It’s Friday, and I’m sitting in a crowded megachurch in Los Gatos, California on a warm spring evening. A singer scratches the air with his rough voice and acoustic guitar with the sincerity only a musician with a small Facebook fan page can muster. It’s a far cry from the scores of concerts taking place around my hometown of Austin, Texas tonight. There, South by Southwest is in full swing; there, artists like my brother jam in clubs and on obscure stages seeking recording contracts, faithful fans, or just the transcendent experience of a truly great jam. Here, there are no agents and no fans. Something far stronger than a great show binds the artists and audience together: charity.
Last August, a May graduate from the school where I teach left home for church. She was broadsided by a reckless driver. The doctors call her condition TBI, Traumatic Brain Injury, but that doesn’t come close to expressing the destructive force that transformed Jessica from a bubbly, college-bound girl to a girl who, seven months on, can nod her head on a good day and has yet to speak a word. To compound tragedy, the family’s health insurance has balked at paying for her treatment every step of the way. Despite the fact that it was only because her mother stayed with her every hour that a nurse was notified in time to save Jessica during several midnight crises, it took several petitions and the investigative department of a local tv station to keep the insurance company from forcing Jessica into a hospital wing that was inadequately staffed and didn’t allow family to stay overnight. The Huse family’s saga has been one long apologetic for the need to ensure that for-profit insurers cannot abandon or financially destroy faithful customers for the sake of the bottom line.
Tonight’s concert is an apologetic, too, and it communicates something of a mixed message. Hundreds, most of whom had never met Jessica or her family, purchased tickets at $20 per person and participated in the raffle and silent auction to raise funds for the family’s medical bills. This evening is a testimony to the generosity of strangers, family, and friends, an outpouring of the Church caring for a sister in need. But tonight’s proceeds won’t put a dent in the cost of the long-term care Jessica requires. The family needs night after night after night like this one. Even a large congregation unburdened by this recession couldn’t sustain that kind of giving. Most churches struggle to collect enough tithes to keep the lights on. And Jessica is merely one sister in need. Charity, no matter how heartfelt, is not enough. We must do more to make health care available to everyone.
Whether the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is part of the solution to this problem is a legitimate matter of great debate. A few things are certain: it will bring access to care to thirty million of our fellow citizens, it will take important steps to curb insurers’ refusal to cover patients with preexisting conditions, and it will stop them from dropping patients who become ill or injured. It is incomplete, insufficient, and contains provisions that raise serious moral questions. It is also the closest we’ve been to making this system more just in the better part of a century.
Whatever the rest of this legislative session brings, we have a clear mandate from He who is Charity. We must uphold the sanctity of life, from the unborn to the aged, from the man with cancer who loses his job, his insurance, then his life, to the girl hit by a car on her way to worship Him. If not this bill, then another, and that right soon.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” As with so many other things, Dr. King was right. It was one of Christ’s most famous parables that radically redefined our responsibility for each other when He told of a Samaritan who rescued his enemy on the road and paid for his medical care at great personal cost. Health care costs have spiraled beyond our ability to mimic the Samaritan in many cases, but He has not excused us from helping our neighbor. Like the people who gave with open hands to a girl they’d never met, we can find a way to extend our great fortune of health care to those who do not share that fortune. We may not be able to pay out of pocket, but we have been granted the power of political participation and creative private enterprise. If we do not use them, we, like the priest and the Levite, pass by the wounded man on the road. Christ didn’t speak highly of those men. ‘