Faith Works 9-20-14
Peter Lorre and Humphrey Bogart do ministry
Talk of a "black market" tends to come to mind, not surprisingly, in chiaroscuro shades of black and white, film noir and at its brightest, "Casablanca."
"I came to Casablanca for the waters." "The waters? What waters? We're in the desert." "I was misinformed."
That dialogue between Monsieur Rick and Captain Renault is misinformation about being misinformed, one suspects. And the grand closing at the airport is a mystery of who knew what about whom, when…but there's a wistful happy ending (no spoilers here). You leave that film wondering, though, who really knew what at which point.
There's no confusion about Ugarte, the amoral black marketer played by Peter Lorre. He knows what he wants, and he doesn't care what he has to do to get it. Yet he loses everything for lack of a sense of the bigger picture.
Is there a black market in Newark, Ohio, or elsewhere in Licking County, in Ohio? Oh, I'm sure of it. We have drugs, we have prostitution, perhaps much less than within living memory, but there are illegal exchanges around us, perhaps hidden in plain sight.
As a pastor, I don't deal with the black market. I'm sure I brush up against it, but I don't go looking for it, and it rarely jumps out to force my attentions to such matters.
But the grey market . . . oh my.
What's the grey market? Well, as the term implies, it's not quite illegal, it's not quite legal. Let's start simply: garage sales.
If you are selling items for less than you paid for them, you don't have to worry about income or sales taxes. And even "hobbyist" type income, if it doesn't rise above the expenses incurred in the fun and enjoyment, isn't taxable.
But if you have more than a couple of garage sales a year, at what point does it become a business? Interesting question, legal sources conflict. Three a year? Four? It's not clear. Is that my problem as a pastor to point out to a family that does twenty a year? Well, no, but . . . hmmm.
If someone wants to do all their business with you in cash, no checks: are they trying to stay under the official radar because of wage garnishment, collection of back child support, or outstanding warrants? Should you go along with their flimsy explanation of why they need an envelope full of bills and not a church check?
And what if you're working with a family that is stuck in one of those categories. Perhaps (and I've not dealt with this one recently, so I can use it without making anyone wonder if I mean them) you have someone with a newer family which is really struggling to pay bills and put food on the table for their children, but he is not using public services they qualify for because he owes tens of thousands in another state to an ex for unpaid child support. What's your obligation as a pastor, as a provider of aid?
National Public Radio has run a series of stories this past week on the growing use of wage garnishment in the US, using opportunities in the law to collect debts from individuals and families. In many cases, these are obligations that I'd tell a parishoner "hey, you spent that, you need to pay it back and get square with your debtors." In not a few cases, folks are trying hard to pay back as well or as fast as they can given their current income, but there are legal Ugartes out there, who are coldly and cruelly misusing the law to bend and break families. I recommend listening to the NPR series online.
Over the last five years, I've had to learn about car title loans, payday lenders, "tax preparers" (quote marks intentional), child support plans, and wage garnishment. People pressed to their limits, who need help if only in counsel if not cash, often muddle their own best case in the telling…and sometimes, people are lying to me. It requires that we "be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves."
To help with talking through a plan with a frightened family, and to offer limited aid in the best way, means we have to learn about the bigger picture, if only so we can help people look up, look out, and lead them to the Bigger Picture.
How has your church dealt with the grey economy?
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your letters of transit at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.