When I was a young girl, my mother volunteered for our church to deliver meals to elderly shut-ins, and to the underprivileged in our community. I remember once, sitting in the car with my father while mom ran a box of food into an apartment. The apartment building was a small cinder block, one level strip of tiny apartments. Gray in color, needing a paint job; a very run down looking place. My dad must have seen the look of worry on my face as I watched mom step inside this unknown door. He explained to me that there are many who go without and that what mom was doing was a very nice thing. He said that we should always remember how blessed we are and be thankful to God that we live in a home we love in which we feel safe.
Years later, my son Rusty and daughter Liz were upset that I did not buy them something they’d asked for at the store. One of them said something like, “I wish we weren’t so poor” and the other said something about how all their friends have the very toy they’d asked for and asked why we couldn’t get one. As they were complaining about our station in life, I was driving and realized I was near the very neighborhood that the little gray cinder block apartment building had been. I took a turn down a street I’d not been on in a while. There it was: that same tiny little building, looking more run down than it had before. To my surprise, it not only still existed but was still inhabited. I pulled into the cracked parking lot and into a parking space in front of one of the apartments where there were some barefooted children playing in the parking lot. Their little faces were dirty with either mud or left over lunch. Their little clothes were torn and dirty as well. My kids stopped their complaining and looked at me.
“Why are we here?”
“I want you to see how some other kids live, and I want you to remember that we are actually quite blessed and should thank God everyday for the things we have.” It was a good lesson, a lesson my dad had taught me a long time ago, and one that I was glad to have been able to pass along to my own children.
My husband and I have not given our kids a great life. We have had to tell them “no” more times than not when it comes to material things they’ve wanted. But they’ve been such good kids, accepting our lot in life and being happy with the things they do have. It has not been a great life, but it has been a good one.
This year has been a particularly hard year. In the past there have been times we’ve barely made ends meet, but we’ve gotten by. This year, especially the past four or five months… getting by has been almost impossible. Craig had not been able to find work in his trade since August. September we learned to cut our budget. October, we ended up seeking help financially. In November, Craig began working again, but by this time, so many bills had been over due we felt as if we were drowning and no matter what we did we kept hitting a brick wall. The first half of November passed, we’d been able to pay most of the bills. I’d budgeted out the next three months and showed Craig that we could make it. His pay check was to arrive on November 23. We had estimated what the amount would be. I had held out the phone, electric, and insurance bills to pay at the end of the month, from that awaited pay check. It was to come in the mail, but it did not come on the 23rd as promised. I was a bit nervous because I’d already received a letter from the power company saying our bill must be paid on the 24th by 5pm or our power would be cut off on the Friday after Thanksgiving. If it had been cut off we would then have to pay not only the amount past due but the next bill (as we were a month behind) as well as a reconnect fee. On the 24th the check came. I opened it… It was less than half the amount we’d calculated because of an error at the company office. I was immediately sick to my stomach. I cried, I bitched. I was about to lose it.
I gathered our bills (paid and unpaid) together, as well as our last bank statements and copies of his pay stub. I took them to the Department of Social Services and asked if there was any program that would help pay our power bill. I was told their funds were out for the time being and directed me to the Crisis Assistance Ministry. There I went and sat in a crowded room for the next four hours. The first thirty minutes, I sat by myself, quietly judging those around me, telling myself that I didn’t belong here and that I was above the others here begging for help. I’d hoped that the counselors there would recognize that I am not a ‘regular’ here and understand my plight and pay my power bill without any problem. But after thirty minutes or so I realized that I was no better or worse than any of the others that had come to ask for help. Yes, some may come often, and some may not try to better themselves and get out of the situation they are in, but the fact is: they have hit hard times, just as we had hit hard times, and I could not judge them based on their need for assistance, just as I hoped I would not be judged. The people I was sitting beside were funny, intelligent, and frankly, pretty good company to share my day with.
There was one woman though that everyone did seem to look down their noses at. She appeared to be on some sort of drugs. I heard someone whisper to another “She’s a crackhead. She’s always high as a kite when she comes up here.”
I watched the woman and wondered how old she was. She looked to be at least my age, but I imagined that she probably looked much older than she was because of whatever addictions or lifestyle she lead. How sad to live this way.
During my interview, the counselor was quite understanding and seemed very empathetic. She explained that they could not pay our entire bill, but if I could go and pay half and then bring them the receipt, they would then pay the other half. I was so grateful I could not stop the tears. She warned me that because this was Thanksgiving eve they were closing at two, so I should hurry back as quickly as possible with my receipt. As I left to run my errand, I drove away crying. Asking God, “Why? Why are we struggling so much? What have we done to deserve this? We have been going to church every Sunday for the past year, without fail. We have tried to live our lives in good, modest, loving, Christian ways. Why, God, are we hurting so?” Depressed, I took most of the money we had and went in to pay half of our power bill, then rushed back to the Crisis Assistance Ministry and showed the counselor my receipt. She was so kind, and so glad they’d been able to help. I was grateful as well. As I was walking out, she called to me and asked that I wait there for just a minute. Moments later she and a man pushing a grocery cart came towards me. “This is for your family,” she said with a sweet smile. “Oh, no,” I said, “Really, we don’t need this. I’ve finished my shopping for the week. We’ll be fine, really.” “Don’t be silly”, she insisted, “this is good food and you should be glad to have it.” I had not gone there for food assistance, but, secretly I was thrilled to get it.
While the nice man was helping load the back of my car with the grocery bags filled with soups, dry foods, and breads, the woman I’d seen earlier in the waiting room, the ‘crackhead’ I’d wondered about, came to me with tears in her eyes and begged me for a ride home. She said that her ride had left and that the Ministry could not give her the groceries if she did not have a car to put them in. She said they were about to close and that she really needed her food. I could not say “no” to her. When I told her I’d give her a ride she hugged me and asked if I’d come inside and let them know, so I followed her in. She told the counselor that I was giving her a ride. The woman who had been so sweet to me looked at me in horror. She came closer and whispered, “Do you know her?” “Well, no I don’t but”, I replied, “But I don’t mind giving her a ride.” She hesitated and then whispered, “Do you know what you’re doing?” “No, probably not, but I’m not going to tell her no.” “Well, please be careful.”
We put her groceries in the car and headed down the road. As the woman spoke I realized she really was much younger than I. She told me that her mother had died in 1997 and she had written a poem for her. She asked if she could recite the poem for me. “Sure,” I said, “I’d like that.” It was a sweet poem and the girl cried during her recitation. Rather than interrupting the rhythm of her poem she pointed out the roads that I was to turn. Soon, things started looking familiar to me.
As she finished the last lines of her poem, “For if not for you, God, I could not make it through each day,” she pointed down a little crackly parking lot that lead to a small cinder block row of tiny gray apartments in dire need of repair and paint.
I helped her carry her bags into her home. It was the smallest living space I believe I’ve ever seen. My heart broke for this woman who began talking about how she’s hoping they gave her something good she could make to give her grandchildren the next day for Thanksgiving. She hugged me goodbye, told me I was her angel, and said I should come by sometime and visit.
I sat in my car for a minute before pulling out. I remembered my dad’s words so many years earlier in that very same parking lot. And I recalled saying similar words to my own children years later in the same place. Now, here I was, feeling so down and wondering why God was letting this happen to us. And God was reminding me of my own words.
Yes, God, I am blessed. Yes, God, I am grateful. Yes, God, if not for your grace, I could be living there, in that tiny gray cinder block apartment building.
I thank you, Lord, for the many blessings in my life, and for the many lessons I continue to learn from you.
I wish I could remember more of the girl’s poem. But I do remember her last line, “For if not for you, God, I could not make it through each day.”