By Dale S. Recinella
Decades ago, in the streets of Tallahassee, Florida’s capital city, the itinerant mentally ill taught me many important lessons about our shared humanity. I had never intended to get involved with the social security administration and the mentally ill on the streets of Tallahassee. My wife and I were simply trying to be alert to the suffering of human beings in our city and especially in the vicinity of our center-city apartment.
While still working part-time in the Tallahassee branch office of a Florida law firm, I am becoming experienced in street ministry. God’s vehicle for this development was Good News Ministries, a non-profit organization founded by a small group of former corporate businessmen. What they all share is the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has radically interfered with their self-seeking secular careers.
So, when I meet this group in 1989, their outreach to relieve human suffering is operating out of a formerly abandoned building on Georgia Street. It is located in Frenchtown, at that time the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhood.
The little one-story building adopted by Good News Ministries becomes a center to drop-off and redistribute used clothing and household goods. And the end of the building closest to Macomb Street, a major venue for drug dealing and prostitution, has been remodeled with volunteer labor and donated materials to house a soup kitchen that feeds 100 or more people per day.
My reconstructed daily life no longer accommodates insane levels of business travel. (My record number of plane changes in the Atlanta airport in just one week was eleven.) By 1990, I rarely use a car, let alone a plane. Every day at 11 am, I change from my three-piece lawyer suit and wingtip shoes into faded jeans and tennis shoes.
The hike from my penthouse law office across the street from the Florida State Capitol Building to the Good News Ministries building is only a few blocks. The center-city apartment our family has moved to after saying goodbye to the affluent northern suburbs is just a few blocks east of the soup kitchen. The street people we are meeting at Good News Ministries could walk to our apartment and bang on our door, to tell us what they need.
In the early 1990s, many of Tallahassee’s Street people need the same thing: a competent person to serve as a “payee” for their meager monthly subsistence checks from the U.S. government.
“Payee” is the legal name for the person who signs a contract with the government to receive those small government checks, deposit the money in a special protected bank account called a trust account, and disburse the funds to them as needed. The payee also agrees with the government to maintain auditable records of how much was received, how much was disbursed, when and for what.
Some of the street people in Tallahassee are not competent to receive their checks from social security or disability–either because of debilitating conditions or terminal addictions. They are required to have a third party receive their checks and handle their money. For those without family nearby, few options are available because the dollar amounts are too small to justify a fee and the fear of lawsuits is great.
A delegation of a half-dozen mentally ill street people who frequent Good News Ministries shows up at our family’s center city apartment. Would I be a payee for them so they could get their federal subsistence money?
The next morning, I am at the Tallahassee Social Security office across the desk from a team of administrators who hope I will solve their problem.
“So, what’s the downside to me if I agree to do this? Give me the bottom line.”
The eldest lady looks a bit uncomfortable but speaks in an even and gentle voice. “Everybody you try to help as their payee could sue you.”
“Well, they will be disappointed,” I shrug. “We disposed of all our assets years ago and gave the proceeds to the poor. We own nothing to speak of. We live off the cash flow of our professional work.”
A positive energy steals into the room. Several of her staff exchange knowing glances, as if to say aloud: Maybe this guy is crazy enough to do this!
This ministry involves opening a trust account for each person. Then meeting with them at least twice a week to review their living situation and their financial needs, paying their bills, buying their prescriptions and maintaining records adequate to survive the annual social security audit on each account.
I outline my ideas for setting up the accounts and for the distribution of monies twice weekly. Always, with signed receipts. I had come in with 6 names of street people that needed a payee. The folks in that meeting add twelve more.
When I enter the bank on the first floor of my law office building to set up the trust accounts, many of my new payees are following me closely. In fact, they follow me everywhere and wait outside the buildings they cannot enter. I soon have the nickname: the pied-piper of Good News.
In struggling to understand their world, their life experiences, and their needs, I enter a panoply of challenging experiences. And I learn to love so many of them: Pops, Darryl, Mary Ann, George, and many more. But one of my dearests is a soft-spoken man named Chester. He is tall, in his mid-fifties, and had been no different from any of us “normal” people until a traumatic brain injury in a factory accident.
As a legal payee for all of my charges, I know that most of their meager monthly government funds will go for rent, utilities, food and medicine. But it is possible to save a little bit each month for Christmas. I expect them to joyfully splurge on themselves in a modest Christmas shopping binge.
“What would you like to do with your Christmas money?” I ask Chester in the office I use at Good News to make twice-weekly distributions.
He pauses thoughtfully, pushing out his left cheek with his tongue. “Ya know,” he looks down shyly, rubbing his ear as he speaks, “Since I gotten sick, I’ve never been able to buy any presents for my friends.”
In response to my astonishment, he shuffles his feet and stutters apologetically.
“R-r-really, Mister Dale, I-I-I just want to g-g-g-ive presents to my friends. That-at-at’s all I want for Christmas.”
I grab him in a bear hug. “We are going Christmas shopping for your friends!”
I should not have been surprised. Our Catholic faith teaches that we are each made in the image and likeness of God. That is the basis for the dignity of human life. Of all the traits manifested by that God, perhaps none has been more pronounced through history than God’s propensity to give gifts—even the gift of God’s only begotten Son. By God’s grace, it is in our redeemed nature to give.
St. Pope John Paul II challenged us to recognize this dignity, this image of the Giver, in every human being. He specifically challenged us to ensure “that the dignity of human life never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
Decades after serving Chester, I walk the corridors of Florida’s death row with the memories of my beloved friend and the teaching of my Church in hand. How do my brothers on death row live out the image of God the Giver?
I have been amazed. As they sit for hours on end in their cells, many allow their time to be redeemed and the image of God to be expressed by preparing gifts for others.
One elderly fellow shows me a photo of a six-year-old pen-pal with terminal cancer. The image of the Giver in him wants to surprise her. He proudly displays the sweater he is making for her.
Another death row inmate hand paints a replica of a traditional Catholic picture for his Catholic daughter. He himself is Protestant. But the image of God in him reaches beyond doctrine to give a gift that will inspire and encourage her while her father is on death row.
Still another meticulously crafts Bible verses in calligraphy to send to the mission fields. Meanwhile, an intellectually disabled young man spends long hours writing letters of spiritual encouragement to tired ministers of God’s Word.
From time to time, a Florida politician will push to prohibit death row inmates from having the instruments they need to give to others. In other words, to replace Godliness with idleness. My Catholic response is absolutely clear:
The dignity of human life, the image of God the Giver, must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. We must protect society without denying criminals the chance to reform.