The Common Good
July-August 1995

When Poverty is the Landscape

by Joyce Hollyday | July-August 1995

An inner-city physician's honest struggles.

Six months after I moved to Washington, D.C., to join Sojourners Community, in the spring of 1978, I came down with mononucleosis. I soon discovered what my neighbors had known for a long time-inner-city residents without health insurance have few options for medical care. Waiting rooms at the local public clinic and hospital emergency rooms overflowed with patients waiting for hours to see a doctor they were unlikely to see again. Health care for the poor was generally hurried and sporadic.

But, to my great relief, a friend directed me to Dr. Janelle Goetcheus at the recently opened Community of Hope Health Services, a church-sponsored clinic just five blocks away. There I found thorough and compassionate care. And thus began a relationship with several medical caregivers who have set out to transform health care for the poor in the nation's capital.

Dr. David Hilfiker began working at Community of Hope in 1983. Two years later, his family joined the Goetcheus family and others in founding Christ House, a 34-bed medical recovery shelter for homeless men. In 1990, Hilfiker and his family moved into Joseph's House, a community providing care and shelter for homeless men with AIDS.

I was blessed to spend time at Joseph's House while writing an article on the community for Sojourners (see "At Home in Joseph's House," May 1992). What touched me most about David Hilfiker was his vulnerability. By living at Joseph's House with his family, he was committed to breaking down the barriers that, under usual circumstances, would have kept him separated from the people he served; but he was well aware that as a white, Yale-educated doctor, he could never fully comprehend the powerlessness and chaos that reigned in their lives.

NOT ALL OF US Are Saints is a compellingly honest portrayal of both the brokenness of the people Hilfiker cares for day in and day out, and his intimate wrestlings with doubt, discouragement, and anger. The title speaks of the humility with which he approaches the task.

He confesses early in the book, while still living upstairs in Christ House:

I live on the mainland of our society. No matter what route I choose, what decisions I make, I will always have a secure route back. The men downstairs live on an island, separated from me by waters deep and unbridgeable....

The spiritual discipline of "voluntary poverty" has nothing in common with the oppression and despair of the ghetto. There is nothing beautiful or romantic in frostbitten toes or minds destroyed by alcohol, in lives crushed by the weight of indifferent history and cultural negligence....We betray those caught in [poverty's] web by romanticizing it or imagining that we-by divesting ourselves of some bits of our privilege-can choose to enter it. The landscape of poverty is inaccessible to most of us. We can barely imagine the scenery.

But neither is it possible to live as a privileged person within the world of the very poor without undergoing some changes.

The stories Hilfiker relates about his patients are difficult to read. They start to sound tragically similar, and we are left longing for hope. But there are few "success stories" to tell, as anyone who is acquainted with the inner city knows.

Heartfelt-and heartrending-Not All of Us Are Saints paints a disturbing picture that America needs to see. It is important reading, both for those who have yet to have their eyes opened, and for those who live enmeshed in the issues with which Hilfiker daily struggles. It is honest, and truly courageous, guidance for the journey.

JOYCE HOLLYDAY, a former Sojourners associate editor and now a contributing editor, writes, leads retreats, and works with survivors of domestic abuse in western North Carolina. She is the author, most recently, of Clothed With the Sun: Biblical Women, Social Justice and Us (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994).

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