Gazette photos by CHRISTOPHER MILLETTE
Sister Monica Scheiber fills a box with dried beans, canned chicken and beef, and assorted canned fruits and vegetables at the Genoa Christian Center's food pantry in Wayne County.
By Bob Schwarz
While a national debate rages over where to find the jobs and child care, the latest experiment in welfare reform will play out in countless scattered homes, often spilling over into neighborhood churches.
In this final piece of a seven-part welfare series, the Gazette focuses on a man and woman trying to right the course of their imperfect lives with a little help from a spiritual leader.
GENOA - Now that James Whitt has gotten married for the third time, he is working harder at learning how to read.
"It's just been hard, trying to read, not being able to read," Whitt said Sunday as he sat at a computer at the Genoa Christian Center in Wayne County. "It's cut out a lot of the world."
On the computer, Whitt works on decoding six-word sentences of one-syllable words, and choosing the right missing word to complete each sentence. He seldom makes a mistake, but he proceeds very slowly. It's hard work.
"I struggled all my life," Whitt says. "I figured if I could learn to read, it'd be a little easier on me."
James, 40, and his wife Rosa, 34, have been coming off and on for a year to Sister Monica Scheiber's learning center.
Eight people come to her learning center workshops on a more or less regular basis, says Scheiber, who while awaiting a yet-to-be-found co-worker, has lately staffed the center by herself.
As the federal and state governments try to phase themselves out of the welfare business, politicians suggest that businesses, non-profits and churches fill the gaps. Businesses can provide jobs, and non-profits soup, the thinking goes. Churches can provide a little food for the body, and perhaps a great deal for the soul. The church can help people transform themselves. That, at least, is the theory.
Scheiber does not see herself as plugging a very big breech. She doesn't operate on a grand enough scale.
Besides, Scheiber says it is folly to believe that someone can run all of society's troubled people through some Dr. Seuss-style machine and they will all come out magically fixed. People come to her, she says, each with different blessings and different problems.
Rosa reads fine, but practices her math so she can earn her general equivalency diploma. She almost passed the GED a few years ago, except for the math.
Rosa says that when she first met James, he could scarcely recognize any written words and didn't know how to sound out words. Rosa started working with him.
James says he came down with hepatitis in third grade and lost three years of school. When he returned, the principal looked him over and put him in sixth grade. James wasn't ready. James is sketchy about the details, but as a student, he was dead in the water from that point on.
James has done assorted jobs over the years, anything a man who couldn't read could latch onto. He trimmed trees, cut brush, did a lot of landscaping. While burning brush at the end of a workday a few years ago - he had snatched a chance to earn a couple of extra hours pay - he picked up a big stick of wood to toss on the fire. Suddenly, the ground under him collapsed. He fell into a hidden hole.
The fall left James with chronic back and leg problems. People who haven't done hard physical labor may wonder how it's possible that so many people can run into such disabling injuries. Miners, timber workers, even nursing home aides know otherwise.
After a four-year battle, James won his disability case earlier this year. He gets Social Security disability totaling $480 a month.
Scheiber guides Rosa Whitt through math. "I love science. I would have made a great scientist," Whitt says. "I love to experiment with stuff."
James has been married twice before and fathered four children. Rosa gave birth to her first child at 16, before she married the father, then had another child after she married him. She gave birth to another four children during a very unhappy second marriage.
None of the children now live with them. James and Rosa live alone in a mobile home James is still paying for.
"I still consider myself a young man," James says. "It gets hard for me to accept that I can't do things I could do before. I'm up and down a lot. When I'm down, I pick up a guitar."
Rosa says she always intended to go back to school, just never did. She has been taking a small engine repair correspondence course the last two years. She reads the manuals, and James works with her on the engines, mostly lawnmower engines. "She'll get as greasy as I will," James says.
Rosa got a welfare check back in 1993 after she divorced. Her kids were with her then. Today, she still qualifies for food stamps.
Calmness has crept into Rosa's life lately. She and James started going to the local Church of God and were married in March. They used to sing together in bars. Now they do most of their singing in church.
"I think it's finally taken a turn for the better," she says of her life. "I'd like to have my own little garage. Small engines. They don't talk back. It's interesting. I like to do it."
But Rosa doesn't like to raise her hopes too high. She has fallen too many times before. Life in Genoa, not much more than a postal address and an elementary school, and 11 miles from the county seat of Wayne, does not overflow with opportunity, she says.
A decent standard of living
The changing welfare rules hover over the decision-making in a household like James and Rosa's, Sister Scheiber says.
If Rosa's children return to live with her - a distinct possibility- she would not receive a welfare check. The new rules wouldn't allow her to get welfare because James already gets his Supplemental Security Income.
Physically, James can't go back to the work he used to do. Although James is articulate in describing his own situation, Sister Scheiber isn't about to predict how far he can or will take himself in reading, learning, and training.
In any event, if he takes a job, he loses his SSI check. "That's why they're looking at her having the business," says Sister Scheiber.
Will people like James and Rosa work miracles in their lives? "Probably not," she says. "But they'll walk steps."
In her work at Genoa Christian Center, Sister Scheiber meets a lot of people with the kind of problems Rosa and James have. Some are teen-agers, high school dropouts who now want a GED. Others, like James, suffer lingering problems from on-the-job injuries. Some have recently lost jobs, trauma enough for most people to bear. One mother has borne a greater trauma, losing two sons who died timbering.
James Whitt answers 90 percent of the questions right as he sharpens reading skills on a computer.
None of her students has passed the GED lately, Sister Scheiber says, but she adds that human beings can make progress in all sorts of ways.
In the afternoon she walks over to another trailer and shifts to relief work. About 14 families stop by each month for canned and packaged goods from the food pantry. The clientele shifts from month to month because families cannot draw food more often than one month out of three. Still, when someone drives up and pokes a head through the door, Sister Scheiber usually recognizes them.
People come by for help with utility bills, too - that's how she first met James and Rosa - and she allots the federal emergency money for that. Occasionally, she helps someone with rent. Someone stops by now and then for spiritual advice.
Sister Scheiber wonders how often she can take the dropouts and casualties of late-20th-century America and transform them into nurses and loan officers. She feels most comfortable attacking problems one human being at a time. In this respect, she resembles many church leaders, rural and urban.
What has led society to give huge subsidies to big business, then turn around and tell the church to pick up the slack for society's least fortunate? asks Emanuel Heyliger, pastor of Ferguson Baptist Church and president of the Charleston Black Ministerial Alliance.
Heyliger says he accepts the divine imperative to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick and in prison. "And I think we are prepared to work very hard, in the context of the community as a village, to take care of those amongst us. However, when people do not enjoy a decent standard of living and can barely make it themselves, trying to help somebody else staggers the imagination."
Sister Scheiber's secret
Sister Scheiber has a secret for all those who think the church can wave a wand over the problems of poverty and make them disappear.
She didn't come to Wayne County just to give out food and prepare people for their GEDs. She came to continue a project begun by others, and that was to undemonize the Catholic Church in rural West Virginia, especially in heavily Baptist Southern West Virginia.
Two years ago, the Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in Wayne, where Sister Scheiber assists with religious education, hosted the first ecumenical church service ever held in Wayne County. Last year, a Presbyterian church hosted the ecumenical service, and the spiritual leaders are now planning the third annual event.
"We're here to show people we all believe in the same God," says Sister Scheiber. "We're here to build bridges."
If the world is to be saved, even if a small part of Wayne County is to be saved, it will take others besides herself, she says. "There are a lot of limits. Just as I'm limited as a human being, other people are also limited as human beings."
The welfare system has crippled people, trapping them in a dependency even as it met their basic material needs, Sister Scheiber says. People found they could live on welfare more easily than they could on minimum wage jobs.
"That became a whole conflict for those living on minimum wage jobs. There were no advantages connected with working minimum wage jobs," she said.
The people on welfare became isolated, removed from the greater community which could nurture them back to wholeness, she says.
"You would hear people say, "I have a right to eat, I have a right to electricity," Sister Scheiber says. "You never heard anyone say what they were expected to do or that they had a right to work. How long has it been since you heard anyone say that every individual has a right to work?"
So the system went awry, and - prodded by an impatient and self-righteous public - made an effort to right itself, thereby opening up new sores and new problems.
"If we ever said anything here at the Christian Center, it was that we would support those who fall through the cracks," says Sister Scheiber. "But the cracks have now become crevices."
Sister Scheiber wishes she could point to dramatic success stories, but she says success often comes in small increments. She works with people, enters their lives. But some people are better able than others to lift themselves.
"They get to know you," she says of her work. "You get to know them. That's the richness of life."