Here is a guest post by Sister Mary Jo Stein, a Daughter of Charity and nurse at a health clinic in Washington DC, about that very subject. She celebrated her 25th year as a Daughter of Charity this past year.)
Sometimes when I walk through the neighborhood to and from the health center where I serve, I imagine myself in Sister Rosalie Rendu’s time and place, as if I were one of the Sisters who served with her in her health center. I think about all the poor people we are privileged to serve here in Washington DC. I come and go in and out of their world, but always remain in my world of privilege, security, education, etc. My coworkers who grew up in this or similar neighborhoods say that those of us who come to serve here but who aren’t part of “the hood” are protected by those who live here. They won’t let anything happen to us because we provide them a safe place to receive health care. So, even in that case, I remain safer and more protected from their harsh reality.
A couple of weeks ago. I think that maybe I caught a glimpse of what it might be like (a very qualified maybe and might) to be on the fringes. I went to the bike shop to see about buying bike lights to continue my urban bike commute safely now that Daylight Saving Time is over for a while.
However, I had already spotted some rechargeable lights that looked what I needed at the right price. So, I reached for them and he said, “Oh, yes, those are good ones too.” After studying them, I realized I needed to bring my bike into the shop to make sure the lights would actually attach to the front and back frame of my bike.
Later, when I brought it in, the owner showed me how I could connect them to my bike. I remarked that I could detach the bike pack I had rigged up under my bike seat. Well, it wasn't so much a "bike pack" as it was "a lunch pack I have hooked to my bike with binder clips" (the Velcro on the straps wore away last year). As you can probably tell, none of my bike packs are real bike gear – they’re all improvised and rather worn, although still serviceable.
When I said I could carry my work clothes and lunchbox on my back and remove my improvised bike packs to make room for the lights for the ride home, the owner said, “We have a nice selection of bike packs you might want to check out.” I replied, knowing full well that I didn't need any new bike packs “Well, maybe I’ll put that on my Christmas list,”
Perhaps he had also noticed the duct tape repairs on my old faithful bike, because as I reached into my pocket to pull out my budget money to pay for the lights and told him that I had the change in my purse, he said, “We can forego the change and call it even.”
I immediately felt a mixture of shame and pride that he was thinking I must be poor and he was taking my last pennies. I’m a coupon clipper and love getting a good deal, but my reaction to this was that he was making a judgment of me and I didn’t want his charity. I said, “No, I have it” instead of “thanks, that’s kind of you” or “sure, I’ll take a discount”.
So how do the people I serve feel when I reach out to them? Do they feel like a charity case? Do they feel shame and pride? The owner at the bike shop meant well, I'm sure. But the shame and embarrassment I felt was very real to me, and my quick reaction to maintain my pride was just as real. This was only a few cents; what about those who need so much more, so much more often?
Saint Vincent de Paul, who helped organize the Confraternities of Charity, on which the Daughters of Charity were based and who helped write the regulations, used the expression “the bashful poor” at least 15 times in these regulations. What about the bashful poor in my life?