Charity with Dignity

Last Christmas I ran into a rather awkward situation. I received a note from my Kindergartner’s teacher telling me that I should go pick up my child’s Angel Tree Gift at such and such a place on such and such a date. Angel Tree Gift? What? I didn’t sign up for that! I studied the paper very carefully and after looking at some websites, and talking to my daughter, I figured out that my daughter’s teacher had signed her up for an Angel Tree Gift that was hosted in my neighborhood. (For those of you that don’t know, the way Angel Tree Gifts work, is a child’s name is on an ornament and someone picks that ornament and then buys them Christmas presents, it’s for kids who probably aren’t going to get presents without some outside help.)

Well. That was embarrassing. We are not rich. We’re not even really well-off. But, we make enough to buy our children Christmas presents. I didn’t know what to do except go pick up the gift at the appointed time. 

 

I looked up the address and found out that the gift pick-up place was at a small house only a couple blocks away from us. I had driven by that house every day when I took my kids to school and I had always been curious about it. It looked like a regular home, with a wrought iron fence around it, but at different times of the year it would have signs hanging on the fence. “Come Inside to Get Signed Up for Healthcare” or “Register to Vote Here”. I would occasionally see a group of young college-age people entering the house, name tags attached to their Business-Casual clothing. Whatever the place was, it seemed like a positive addition to our neighborhood. 

 

The day arrived to go pick up the gift and my insides were roiling. I hate having to do something brand new that I’ve never done before where I have no idea what’s going to happen. It stresses me out. I had been cleaning house and had on an old pair of sweatpants and old faded sweater. It was a busy, rushed day, and without thinking, I just drove over in what I was wearing. It wasn’t until I was leaving my car that I realized I was completely dressed for the part of Poor Person Seeking Aid. Great.

 

Figuring out where to park had been a bit confusing, but I saw that I could approach the house from the back alley and find a place for my over-sized van. I sat in my car, assessing the situation. Is anyone else coming? Is it the right time? What door should I go to? I sat there until I saw another family approaching the house. Aha. Safety in numbers. I got out of the van and walked carefully behind them. It was a latino family, two women and a handful of small children. They were murmuring quietly to each other in Spanish. They glanced my way and I gave a shy smile. They looked as uncertain as I was. 

 

As we approached the door, their courage seemed to give out and they hung back. I guessed I better lead the way. I stepped around them and hesitantly stepped up to the front door. Before I could knock, the door swung open and a tall black man stood there, big smile on his face. Come on in! Come on in! I gave my polite smile and stepped around him and found myself in the living room of the house. The only furniture was a couple desks and chairs. The rest of the room was full of boxes and bags. There were quite a few people present. A woman sitting behind a desk had a large clipboard with pages of names on it. Someone was talking to her, giving her the name of their child. Ok. So, this what we do? Go give our name to that lady? I decided it was as good a place as any to start. I got in line and waited my turn. 

 

When it was my turn, the lady, an older black woman, dressed in a modest skirt and blouse, the kind of woman who looked like she ran the Sunday School Program at her church, looked up and gave me a pleasant smile. What’s the name of your child? I gave her the name and she started searching through her lists. She searched and searched. I was starting to get really nervous. Good grief. They told me I was supposed to come here, and now they don’t even have my name on the list. How embarrassing. I wished very much that I could just leave. Like right now. The lady looked up, What school does she go to? I told her. She flipped some more pages. HERE it is! SHe looked up and briskly called out a number to a young man who was waiting nearby. She pointed at an unoccupied space and told me to stand there. I went and stood out of the way, and a minute or two later a young man approached me, confirmed the name of my child, and handed me a large garbage bag. I thanked him and then glanced around me. Can I leave now? Is that it? I watched another woman take her garbage bag of gifts and walk out the door. Ok. I guess we just leave now. 

 

I headed towards the door, but just before I got there, an older man approached me. He looked like a businessman. Black hair with silver streaks. He walked up to me and put out his hand, looked me straight in the eye, shook my hand firmly, and said Merry Christmas! The firm handshake felt comforting. The eye contact was a relief. I gave my first genuine smile since I had got there. Thank you. Merry Christmas. I walked out the door. Glad that was over, but happy. The man’s crisp Merry Christmas somehow redeemed the whole awkward situation. 

 

I am sharing this story with you this holiday season because I know a lot of you make an effort to reach out to your community during the holidays. Something about Christmas brings out the philanthropist in all of us. I would just like to give you a glimpse of how the other side might be feeling and encourage you to find ways to treat the people you are helping with dignity. 

 

Stranded, a Story.

This is a longer story than usual, but one I wanted to write down for the records…

A couple years ago my family got to experience the strange and horrible feeling of being being stranded in a strange place with nowhere to go. 

We had an old 15 passenger van which was, admittedly, near the end of its life. We thought we had figured out the ONE magical part that needed to be fixed in order to keep the van running. Alas.. we were wrong. After spending a month in Maine with my inlaws, we were traveling back to Tennessee with a trailer towing behind us, holding all our bikes and camping gear and canoes. We had our dog with us as well. 

Somewhere in Massachusetts, on the turnpike, our van gave it’s last breath and died. We were very close to a rest area and were able to coast into the rest area parking lot. I spent the next eight hours trying to keep 9 children happy (this was before Noah came along). Andy worked on the van doing everything he knew to try. Evening was coming and we realized the van wasn’t going to get fixed. We needed to go somewhere. Unfortunately, transportation was a real issue. A tow truck would not transport a family of eleven. Taxis would not transport a family of eleven, we would have to split our group up. At that point in time, our oldest child was only fourteen. There was no way we were going to send a taxi load of our children off by themselves when we didn’t even really know where we were. I got on my phone and looked at the map, found the next town on the turnpike and then started looking up hotels. I found a motel that was offering cheap rooms. Since we had our dog with us, we had already decided that my husband would get a tow truck and go with the van and our dog and just sleep in the van, and our oldest son elected to stay with him. So, it was me and eight children who needed a room. I called the motel and explained the situation and asked if it was possible for me to get one room for me and my children since I was the only adult and I didn’t want to put my little kids in a room by themselves. The lady on the phone said, yes, of course. I got the address of the motel. Now we just had to figure out how to get there.

Andy came over just then and said he thought he had a ride for us. Apparently two police officers had pulled in to the rest area. They were driving a prison transport van which was empty. My husband approached them and explained our situation and asked if they could help us with a ride. They were surprised at the request, but talked it over and said, yes, they could do this for us. So, we grabbed a couple bags of clothes and diapers and I put the baby in my carrier and got into the back of a prison transport van with my children. Lots of nervous laughter. I exchanged a panicked look with my husband. All we had to keep us connected now were our phones. I had no idea where I was and he wasn’t sure what town the tow truck was going to take our van. We trusted that somehow we would reconnect the next day. 

By the time we got to the motel it was dark. My kids were tired and traumatized and I was being brisk and efficient, trying to exude an air of confidence as I ushered all my kids into the foyer to check in. In the foyer there was a large statue of Buddha with incense burning. My kids had lots of questions about that and I was stressed, trying to keep them quiet, hoping they wouldn’t inadvertently ask an offensive question. I spoke to the lady at the desk and told her I was the woman who had just called her. 

She looked at my group and said, 

Two rooms. You have to get two rooms. 

I gave up arguing and said, Fine, do you have two rooms that are right next to each other? 

Yes, of course. 

I pulled out my bank card and gave it to her. She ran it and then came back to me. 

Your card has been denied. 

WHAT??

I knew that I had a large chunk of money in my bank. I pulled up my banking app, just to verify. Yep. There is definitely money in this account. I asked her to run it again. 

Your card has been denied. 

Ok. Regroup. I walked over to the side and called my husband. I quickly explained what was going on. Ok. He said, here, right down my card number, have them use my card. 

I did so and gave the new card number to the lady who was starting to look suspicious. 

This card has been denied. 

WHAT!!!!!!!!

The lady then said, there is an atm machine across the street in the little strip mall. Go take out cash. 

I counted up the cash I was traveling with. I was ten dollars short of being able to pay for the rooms in cash. I gathered up the kids who were now in a full-blown panic. Keep it together. Keep it together. Lord help. 

I was carrying  the baby and we put the next youngest in the little umbrella stroller we had brought. My oldest picked up the next youngest child and then the other older daughters helped the other boys walk, as they were all falling asleep on their feet. By now it was close to eleven pm. We crossed a little road and approached the bank. I tried the atm machine. My card was denied. Apparently something had triggered a security lock-down on my card. (Personally, I think it was the motel, it was a rather shady establishment.)It was the weekend and late at night so I couldn’t contact my bank. I pulled all the kids in a huddle and had them sit down on the sidewalk in front of the bank. The bank was well-lit, I was pretty sure there would be security cameras around as there was a 24hr atm machine. It seemed like the safest place to stay for the moment.

 I called my husband again. Explaining in an even voice the situation,  but I know that the fear I was feeling was coming through loud and clear to him. He said he was still waiting on the tow truck to come. I told him exactly where I was and he said he would just have the tow truck bring the van to where I was. We would sleep in the van in the parking lot. At least we would be all together. I sighed a big breath of relief. It was very scary to be doing all this without him. 

I sat down with the kids and tried to quiet them and reassure them. One of my little boys started crying. I held him and rocked him, continuing my silent prayer that hadn’t stopped since our van first broke down. 

Just then a fancy little car pulled up in front of the bank. A well-dressed, middle-aged man hopped out of his car and walked towards the atm machine. I tried to look like it was very normal for a woman to be sitting on the sidewalk with eight children in the middle of the night. He glanced my way and kind of winced and then kept walking. He used the atm machine and then walked over to us. Here, he said, and thrust four dollars into my hands, and then quickly got in his car and drove off. 

Now, I must admit, I wasn’t feeling very thankful for this bit of charity. 

Four dollars. Really?? How is this supposed to help??? 

The kids were very curious as to why a stranger had given us some money. I tried to explain that he obviously thought we needed help and so he tried to help.

How is four dollars supposed to help us mom? Umm. I’m not sure. I guess it’s the thought that counts?

Then my phone rang. It was my mother-in-law. We had been on the phone off and on with them, keeping them updated to our situation. I explained how my bank card was not working at all and she told me she would like me to try her credit card. She gave me the number and I said I would let her know if it worked. I called my husband and gave him a quick update and then me and my older daughters gathered up the sleeping children again and we made our way back to the motel. 

I patiently explained to the suspicious lady at the desk that my mother-in-law had offered to pay for the rooms and I had her credit card number. This time it worked and the lady begrudgingly showed us to our two rooms. The two rooms were not next to each other. They were several rooms apart. I smiled politely, thanked her, and waited till she had walked back to her office, and then ushered all my children into one room. No way was I splitting us up. 

The kids were so exhausted it only took minutes for them to fall asleep, spread over the two beds and on the floor. I sat there and waited till they were all resting and then called my husband again. I told him where we were. He said that the tow truck was towing them to the same town and according the maps, it was only about two miles away. He said that when he got the van settled at the auto repair shop, he and our son would leave the dog in the car and walk to the motel so we could be together. Big sigh of relief. 

I decided to jump into the shower before I went to bed. I entered the bathroom and immediately started hearing screaming from the next room over. There were some large crashes and more yelling. Something thumped into the wall of the bathroom. I continued my day-long prayer. Lord, whatever this altercation is about, please don’t let them start shooting off guns. 

I sat up another hour until finally I heard a quiet knock. I walked over to the door and removed the chairs I had stacked up in front of it (since it was a super-flimsy door without a proper security lock) and let my husband and son in. They were exhausted. They had just walked about two miles and it was now closer to 2am. I handed him the key to the other room since this room was literally overflowing with children. We hugged briefly, clinging to each other, then they went to the other room to sleep. I laid down, feeling peace now that our family was all in one place, and went to sleep. 

The next day my husband left early to go back to the garage to check on our dog and figure some things out. I got the kids up and dressed. We walked back over to the strip mall where I had noticed a small grocery store. I bought some food for the day and we walked back to the motel to eat. The room had a tv but it only got one channel. The room we were staying in was playing JAWS the movie. Not exactly what I wanted to entertain my children. The kids got the bright idea to check the other motel room we had paid for, maybe that tv was showing something different? It was! A western. Fun.

A little later my husband showed up. He and my son were both on bikes towing bike trailers. In one bike trailer was our dog and then the other bike trailer was just full of bikes and bike helmets. Well. This is an interesting solution. My husband and I and five of our children rode bikes while the other five rode in the bike trailers and the dog ran alongside us. The motel owner and his wife came out into the parking lot to see the spectacle. They seemed surprised to see that my story of a broken down car was actually true. 

To make a very long story shorter…We finally ended up riding our bikes to a Jellystone Campground (great place!). The mechanics from the garage were willing to tow our trailer to the campground and so we had all of our camping gear and were able to set up camp. The van was declared unfixable and we spent a week trying to figure out how to get home. Finally my inlaws decided to buy us a van and drove it down from Maine for us. (A super blessing we can’t begin to express our thankfulness for.)

It was a crazy time. My kids were amazing. I was determined to keep our attitudes positive and made it a requirement that everyone list off things they were thankful for every time the mood started getting sourl. The kids managed to relax a little and enjoy the time at the campground. We called some friends from our church and they got on the phone and helped with paying for the campground and even arranged for a nearby church to bring us a hot cooked meal. God provided for us in miraculous ways. 

I can’t imagine going through life without God. His peace is what carried me through that time. 

 

Some People are Not Worthy

Some people are not worthy of our help. Or at least, that’s what we profess with our actions and attitudes. Let me throw out some hard words for you. Registered Sex Offender. Mentally ill. Homeless. Drug addicts.

Registered sex offenders deserve the death penalty. The mentally ill need to be in some kind of institution. Homeless, well, they’re homeless because they won’t work and be productive. Drug addicts? No help for them, they just want a handout so they can get more drugs.

Believe it or not, I am not going to stand on some higher moral ground and point fingers at everyone below me. These are sentiments that I subconsciously hold. Sentiments that stare me in the face every once in a while and challenge me.

I’m going to tell you a story. .

Several years ago my husband’s company moved their workshop into a new location. It happened to be in a rougher part of town. One of the first problems my husband ran into was homeless people camping out behind his shop. Somehow, in the way my husband has, he got to know one of the couples that were camping out there. He was an exconvict, a registered sex offender, his girlfriend was ex-military and was pregnant with twins. She was somewhere around the age of forty and was having difficulty with her pregnancy. They were sleeping in a tent.

Andy gave him some work and he proved to be a decent worker. Housing was a much bigger problem. As a registered sex offender he could not live anywhere near children. There was not any cheap housing that fit into the requirements and so they ended up moving into a hotel room. $200 a week. No stoves allowed.

They got married. She lost the babies in a miscarriage. I met them a couple times. She was not mentally stable and I felt very uncomfortable and unsafe around her. Registered Sex Offender, nope, you can’t come near my family. All outreaches to this couple were through my husband.

The man spent the next couple years going in and out of jail. My husband tried to help Her when he could. Some grocery money. Help with rent on occasion. He would talk to me about their problems and I would commiserate, but I really didn’t feel like there was much I could do. My ministry to people is always done in the context of my family, and this couple was not family-friendly.

While He has been in jail, Her health went downhill. She had a stroke. Had some kind of surgery. She was renting a room in a house with lots of roommates. My husband visited her and said she could hardly get around, he didn’t know how she was going to take care of herself. He had asked and she said she was working with a social worker to get help.

We found out today that at the age of forty-two, she has died. Possibly on Wednesday. People noticed they hadn’t seen her. Called the police. Her body was found on Friday. The end.

And now I analyze. Could I have done more? Should I have done more? Are there people that you just simply can’t help? Their choices have led them down a path of no return? I possibly could have helped Her, but she had married Him and so I felt like that door was closed. I have to protect my family first.

But she was a fellow human being. Once upon a time she was an adorable little baby, and perhaps people cooed over her and said, how lovely! You’re going to grow up to be a wonderful woman! And perhaps she never had that. Perhaps right now there are people who would mourn if they knew she had died. And perhaps not. What I do know is that no matter what choices she made, God loved her. I don’t know where her relationship with God was, but I do know that he loved her.

I want to share with you all the tiny sliver of her story that I know. I want to say to the world at large, this woman lived. And now she has died. Let us at least give her a moment of contemplation in honor of her life. It is all I can do for her now.

And perhaps I can issue a challenge to myself and my readers to just think about this issue for a moment…how do you help the “unworthy” ?  What can we, as a society, do to help this segment of our population that we are reluctant to interact with? Do we have any responsibility towards them? How do we be responsible and safe but still have charity for those in need?