The Politics of Doing Good
Two articles from Vancouver newspapers today left me scratching my head and feeling a little frustrated. The first is the more high-profile story of a Vancouver church’s dispute with local authorities regarding what services it can and cannot legally offer as a place of worship, and the second a less publicized issue relating to the Vancouver civic workers strike.
Today’s Vancouver Sun ran this article about how religious leaders have joined together to protest the city’s decision to require a local church (Tenth Avenue Alliance) to obtain a “social services permit” in order to continue to provide food and shelter to needy people in their community. This story has gotten plenty of attention, both from major media outlets (see here, and here) and in the blogging world (see, for example, here), and I have nothing terribly insightful to add other than to simply given the issue a little more deserved attention.
It strikes me as odd that a in a country (and a city) that prides itself on compassion, a permit is required to simply do good. The cynical side of me wonders what the city’s motives are and what the money generated from these permits is used for. Is the city concerned that these people get assistance that meets a certain standard? Are they catering to the “neighbourhood, which is becoming increasingly upscale” by herding undesirables into areas where they and the problems they symbolize are easier to ignore? Are they looking to simply make a profit? To make sure that the city looks squeaky clean for when the spotlight is on for the Olympics in 2010? All of the above?
Whatever the city’s reasons, it seems to me that Tenth Avenue ought to be commended for doing what followers of Christ are supposed to do (especially in an age where religious groups often make headlines for all the wrong reasons!). They are attempting to help those in need, and offering what assistance they can in a world where injustice, oppression, and suffering are in plentiful supply—even in a beautiful (if a little smelly, and weedy looking lately…) city like Vancouver.
Which brings me to the second story that grabbed my attention today. Today’s Vancouver Courier ran this article which describes some of the verbal abuse that homeless youth are taking when cleaning up needles and sweeping streets around the city. Some people are apparently under the mistaken impression that these kids, who are employed by Family Services of Greater Vancouver’s Street Youth Job Action, are doing work that is not theirs to do, and have accused them of being “scabs.” The truth is that these kids are simply doing the work that they are contracted to do even during times of peaceful labour relations. For eleven years they have been doing needle-sweeps in local parks and sweeping city streets, being sure to leave the garbage that is the responsibility of city workers.
Despite the fact that these young people are simply doing what they have been hired to do, people like Donald Wilcox, who is making an honest attempt to earn some money and start turning his life around, have to put up with daily insults from those who feel that nobody should be cleaning up public spaces except those designated by the city. And an organization that seems committed to doing a genuinely good thing—providing useful work for troubled kids, and doing a small part to make the city a nicer place—finds their work made unnecessarily difficult.
What annoyed me about both of these stories is that in both cases people who are attempting to perform simple acts of compassion and goodness – whether it be helping out a fellow human being in need, or cleaning up a street in order to make the city look better and take a positive step towards a better life, are being resisted by those in “official” positions who feel that it is more important to maintain stable social and economic arrangements than to allow all of this unregulated and unsanctioned benevolence.
I’m not trying to ascribe improperly pure motives to those working for the youth organization (maybe it really is all about the money for them, who knows…), and I don’t think that the City of Vancouver is deliberately trying to thwart the mission of Tenth Avenue Alliance. But in both cases, the message seems to be that doing good is fine, as long as it is through the appropriate socially-approved channels, and as long as it doesn’t challenge the system in any way.
In the case of Tenth Avenue Alliance, the message seems to be that religion is fine, as long as it’s only a private affair that has no socially disruptive consequences. In the case of the kids cleaning up needles, the message seems to be that organizations are free to provide kids with jobs and attempt to help them out of desperate situations, as long as their activity doesn’t become an inconvenient factor in a labour dispute.
In both cases, real human beings in need are pushed to the side or marginalized in order to maintain a stable social system. My reading of the Bible (and the readings of others – I don’t mean to suggest that I’m saying anything radically new here!) suggests that this is unacceptable. Human beings – especially the weak and the vulnerable—matter more to God than leverage in a labour dispute, or whether or not a city looks presentable for the Olympics.
And it matters more to God simply that good is done, regardless of whether or not it comes through the appropriate channels.