Difference Between Bias And Belief
May 13, 2013
I have been volunteering at a Christian homeless shelter for more than a couple of years. As a non-Christian, I was prepared for turning the other cheek to the various Bible quotes plastered on walls. I routinely declined invitations to join their Sunday church service. I even tolerated a few not-so-subtle digs at ‘my philosophy’. I consider myself very accepting of different faiths and creeds, if (and it is a giant if) they respect mine. In other words, I do not tolerate intolerance.
Sometimes it is hard to determine if a faith group is merely being themselves, or are they acting upon an evangelical impulse.
I have been in the throws of such a dilemma with this homeless shelter. For me a life of awareness means being conscious of my biases within my relationships. I always try to be objective about my motives. I question my attachments and expectations. I challenge my fears, I scrutinize my prejudices. I think these things make being a mature adult so rewarding. In my youth I lived by my passions. Some people and situations would repulse me, while I would become obsessed by others. Not an intelligent way to live.
Just when I thought I had it all figured out, the shelter decided to play gospel tapes over the loud speaker while I was cutting hair in that room. My objection to that was on several levels. I prefer silence because I enjoy listening to the men as they open up about themselves in the barber’s chair. It is the main reason I do this. But what bothered me more was this uneasy sense that I was being targeted for proselytization.
After each session, they would “praise Jesus” for the “fine work you are doing.” I grew uncomfortable with the way the food restrictions of the clients were dismissed. Men who did not eat pork were given no consideration, neither were vegetarians. “We are a Christian organization and we serve according to the Gospel.”
I really had to have a long hard think about why I was feeling so uneasy going there nowadays. Was I becoming intolerant of their right to practice their faith? Was I turning anti-Christian? Or was it that I had observed one incident too many where they had breached the boundary of respectful behavior?
I have to admit it was not easy to separate out my personal emotions from the altruistic ones. If it were boundary issues, I knew the thing to do was re-negotiate. I attempted to speak to those in charge about my feelings and, to a man, everyone of them was dismissive of my concerns. “You knew what we were before you joined. If you don’t like it, leave.” I was told in more padded language, but it amounted to that.
If I left, would I be abandoning the men? Was it fair to punish them for the wrongs of others? And so I gritted my teeth and kept coming back, each time less and less happy to be there.
Confused about my feelings, I turned to the homeless men themselves for advice. It was they who told me about how powerless they felt with what they were subjected to. Most of the shelters in the city are faith-based and each offers help to the needy tinged by their biases. While none are overtly discriminatory, they express it in the choices they offer, and the biases towards whom they help the most. No dogs. You can’t sleep here unless you are sober. Preferential treatment for the guys who attend bible study.
Of the dozens of shelters, only a couple were secular. I decided to check them out. Both these shelters provide vegetarian as well as non-pork options for the men. Both places had a spontaneous, chaotic energy about them. They were more flexible than the faith-based shelters, more willing to improvise in doing the needful. I felt at home with them. It occurred to me that this was because these secular workers had no other agenda than to help those who were in need of help. Because they were helping as one human being towards another, without a middle “man”, there was more of a willingness to accommodate. The faith-based charities defer to rules and authority. That Christian shelter was always quick with a reason why something could not be done.
I realized that there is close kinship between bias and belief. I don’t even know if the two can be segregated. While I strive in my spiritual journey to be free of all biases, embracing the world exactly as it is, l also acknowledge that there are times when I need to take a stand. While I still respect all religions, I cannot tolerate discrimination, cruelty or violence in the name of any religion. Even when that violence is subtle and unintentional.
It is my core belief that faith is a matter of personal choice. No one should impose his or her religion upon another. The one true path is the one that works for you.
I have resigned from the faith-based shelter. I am not abandoning the men, I will cut hair at one of the secular homeless shelters instead. That may be a personal bias of mine, but for now it fits my belief.