Smile And Say 'Cheese'

It was just past sunrise when the car radio said, "Cheese will be given out to any person who can prove need at twelve locations throughout the city." Being a copy editor by day, I'm always on the lookout for a dangling phrase, and this one hit me like a five-pound brick of cheddar.

I had just dropped off at the hospital a teenage friend who is struggling through nurses' aide training so she can get herself and her 2-year-old daughter off welfare. She wants to work. She's good with people. She has overcome more pain and obstacles in her life than anybody should have to.

She didn't line up for cheese that day. But she has lined up in too many places on too many days to prove "need," just to survive. The red tape the poor in our city and this country have to wade through would strangle any of us.

You've got to prove you're poor. As if it's something to be proud of. As if a multitude of people would line up and stand outside for hours on one of Washington's most bitterly cold days for a chunk of cheese if they didn't feel some sort of desperation.

The thought of it grieved and angered me: people trying to stay afloat in a society which provides no jobs then blames them for being unemployed--and a hypocritical charity that undercuts all dignity.

For a long time I've had a particular loathing for charity. Yet the scripture, "Give to all who beg from you," always flashed in my mind like a neon sign whenever someone on the street approached me for some change. "You need change, all right," I would say to myself. And with a certain smugness I reminded myself that I had made changes in my lifestyle, moved into a low-income neighborhood, joined a community, devoted my life to helping bring God's kingdom of justice to earth. So don't bother me for pennies. I'm striking at the systemic roots of the problem.

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