Fence or ambulance


A friend of mine, a teenager, recently fell off his skateboard and grazed his leg badly. There was gravel and dirt stuck inside the wound, yet being a typical, stubborn teenager, this friend decided that the best course of action was to put a bandage over the wound so that it would stop bleeding onto his clothes. Day after day he would remove the pus and new blood which was seeping from and around the wound, but didn’t take the time to look at the wound itself and see how it was healing. After two weeks of this, my friend’s mother decided that as the pain was still present, it was time to visit a Doctor, who promptly concluded that due to a lack of inspection and proper care, the wound had become grossly infected. The Doctor was astounded that the teenager had consistently treated the symptoms of the wound, but had done nothing to treat the wound itself.

Within The Salvation Army, and within the greater church, we so often behave like this teenager when it comes to issues of justice within our world. For every social ill we face in our day-to-day ministry, there is a larger-scale issue at the root. For instance, a homeless man asking for food at his local Corps is an immediate problem. There is no question that there are tangible, practical needs which must be recognised and met. However there are larger problems also in place. His homelessness and hunger could, for example, be evidence of a failing welfare system within the country in which that man lives. Like the teenager with the wounded leg, the Salvation Army Welfare Worker can satisfy the man’s immediate needs by finding suitable accommodation and providing him with a meal (taking care of the smaller-scale, although not less-important problems). However, these acts alone do little to challenge the larger systemic issues which caused those needs in the first place (the large-scale issues) – that is, to treat the actual wound itself.

In 1895, Joseph Malins wrote a poem entitled ‘A Fence or an Ambulance’, in which he pointed out the importance of prevention:


A Fence or an Ambulance
by Joseph Malins (1895)

‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
but over its terrible edge there had slipped
a duke and full many a peasant.

So the people said something would have to be done,
but their projects did not at all tally;
some said, ‘Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff, ‘
some, ‘An ambulance down in the valley.’

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
for it spread through the neighboring city;
a fence may be useful or not, it is true,
but each heart became full of pity
for those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;

And the dwellers in highway and alley
gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
but an ambulance down in the valley.

‘For the cliff is all right, if your careful’,  they said,
‘and if folks even slip and are dropping,
it isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
as the shock down below when they’re stopping.’

So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
quick forth would those rescuers rally
to pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
with their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: ‘It’s a marvel to me
that people give far more attention
to repairing results than to stopping the cause,
when they’d much better aim at prevention.

Let us stop at its source all this mischief, ‘ cried he,
‘come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
if the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
with the ambulance down in the valley.’

Let us continue to ask “why is this happening?” in an effort to get to the root causes of problems. Let us, as The Salvation Army, continue to improve upon our work as the ‘ambulance at the foot of the valley’ while working hard to build a ‘fence at the top of the cliff’.

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