By Norris Burkes Apr 10, 2016
This week I went to Las Vegas to help my brother, whose 58-year-old wife died from a respiratory arrest.
In hopes of finding some resources, I phoned a local church I’ll call “Big Church,” Las Vegas. It was a multi-staff church, so I was connected to the pastor who’s in charge of compassionate care. He listened as I recounted my brother’s story.
My brother lives on the east side of Las Vegas among the working poor. There’s no glitz here, only dust and miles of old trailer parks, honkytonks, and title loan stores. Homeless folks beg for money from the cool shades of strip malls and short-skirted ladies stride under the watchful eye of their “supervisor.”
For the past fifteen years my brother and his wife ran a television-repair business here. But if repairs aren’t covered under warranties, customers will opt to buy a smart TV before they’ll pay to fix the old one.
Nevertheless, my brother and his wife have managed a meager living. This, despite the fact that my brother suffers from a lifelong undiagnosed social disorder, perhaps a high-functioning autism. The condition seems to draw him toward conspiracy theories. He distrusts mainstream media, modern medicine and even NASA, as he believes the earth is flat.
His hoarding practice has him living in squalid conditions in a mobile home. Worse yet, he’s what medical folk call “non-compliant” with his medications. As a result, he’s nearly blind and can’t drive.
With my sister-in-law’s passing, my brother has lost his driver, his business partner and his social communicator. Now he’s suddenly unemployed and his social intelligence makes him essentially unemployable.
After telling the pastor the story, I assured him that I wasn’t seeking financial help. My mom is sending rent and food money.
However, I did ask his help navigating the local system. Perhaps, I suggested, there was a church member who would help my brother fill out assistance paperwork, drive him to his appointments, do his taxes, or send volunteers to help me clear out his house.
In the week I’ve been here, I’ve talked to the pastor three times, but nothing has yet come of it. Perhaps he doesn’t see his church as my brother’s keeper. However, in the absence of Big Church help, my brother’s neighbors have shown up in a big way.
They are helping me with a garage sale this weekend. They’ve brought food, searched for my brother’s lost dog, driven him to the store and opened a GoFundMe page. Best yet, we’ve conspired together to get my brother to take his medications.
As for me, I’m busting down every door at the VA Medical Center in Las Vegas. We’ve been to the eye clinic, the mental health clinic and the emergency room where his blood pressure set off the alarms. VA volunteers have helped us apply for veteran’s benefits, Social Security disability and food stamps.
In this day and age, I don’t expect Big Church to always house and feed the poor. However, I do hope that churches of all sizes will be the conduit, the navigator and the guide people need inside the social systems.
I do hope they would heed the words of Jesus when he talked about feeding the hungry, quenching the thirsty and visiting the prisoner: “Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me.”
If you see your church or religious community in this story, challenge your pastor or religious leader with a question my seminary professors often posed: “If your church burned down tomorrow, what difference would it make to your community?”
I’ve heard nothing yet from Big Church, but if I do, I’ll let you know.
– Write Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715.