Saturday, December 29, 2007
Just two or three paychecks away . . .
I'll just call him "Dave."
He's a piano tuner and salesman who lost his job about six months ago. Then, the youngest of his three children got a 'very bad' case of pneumonia and a serious case of bilateral ear infection that ended in a week long hospitalization with surgical insertion of tubes in his ears. Dave's wife, I'll call her "Stella," lost so many days of work to be at the hospital with her sick child that, she was eventually fired.
They have no health insurance.
Within three months the hospital bills were mounting higher than their mortgage payment, and they could no longer afford to live in their modest home. They sold it and used the slight margin of profit to pay the medical bills, but there was still a substantial balance. The hospital and doctor's office reminds them monthly with pages and pages of itemized bills and recorded phone messages .
Within two months of living with Stella's mother, she and Dave could no longer take the constant criticism and haranguing ("It's all his fault. I told you not to marry him. He's such a looser!") and so they moved into a hotel. They've been there for three weeks. The hotel manager was tender-hearted and only charges them $80 ($92 with tax) a night for a suite with a king-sized bed, bathroom, two folding cots and a small galley kitchen with a hot plate and a tiny refrigerator, a small modern convenience for which "Stella" is deeply grateful as it keeps the children's milk and the baby's formula and liquid antibiotic cold.
By the grace of God, the forces of good cosmic alignment and Dave's obvious skill and talent, he was able to get a job three weeks ago. They've been scraping by on unemployment checks, the generosity of a few sympathetic relatives and some Shop Rite gift certificates I've given them. Christmas toys and clothes were provided by the generosity of a parishioner at St. Paul's who "adopted" them as a family. Miraculously, Dave has saved up enough money for a down payment on an apartment, and his brother paid for the security deposit as a Christmas present to the family.
They were supposed to move in today, and I was to drop by this evening to bless the house, but the apartment won't be ready until January 2nd. Dave called me in a panic on Saturday to tell me the news. "I have nothing left, Reverend Elizabeth," he practically sobbed into the phone. "I don't know where to turn. I thought the worst was behind us. And now . . .this? What am I supposed to do? I feel like I've been sucker-punched. I feel sick to my stomach."
"Sit tight," I said, "and don't panic." I explained that I was driving up from Rehoboth Beach and would come by the hotel first, before going home and see what I could arrange with the hotel manager.
It's an old Howard Johnson Motel with the HoJo Restaurant attached - anyone who grew up in the 60's, 70's and 80's would recognize it even without the familiar orange roof and neon sign. It's not called that anymore, of course. It's the Wellsely Inn - owned and operated by the Patel family - from India - a familiar situation to anyone living in the Northeast Corridor. The HoJo Restaurant where once you could get the best macaroni and cheese served with your choice of hot dog or fish cake, or a plate of spaghetti with two meat balls is now Lee's Chinese Restaurant. The sign outside said, "Sunday. 1 - 3 PM Dim Sum. All You Can Eat." Penciled underneath, it read, "No Sushi. So sorry for inconvenience."
The Wellsely is out on Rt. 10, hiding modestly if not with some embarrassment among towering Hiltons and Hyatt Regencies and pleasantly landscaped Courtyard Marriotts, in and among strip malls packed with Computer Stores and Rite Aids and Subway Shops and Chili's and IHOP Restaurants.
Those who drive their suburban SUV's or Lexus and zoom by at a much faster rate than the posted 55 mile an hour speed limit probably never even notice it is there. They probably never even wonder who belongs to the cars parked outside. They certainly wouldn't guess that this is home for anyone like Dave and Stella and their three kids. I know I didn't.
Turns out, I was able to help with this wee last bit of this family's journey on the road back to 'normal' - whatever that means. It certainly meant a great deal to Dave, who thanked me profusely. So did his wife, who held the baby close to her in the cool of the early evening. I heard the congestion in the baby's cough and noted the worried look on Stella's face.
Anxiety is a constant companion when you are poor. It lurks around every corner, just waiting to steal away your one moment of happiness. It seems that you are always on edge when you live on the edge of impending disaster.
But, here's the thing. The thing that really got me. Dave got his wife and kids off to the car. They hadn't had supper yet. He was taking them to a Burger King as a special treat. He pulled me aside and whispered, "I hate to ask you this. You've been so kind and so helpful. I hate to impose."
The guy doesn't know it, but he had me at 'hello' weeks ago. He looks like every geek I ever sat with in the lunch room in high school. You know the type. Painfully shy. Highly intelligent. Not well polished in the social skills department and not particularly handsome, but you could have a good conversation and get some really good tips on the English or Chemistry assignment and never have to fear that he would hit on you. You know? Yeah, you remember. Those boys were always so grateful if you spent even 20 minutes with them. They didn't know it, but I always got so much more from them than they ever got from me.
Whenever I need the sanctuary piano tuned with a great discount for the church, Dave's my man. Forever.
"Sure, Dave," I said quietly, noting that even my anxiety was rising. I, too, began to fear the worst. "What is it?
"Oh, it's not us," he said, "We'll be fine. My faith may have been shaken, but I trust in your faith. You've been a rock." He took a deep breath and then he said, "It's this guy. . . actually . . . it's this family. They are in a worse predicament than we are. He needs so much help. He's a construction worker and you know what it's like in that business. Especially in this economy." Dave shifted his weight back and forth before he spoke, "I wonder . . . I mean . . . could you talk to him?"
"Talk to him? Well, sure, Dave." I paused, hating the way this was going to sound, "What do you think he needs?"
Dave didn't skip a beat, "Hope," he said. "The guy needs hope. He's got some resources, but he doesn't really know how to use them. He's so lost, he can't see the forest for the trees. More than anything, the guy needs hope. He's drowning in this place. In his fear. In his desperation. You can give him hope. It's what you do. You believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. You called. You gave me encouragement. You helped me to strategize. I think you may be able to help him."
"Look, Dave," I started, I'd love to talk with him, but . . ."
"Oh, no, I don't mean right now. I mean, if it's okay with you, I'd like to come to your church tomorrow. I'd like to bring the wife and kids. And, I'd like to bring this guy and his wife and kids. If that's okay. I mean, we're not members of your church, and we certainly owe you more than we'll ever be able to give, but we'd be good visitors," He laughed at his own goofy joke. "Is that okay? I don't know if I can convince him to come with us, but I'll try. Could you maybe talk to him after church?"
"Of course, Dave, " I said, suddenly aware that my face felt hot with my own embarrassment.
We parted company as the kids waved wildly to me from their car. I got half way to my car before my shame overwhelmed me and I felt my eyes well up with tears. I had thought sure I was going to be hustled for more money. Why did I think that? Dave had rarely asked me for money. He mostly wanted to talk. "Help me think through this, " he would often begin our conversations. And so I did.
I hadn't realized it, but the best resource I had provided him was exactly what he wanted for his 'neighbor'. Not money. Hope.
We all want it, don't we? It's all any of us really want. Hope. That's what we seen in that Nativity scene, isn't it?
I've been so consumed with chasing all the details of Christmas, and so self-absorbed with my doctoral project, that I had missed the 'holy family' right in my midst.
You know, if we tell the truth, we're all just two or three paychecks away from living at the Wellsely Inn out on Rt. 10, with the Patels from India and the Lee's from China.
We're all just two or three paychecks away from criticism and haranguing and the shame of believing that if you are an American, living in the land of opportunity, and you are in need, you are a total and complete failure and you deserve your lot.
We're all just two or three paychecks away from living with the anxiety that steals at any moment of joy you may find in the midst of your search for 'normal', or 'stable', or, well, just not being in desperate need any more.
The best commodity the church has is not money for 'outreach' or 'mission.' It's hope. It's the kind of hope that comes out of relationships - relationships that are increasingly difficult to have in a culture which promotes white picket fences that reportedly make good neighbors. It's a society that still endorses 'rugged individualism' and blesses it with cell phones and 'blue tooths, and IPods that only increase our isolation while we talk but do not speak to each other and listen to sound but do not hear the human voice.
We are all just two or three paychecks away from losing it all, and the church stands guard there, at the brink of isolation and fear, offering relationships and hope.
That's important to remember in these days of "All Anglican drama, all the time." It's important to remember as we begin a new year filled with the hope of new resolutions.
I don't know about you, but suddenly I've got a resolution brewing in my head. No surprise, it has something to do with being more intentional about being an agent of hope. No line item in the 2008 budget for that, and yet, its probably one of the most important things we as a church and as individuals will do this or any year.
Because we're all just two or three paychecks away from needing hope more than anything else in the whole world.