freezing, among men who might not have the best intentions towards her, refusing housing and help, we would conclude that she was a danger to herself and in desperate need of intervention.
Instead, as a society, we have concluded that even though we don’t think she can make rational choices or care for herself, we seem fine with her choice to risk life and limb because that’s easier and cheaper for us.
Regardless of the troublesome mythology concerning the supposed origins of the first Thanksgiving, on the face of it, it was about celebrating abundance by sharing. It was a feast designed to be shared, not hoarded.
America is the wealthiest nation in the history of the planet. We are the epitome of abundant bounty. But on this day, where we claim to give thanks to God for all His blessings upon us, we turn our backs on the people who need our help the most. We are not acting as good Samaritans. We are the preacher and the teacher, too busy to be bothered.
A lot of people have tried to help Mary. But she’s what is known in the business as a runner. The moment they find her a suitable place to live, such as a motel room, she takes off again. Now it’s gotten to the place where she refuses to be anywhere but Cape May, and since they don’t want her there, she lives on the street.
A few days ago, she walked into a house in Cape May, sat on the sofa, took her shoes and socks off, and informed the homeowners that she was spending the night. Of course, they called the police, who took her to the hospital, where she was evaluated by the psych team. Even though she has been diagnosed as an unmediated paranoid schizophrenic, Mary was released onto the streets once again.
“She’s not a danger to herself or others,” they said.
But what are they basing that on? Because she told them so? What happens when she walks into the wrong house at the wrong time? What happens when she’s once again hit by a car because she doesn’t see well and crosses the street regardless of traffic. If it weren’t for scores of volunteers and well-wishers, she’d starve to death. But all we’re doing is postponing the inevitable.
Recently someone left her a gift: a pair of expensive pajamas. While a nice gesture, perhaps, you have to wonder what she’s going to do with pricey pajamas when she’s sleeping in the bushes of the First Presbyterian Church.
The range of outcomes on Mary’s future horizon are not good. Unless someone comes forward and does right by her, getting her into a group home that can watch over her and care for her, she’s going to end up in a bad place—dead or worse.
Imagine finding a small tribe of sick and starving Europeans on your shores, and instead of trying to help them, you say to yourself, “Well, it’s their choice. I guess that’s how they want to live.” How can this be who we are as a people? Are we really that callous, that aloof? Are we that fearful, greedy, and self-righteous?
Gandhi once observed that “the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”
Not to quibble with the Mahatma, but I think he was wrong about this. It’s not our treatment of animals that exposes our lack of greatness, but our indifference towards what Jesus called “the least of these.” No people can be considered great that leave its most vulnerable to die from neglect.
“While the angels are singin’ his praises in a blaze of glory,” sang Patty Griffin. “Mary stays behind and starts cleaning up the place.”