Friday, February 22, 2013

The Day I Was Called a Demon

Demon. Not Lyndsey.

by Lyndsey Graves

Four days ago, I was accused of being a demon.

A woman came from the food pantry where I work into the church office, demanding to “speak to the head pastor about a family emergency” (read: ask for money). When I offered to go with her to speak with the assistant pastor, who is equipped to handle such requests and does so with real compassion, I became the subject of a long diatribe, beginning with “You a racist” and ending with “you a demon” as the elevator doors closed to take her away.

Since moving to a predominantly black neighborhood in Syracuse, I’ve been called a racist too many times to count; and a racist is a step below a demon in most people’s books so I shouldn’t have been too shocked. And in fact I wasn’t. A lot of unrelated but truly crazy things happened to me last week, so I was already in emotional survival mode. I had no reserves on which to draw to feel hurt or sad, or to consider the woman’s mental illness, or painful past, and feel an appropriate resolve to continue on in my work righting wrongs. I only sort of cared; I didn’t even give much thought to the episode until a few days later.

After three years of intentionally joining in with the lives of my neighbors in poverty, I’ve seen a lot, but Friday felt like a new line: the day being called a demon wouldn’t faze me.

Now that I think about it, a part of me is sad that it’s so difficult to help people, and that this is the reward one gets for trying. Another part of me does want to do something more to help this woman. But overall, it’s a necessary skill in these kinds of jobs (or volunteer positions) to not care sometimes. When you’re trying to feed sixty families in two hours, you can’t worry about “troublesome” individuals while ten “normal” people get passed by for help. You just can’t. You carry on. You laugh.

A necessary coping mechanism
And on days when you’ve got the time, you ask God to send someone, someone with more to spare than you have right now, to look on that person with more compassion than you can.

I decided to write about being called a demon, and then sat down to catch up on reading. It turns out Ben posted on oppression the same day I was exorcized:

“I don’t know how to untangle the oppressive nature of societal institutions from their pragmatic necessity. I’m open to suggestions. If you know anyone involved with these communities, leave a comment, get in touch with me, I want to know them.

I want to learn from them.

But in the meantime, I’ll keep trying to grow. I’ll keep trying to become a person who sees both the redeemed person who someone can become as well as the broken person they are. I’ll keep trying to be better, to be more loving. I’ll keep trying to love man in particular, instead of the easy love of all mankind.”

He had already put words to the solution for my own frustration with my job; this jaded volunteer 
lady is asking you to hear them. Because the more time I spend around the poor, the formerly incarcerated, around government welfare systems and nonprofits, the more convinced I become that “society” only improves one life at a time. Those of us trying to change society on a large scale are consistently overwhelmed and under-resourced, but maybe we’re missing the point a little - Jesus touched people one at a time. 

Awww *sniffles*
He didn’t seem too worried with setting up a program or fixing everything for everyone; instead, he met people singly, he stopped to talk to them, he stopped to listen, and he chose to help, one at a time. Maybe Jesus knew that there is no such thing as a more “efficient” healing, that there is no lawn sprinkler to cover everyone in the kind of deep love this world longs for. There is only the touch of a hand for an infirm woman, a gaze of compassion for a rich man, a call by name for a fisherman. 

It’s so often easier to love mankind in general, than to love the individual man or woman who are its constituency.  At times, I even wonder if food pantries aren’t one of the oppressive societal institutions Ben is referencing, meant as much to maintain class separations as to lessen income disparities. On balance, I think food pantries do serve an important purpose and can contribute to positive life change. But they are only stopgap measures. 

If we want to really change the way people experience poverty, or prison, or whatever other structure contributes to injustice, we need to become more willing simply to dig in with people one at a time, to take the time to listen, and to hear, and to share, to take the time, truly, to just be friends.

Lyndsey lives and works in Syracuse, NY. She majored in theology at Lee University, which is like eating cake or listening to thunderstorms - too enjoyable to be called work. Also, no one will pay you to do it. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest.


  1. Lyndsey, I work at an inner city church that mostly serves the south side of Oklahoma City, but really we bus people in from all over. I'm sure working in poverty situations has taught you that even those with homes are transient and awesomely most of these people enjoy coming to church even after they've moved.

    Anyway, I just wanted to write and say, man, I feel for this chick. Been there. Well, sort of. Not actually ever been called a demon. BUT, I have had my life threatened once and was told that I couldn't possibly believe in God because I didn't want to punch someone like she did when she thought the Holy Spirit was leading her to do so. Which as you can understand was kind of annoying.

    I've worked full time as the Elementary Minister for almost 4 years now, which really means I work with their families and anywhere God calls me on a daily basis. Aaaand drama. Lots of afternoon talk show stuff. I've learned tons of things, mainly just from God telling me that I'm doing it wrong. Again.

    It's hard. But most people looking in on ministries that cater to the "fringe populations" (which is a silly way to put it because there are actually TONS of people in these populations) think, "aw look at these sad people, with sad lives," and don't realize, like deep down realize, they are just people, with totally different problems. It's not our job to fix the system (and man have I thought of all kinds of ways that are like, super fantastic, and would TOTALLY work..), or even change the never ending cycle that their familial patterns have placed them.

    I just love them. Try to show them Jesus. And try not to do more harm.

    Anyway, long comment short, I wanted to kind of fist pound you digitally with this comment. One friend to another, comrade at arms, or whatever. Keep going. Sometimes this totally sucks. But then other times it's just awesome.

    Okay, so like 30 run on sentences and fragments later, I'm done. But you're cool, man. I enjoy the blog. Keep working that food pantry. And don't get mice. We did. It was gross.

    1. Oh, we are waging a mouse war right now. Starting to come out ahead.

      "Aaaand drama" - amen.Digital fist pound returned! (PS I tried to reply a few days ago, but am having great internet woes...)