I am the 99%.
I have the great privilege of serving as a bi-vocational priest and bishop. My formal education has, for the most part, been directed at preparing me to serve in a more traditional religious setting that provided a steady income. I discovered, well after completing my undergraduate degrees, that institution religion would not be my home. To remain within the institutional Church I would have had to sacrifice my integrity, my honor, and my sanity. I’m not suggesting that is true of everyone in the institution, but those of us who have been identified as “different,” or “defective,” or for some reason outside the boundaries of “normal,” are faced with a choice to either deny our own life experience or step outside the institution to reach out to others who have been marginalized in the Name of God.
Like the current managers of countless pizza places, I have undergraduate degrees in biblical theology and psychology and graduate degrees in Divinity. I worked in various corners of the healthcare system from 1994 until 2003, when those opportunities started to dry up in my area and the physical toll that work took on my body started limiting my ability to continue in the field even had it not dried up. Since then I have been able to make ends meet through the generosity of the people to whom I minister and the occasional part-time or temporary job. I haven’t had any secular employment since April. As I have chronicled here before, in the last five years I have had right ankle reconstruction, right shoulder surgery, and spinal fusion. My left ankle probably needs surgery now as well – we knew it was almost as bad as the right when I had that ankle reconstructed. I have health insurance, but cannot afford my co-pays for needed treatment for things like physical therapy, office visits, or all of my medications.
Though very intelligent, very creative, and astonishingly good-looking (if I do say so myself), I am on the wrong side of fifty for employers and I have essentially been self-employed for the last decade. My recent work experience in reaching out to the least of these isn’t exactly valued in a consumer capitalist culture even when the economy is thriving. I have degrees that aren’t especially marketable, and – perhaps most damning of all – can’t stand on my feet for an extended period of time or repeatedly lift things. If I could do those last two things I could at least find some part-time work that would make ends meet by working at UPS for the holiday season, getting a job in a warehouse somewhere, standing at a fast food counter or coffee shop, or even doing day labor shoveling snow this winter. If you look at me you would not be able to tell that there is anything “wrong” with me, which makes the whole thing even more confounding. After spending several hours on my feet over the course of last Friday’s wedding rehearsal, Saturday’s wedding, and Sunday morning church, I had to take (prescribed) narcotic pain medication to take the edge off of my pain and this morning I can barely stand. Oh, yes, and when I run out of pain medication I can’t afford the co-pay to return to the doctor.
My point in all of this isn’t to throw a pity party or to say that I am somehow unique. In fact, my point is that I am not unique at all. If you get out of your house at all, I guarantee you pass several people just like me every day without knowing you are passing us. We “look” healthy, but in reality struggle to get through the daily activities of life and to make ends meet. We live with the knowledge that even though we have insurance, we may not be able to see the doctor should we get ill. We worry about having enough to eat. We have taken in our children and grandchildren because they are struggling too, and so moving to significantly reduce our housing expenses is not an option. We wonder if we are “disabled” because on the one hand there is so much we used to be able to do that we cannot do at this point in our lives, but on the other hand the government will fight us tooth and nail if we try to claim the social security benefits we have paid for all of our working lives.
Then we hear smug politicians, tea party members, and business people talk about “entitlements.”
I paid my dues. I gave corporate America my spine and my right shoulder – work related injuries that got worse over time until they required surgery long after any chance of making a worker’s compensation claim had expired. I am tired of hearing corporate America claiming that it is a “person” while treating me like I am not. I am tired of politicians talking about “entitlements” while at the same time receiving pay for life – even after we fire them by not re-electing them – an absurd number of vacation days and insurance benefits, and a host of other benefits that no one in the private sector could ever hope to secure. I am tired of a system in which insurance companies determine who is and who is not eligible for treatment while never having to meet the person they deny treatment face to face. I am tired of our culture’s arrogance toward those with “invisible” symptoms: the mentally ill, those with chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, and a host of other very real conditions – an arrogance that manifests in more pain being inflicted on the ill without even a thought of treatment. Last but not least, I am tired of people who believe that their human-made religions justify their bad behavior toward others.
There is so much that needs to change, and so many who can’t see beyond their own self-interest to work for that change, that I am not very optimistic about America right now.