Saints and Bureaucrats

If Mother Teresa came to your city, would it welcome her? Silly question. Mother Teresa is a Nobel Prize winner, a world figure. Well, New York City didn't. The city government there decided Mother Teresa just didn't have what it takes to run a proper charity institution. What it takes, you see, is an elevator. That's right. An elevator. Mother Teresa is the 90-pound woman who has such a powerful ministry to the sick and dying in India. Apparently, Mother Teresa decided New York City needed her services as much as Calcutta. About 1 of every 100 New Yorkers is homeless--which adds up to a staggering 90,000 people huddling in shelters or living on sidewalks. So, not long ago, Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity bought two crumbling town houses in New York City. Their plan was to renovate the houses and use them to care for the sick and the homeless. Oh, yes, they found private funds to support the project. This wasn't going to cost the government one cent. Still, the government found a way to stop them. These nuns were accustomed to facing the obstacles of disease and poverty. But they were completely unprepared for the obstacles that could be thrown in their way by New York City bureaucrats. Buried deep in the fine print of some city ordinance is a regulation decreeing that facilities like the one proposed by Mother Teresa must have an elevator. The elevator in question costs about $50,000--a mere pittance, perhaps, to bureaucrats who are used to spending other people's money but a fortune to nuns who are as poor as the needy people they work with. The nuns were bewildered. They didn't need an elevator. They promised to carry the sick to bed in their arms, just as they always had. No good, said the bureaucrats. Rules are rules. In the end, Mother Teresa's nuns had to give up the houses and return to India. There they can care for the sick and the poor without an elevator. New York City's homeless now enjoy neither the loving arms nor the elevator. All of this says a great deal about the bureaucratic approach to compassion. Government programs are often administered by men and women who have simply got themselves a job--not adopted a mission. They work on behalf of the poor and the homeless with all the moral passion of a computer. As Mother Teresa found out, the overriding concern is not helping the poor but keeping the rules. And oh, how many rules there are! Government imposes endless regulations and standards on the exercise of compassion. The paperwork and policies eventually crowd out private charity. Like Mother Teresa, many simply can't afford to operate. The end result is that the only people left in the field are the professional, government-certified and paid social workers. The kind who see the need for an elevator but are blind to the worth of Christian love and mercy. Government charity may feed the body but it is powerless to feed the soul. That is the realm of the Church. The tragedy is when government fails to recognize its own inadequacy and jealously uses its power to drive out private and Christian charity. If Mother Teresa came to your city, would it welcome her? Maybe not such a silly question after all. References: Source of info on Mother Teresa is "Mother Teresa's Paper Travail," by Suzanne Fields, The Washington Times, June 6, 1991.


Chuck Colson



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