What it means to be powerless

Every now and then something up close and personal gives us a hint of what the experience of Mary and Joseph might have been like.

A sad story which came to our sisters this autumn was one of those events. With some variations, it connects with the experience of a twosome faced with unexpected regulations and a no-excuses policy. You know, travel to Bethlehem for a surprise census. If there’s no transportation but mule-back, no lodging, and no midwife around, deal with it.

For a middle-aged couple living in a trailer the problem was poverty compounded by post-Hurricane Matthew technicalities.

On Nov. 1, All Saints Day, the sisters at the St. Francis Center at St. Helena Island were approached by a middle-aged woman who told them that she had just learned that they often helped people with utility issues and home repairs.

She had previously known about their ongoing food distribution and their low-cost thrift shop full of lightly used clothing and home furnishings. But she didn’t know what other things they took care of. She had been refused help by several local agencies.

Electricity went down on Oct. 8, so she and her disabled husband were into their fourth week without power. The problem was that a large tree had taken down their utility pole. They also had lost running water. Like many backroad people, they relied on water pumps, and water pumps need power.

The reason the power had not been restored was because their utility company had quoted section 3, article x of an online policy which stated that utility poles on private property (like off-road island properties, many of which have no formal deeds) were the responsibility of the owners. The couple were advised that they had to purchase a regulation pole, get an installer and electrician, pay the labor fees, and possibly also get a plumber to deal with the water pump issue. These folks were staying at home because they couldn’t afford a night in a motel.

The sisters, of course, found the pole, the professionals, and the money needed. By Nov. 3, power and water were back on.

Meanwhile, they were baffled by the mysterious policy and how it might have been communicated to someone with no electronic devices and no connectivity.

We all know that impersonal rules and regulations, especially ones that catch us off guard, affect the poor the most grievously. Like Mary and Joseph, the poor often have to rely on the mercy of others, and mercy isn’t always forthcoming.

By the way, our research into the company’s terms and conditions says that conduits, weatherheads, electric meter bases, and moving or adding utility poles on private property are the responsibility of homeowners. It also says that any suspension of power due to “Force Majeure” (like a hurricane) “shall be remedied” by the company “with all reasonable dispatch.”

Go figure how that applies if someone has no advocate, no money, and can’t read too well. They need a little Christmas.

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.