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Joseph's House

Washington, DC
September 2006

Dear Friends,

This is our fall appeal letter and I want to open by quoting from Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann.

"Something happens to a society when its wealth is reckoned in commodities, and it is stashed away for some to have and some not to have. Some can pay and some can't.

"Something happens to a society when its 'know how' becomes sophisticated and mystifying and technical, and it is possessed by some and not possessed by others. Some know and some don't.

"Something happens to a society when a sense of solidarity among persons yields to a kind of individuality, when a sense of belonging with each other is diminished and a sense of being apart from each other takes its place. Some belong and some don't.

"Whatever it is that happens is happening to us. And there is the new, powerful emergence of those who can pay and those who know and those who belong. Very often the paying ones and the knowing ones and the belonging ones are the same ones — or at least they talk only with each other and they trust one another. They are content to be left to their own resources, which are ample. And so the others — the one's who can't pay and don't know and don't belong — are left to their own resourcelessness."

For the last sixteen years at Joseph's House, this small home and community for people dying of AIDS and cancer, who would otherwise be homeless, we have welcomed those who can't pay and don't know and don't belong. Most of those who have come, have died with us at home. It has been a life-transforming experience for everyone involved. With your spiritual and financial support, all this is possible. With your support we are becoming a more compassionate community and a more mature community. One expression of our deepening maturity as a community is our growing willingness to hold the tension inherent in our conviction that justice and compassion are inseparable from and essential to each other. I hope, as you read this letter that you will find yourself holding this creative tension with us.

When he founded Joseph's House, David Hilfiker MD, says that he originally understood "our work to be a manifestation of justice itself". Increasingly over the years, however, he has become concerned that our compassion "might be interfering with our equally strong commitment to justice." In David's regular conversations with Joseph's House staff and volunteers he gently insists that as a community we must become able to understand that there are problems with ‘the charity approach" to the problems of AIDS and homelessness.

It takes time to develop this understanding and it is not easy.

I confess that I find it much harder to discuss meaningful response to social injustice with our staff and volunteers — and with our supporters! — than to share stories of relationship and mutual transformation that happen at Joseph's House. And this is understandable, because as a middle class person I have often benefited from the same systems which have undermined those who find themselves at Joseph's House at the end of their lives. As I gradually come to understand the significance of this, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the complexity and enormity and unfairness of the situation — and helpless to change it. But David encourages us not to give up that tension too soon. "If we can grow in our awareness of injustice", he says, "as a community, we will also grow in compassion."

David tells the parable of the small community living by a river. One day, someone notices a baby floating down the wildly churning river. Without thought for her own safety, she jumps in and rescues the baby. Her bravery and compassion are evident. But the next day another baby comes floating down the river and another person notices, and equally courageous and committed, has to jump in to save the baby. This goes on day after day until sometimes four or five babies come down in a day. In its concern and compassion, the community sets up an elaborate system for rescuing the babies, devotes its own resources to the task, and manages to save most of the babies although some slip through to their deaths. But this elaborate system of compassion begs the question: Why hasn't anyone gone upstream to see who is throwing the babies into the water and do something about that? Compassion isn't enough unless it is situated in the context of justice.

"We tend to think of AIDS as a disease that people bring on themselves, and in one sense it is", David says, "much like lung cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and a whole host of ‘lifestyle diseases'. But a closer look shows that African American men are nine times more likely to contract AIDS than white men and African American women are eighteen times more likely to get the disease than white women." David explores the cause of this discrepancy in his book, Urban Injustice and finds that it lies in part in the extreme injustice that created the inner city ghetto. "It became clearly evident", he writes, "that the wider society built the structures that created the ghetto. The bottom line is that the same society that benefits middle and upper-middle class people like us, builds structures that consign millions to poverty. The problems that come out of that ghetto are as much the responsibility of the rest of us as they are of the black community."

Even more unjust is the role of the criminal justice system in the transmission of AIDS. A recent study demonstrates that that entire, enormous discrepancy between black and white AIDS rates can be traced back to the differential rates of incarceration between black and white. Without going into detail here, blacks are treated differently at every level in the criminal justice system. So, for instance, a black cocaine user is twenty times more likely to do prison time than is a white cocaine user. And sentencing has itself become more discriminatory and more unjust over the past generation. The point is that the incredible rates of AIDS among inner city African American men and women have their roots in the injustice of American society.

So given that background of injustice, David asks, how much is Joseph's House like that community by the river, reaching out to pull black men and women from the river of AIDS while ignoring the issues upstream? To what degree does our work at Joseph's House actually lessen the pressure on the wider society to confront the problem?

One issue, he says, is that we're a charity. Although we do receive government support - for which we are grateful — the fact remains that we have no obligation to provide this kind of care. In hundreds of communities where no one is called to work with homeless people who are dying, no one is. "Is it possible", David asks, "that Joseph's House, with our wonderful atmosphere and success in our work, can lead people to believe that charity is the way to deal with these problems and that fundamental changes in our society aren't necessary?"

Over coffee and dessert at a recent Friday night dinner there was a passionate conversation weighing the merits of the view that before we can hope to influence a reverse of the injustice and systemic violence that shape the lives of the men and women who come to live at Joseph's House, we must work on ourselves, each of us becoming personally and deeply non-violent…. against the merits of the view that imperfect as we are, we must do the best we can now, to become more personally compassionate and work to bring justice and compassion into the very structures of the society we all share.

I find it hard to take sides in this discussion because every day at Joseph's House I am a witness to the quality of interaction and the skillfulness of compassion expressed by those who have a regular contemplative spiritual practice whether or not they are also actively engaged in addressing the social injustices that contribute to lifetimes of oppression suffered by those who come to Joseph's House to die. For myself, I am passionate about teaching principles and supporting practices that honor the healing power of the Spirit, particularly as expressed through relationships at Joseph's House.

At the same time, every year I watch the deepening of respect and increasing confidence and trust in relationship as, over the course of the year in their study and discussions with David, our young interns also grow in their awareness of the historic and systemic injustice that opens doors for them and has closed doors for those they care for. Such awareness is humbling, and I believe it contributes to the ability to stay in this hard work of justice and love — for the long haul.

So, are we suggesting that we abandon Joseph's House and its work? No….not at all. But we promise to name the problems and recognize the issues we must deal with. We know we have a responsibility to educate others about the history of poverty, the injustice of the criminal justice system and about the changes that are necessary for ours to be a truly just society. And we will do this. We will also share and teach what we are learning every day about compassionate - exquisite - accompaniment of those who are dying.

The deep work at Joseph's House that you support with your spiritual support and financial gifts is the work of maturing love. I say this, remembering William Sloan Coffin's words that ‘to show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make that person an object of compassion - is to be sentimental rather than loving'.

There is nothing sentimental about Joseph's House! The love you support at Joseph's House is real — and maturing. Thank you for whatever you are able to give.

Gratefully yours,

Patricia Wudel, Executive Director, Joseph's House

Dr. David Hilfiker has written several books on social justice.

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