Advocating for Others
The mental health system entered hard times during the economic recession. Rumors of job layoffs and program cuts abounded. Even programs that served hundreds of people were eliminated. The future looked gloomy. I work in a program that is a segment of a broader service program. We have many programs in our agency serving adults, but some also serve children. One of our programs scheduled for elimination was an adult program serving over four hundred people. It provided employment to psychiatrists, case managers, and groups. It shocked me to learn it could be cut.
Since I have advocated for mental health before, I asked our director if I might speak at the Board of Supervisors meeting. Soon, a staff member e-mailed me with an offer to speak at the meeting. She also asked if I would take signed petitions to the supervisors. I accepted the offer and dug out information related to our budget for the coming year.
The proposed budget left much sadness and discouragement in our mental health system. I decided to make my brief talk hopeful, instead of defeated. I planned to tell the success of our employees and the mentally ill people in our program. I touched upon what people with severe mental illness can achieve, with proper support. I wrote my speech beforehand, because I knew I would be nervous.
Terrible weather arrived on the day of my speech. As I walked into the building where the meeting was held, I noticed five or six mental health employees carrying signs protesting the budget cuts. I decided to join them. Their departments and programs were scheduled to have huge cuts, and I knew they provided excellent services. These people had given me the Advocate of the Year award twice over the last twenty years, so I wanted to help them. I took my sign and held it up to face bypassers.
Those picketing were not only concerned for the people in their program, but wanted to prevent layoffs that were scheduled for other programs. I realized my good fortune to still have a job. I listened as they shared the bad news about their program. Many of the picketers had already lost their jobs. It saddened me to know that the services they provide would no longer be available. It began to rain, and they decided to pack it in. They were discouraged, and they didn’t see how their picketing had helped, anyway.
Having heard what was going on with these programs, I felt that I couldn’t go into the meeting. I remembered a tape of a Christian person I admire and how he had picketed and wondered if he was doing any good at all. He said that picketing wasn’t the point. The point was that he would not let culture or challenges stop him from speaking out against injustice.
The rain poured, and I had no coat or umbrella, but there I stood, sign in hand. One person stopped by and asked what I was picketing. He said he admired me.
I laughed and said, “Well, I’m either dedicated, or not smart enough to come in out of the rain.” I had to laugh at myself. My sign was getting wet and starting to bend. I now had to hold it with both hands so it could still be seen. I felt I needed to do this for the people who receive our services, as well as for those who provide the services.
As it neared time for the meeting to start, I packed my stuff and went into the board room. I suddenly remembered that wet clothing will make you cold. I felt so chilled that I started shivering, but I hoped they might allow the advocates to speak, first. Expecting a group of speakers from various programs, I was stunned to learn that I was the only speaker scheduled to speak. Holy cow, I thought. They were counting on me to advocate for the whole program! The last time I had spoken in front of the board was in the mid-nineteen eighties. I’d been on many committees and had spoken publically, but not before the entire board. Still, I knew I could do this.
No one seemed to know where we were on the agenda. An hour went by, then another, and soon lunch time arrived. I thought surely we would be on the agenda after lunch, but this wasn’t the case. Finally, they called on me to speak at 4:30 p.m.
Though I now felt tired, and my thinking wasn’t as clear as it might have been earlier in the day, I hopped up when I heard my name. I snatched up my folder, only to have all the petitions (about fifty) fly out of it. Oops! Not exactly the most graceful way to start a speech.
I am very short, so the chairperson explained how to lower the mike. I am not the most mechanical person in the world, so I couldn’t figure it out. One of the top county executives lowered it for me. I introduced myself and explained who I represented and why I was there. After that, my speech became a blur. I thanked them for letting me speak and went back to my chair. Exhausted and drained, I wanted to leave, but there were two or three speakers from other mental health programs who also were going to speak. I felt it would be rude to leave before they talked.
Later, our director asked how it went and thanked me for going. I told him about the picketing and the petitions falling, and we laughed. He told me that one of the county staff had asked him who was the woman who spoke, and relayed that I had impressed her. That was encouraging. As it turned out, a lot of layoffs occurred in the program, but it still remains. We don’t know what the future holds for the program, at this point.
Meanwhile Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There an angel of the LORD appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush. As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.” W
hen the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father,” he continued, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. But the LORD said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the country of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. So indeed the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have truly noted that the Egyptians are oppressing them. Come, now! I will send you to Pharaoh to lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He answered, “I will be with you; and this shall be your proof that it is I who have sent you: when you bring my people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this very mountain.”
“But,” said Moses to God, “when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.”
Exodus 3:1-14 (The New American Bible)
We may see situations which are sometimes unjust or cause hardship for people who can ill afford more difficulties. We may read of a program in our community that is possibly being cut, and learn that they are having a hearing. We may feel badly for those involved, and know it will cause pain. For a few minutes we may say to ourselves, “I wish there was something I could do.” Then we get distracted, and, if we think of it again, we might say, “I hope it came out well.” We may feel that it doesn’t involve us or our families, and think, “I have so many responsibilities, and besides, how could I possibly help?”
Yes, we are all busy with our families, our careers, and other responsibilities. We barely have time to do what we must now, so how can we possibly help people we don’t even know? If we do feel the passion to help people in our community, we may face yet another hurdle. Who will listen to me? What good will one voice do? We may get nervous speaking in front of people.
Moses had the same doubts. He didn’t think anyone would want listen to him. He said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of Egypt?” Does that sound familiar? But notice what God says, “I am with you.” Those words are as true today as they were when written in the Bible. When we advocate for people who are being persecuted or services that are being cut, God is with us.
We must speak up when there is injustice, and research why services are being cut or why an injustice is being done. We can’t advocate unless we have facts to back up our stance. We must make sure the most vulnerable people in our community have the services they need to survive and thrive. We are like Moses: we have to speak out, even if we don’t feel competent or sure of ourselves. Just like Moses, God will be with us.