“She just basically said you are not a nice person,” one of our precious interpreters told me when I asked her what the Spanish speaking guest was telling her.
The volunteer was interpreting for me as I explained to a guest the policies of the food and clothing pantry I supervise at my church.
By the facial expressions, the tone of her voice, and her cutting glances the guest sent my way, I knew my sweet interpreter was leaving out some details of what the guest said about me.
It’s not the first time I have been cussed out in Spanish.
I’ve been in charge of the benevolence ministry of our church for about a year and a half now. Most days I wake up thanking God for choosing me to get to do what I do. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that some days things happen that make question why I even try to help meet people’s needs.
In the past 18 months on my job….I’ve been taken advantage of. I’ve been lied to. Multiple times I have been pushed or tripped by a guest rushing to get in line at a donation table. I’ve watched people still make poor choices after I have offered wisdom. I’ve been blamed for one person never attending our church again. And now I’ve been cussed out for not “helping enough.”
So, why do I keep coming back? Why do I continue to want to help?
I help because it is what the Word of God commands.
I help because I too have lacked hope.
At one point early in our marriage, I remember us being in seminary and going to my piggy bank and counting out change to have the money we needed to put gas in our car to get to work.
I had listened to the claims of popular preachers who made promises that “if you just have enough faith or give enough money God will bless you with more money than you will know what to do with. God will ‘bless your faith and giving’ and you will have the things you want.”
I secretly wished those preachers were right.. After all, we did have tremendous faith. We were giving regularly to our church and other causes…we always had. No matter our financial situation.
I wished there was a guaranteed formula for success as defined by those preachers who drive fancy cars and wear tailored suits.
I remember thinking during those times: What are we doing wrong? Why are we not being ‘blessed?’
After all. We had faith and were giving, PLUS we were doing everything we had been taught in school since we were kids to do to have “the American Dream.” Go to school. Learn Algebra (what a lie from hell….sorry to all my math teacher friends.) Save money. Work hard. The payoff will be a nice house, nice cars, fancy vacations and a happily ever after in this world.
It wasn’t the last time in our 15 years of marriage that the piggy bank savings had to be emptied. It certainly wasn’t the last time I questioned what I was doing wrong in the “formulas for success” that I had learned.
I keep waking up excited to do my job at my church because I have been desperately hopeless. Faith and master’s degrees were not enough to maintain my hope that God saw me in my struggles.
It was during these times that I learned the importance of being humble and admitting I needed help from someone else. . . that I didn’t have all the answers. That maybe the American Dream is not all that it is cracked up to be. That I needed others in my life….that we weren’t intended to live this life out alone. I needed the church to be the church for me.
Our society has bred a mindset in people that having a need and asking for help is a sign of weakness. We are tempted to think that if someone has a need, that they have made mistakes in the equation of attaining the American dream and are paying the consequences.
As I am writing this, I am sitting in a coffee shop with my head phones on listening to music trying to drown out the conversations around me. People sipping their expensive coffees. People living ‘the American Dream.’ When I come to this coffee shop in a rather affluent area of town that doctors and businessman frequent in the mornings, I try not to hear their conversations.
The music is unable to drown it all out.
People counting down the days until Friday or years until retirement. People discussing their problems in their marriages and with their teenage kids. Conversations about cancer, aging parents, and the ‘failing’ government. People living out the phrase, “Another day another dollar. Repeat.”
It is easy to see as I listen to them talk and sip their coffee, that maybe the American Dream isn’t as dreamy as we are told it is as kids.
I indeed was mad after I got cussed out last week. Guests such as that make me throw my hands up and ask myself why we even try to help.
Later that day in the peacefulness of my office, my thoughts were quieted and I was able to understand the pain behind the guest’s words (that I didn’t even understand).
I have not been in her shoes. I don’t know her full story. But I am sure it is similar to many of the guests we serve every Tuesday morning.
People without hope. They have put their faith in a government system. And just as all man made things….America has failed them. . . as great as this country is it is still full of people who feel hopeless. No matter the bank account…many Americans still lack hope in better days to come.
Instead of being angry, I prayed for the guest. No doubt behind the words are pain I do not understand. Hurt people hurt people is very true statement.
Guests such as these give benevolence a bad reputation. They make us drive by the homeless person on the street without doing anything for them. We avoid eye contact and pretend we didn’t see them.
Guests who take advantage of the ‘system’ make us hold tight to our own pocket books and leery to give our time to organizations or ministries who provide help to the down and out.
I’m not gonna lie. Being in the middle of helping people who are down and out is messy. Very messy at times. There is risk involved. You risk being lied to. Being taken advantage of. Being cussed out for not doing enough.
But let. Me. Tell. You. The risk is worth it.
Every day I pray that guests such as the one I described do not harden my heart to the many guests we serve that are grateful for everything we do.
We serve immigrants. We serve the homeless. We serve foster parents. We serve the unemployed with college degrees. We serve people with addictions. We serve teenage moms. We serve the elderly. We serve college students.
People thinking they are coming to us to get food and clothing to meet a physical need, but when they leave most of our guests thank us most of all for offering them a listening ear and hope.
This hope comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ. As great as the United States of America is…..the American Dream cannot offer this hope. Just ask the people sipping expensive coffee in coffee shops every morning.
Dreams fail us.
Promises from the Word of God do not.
The week after I was cussed out by a guest, I walked in early to set up for another day of serving the community. I was greeted by a middle-aged woman who was trembling in despair.
Though I spoke her language, I still did not fully understand the pain she described.
She too was raised in a different culture than me. Though we both were raised in America, our skin colors are different. All it takes is hearing one story such as hers to know that we do not all have the same chance in this country to attain ‘the American Dream.’
Her story is not mine to tell.
But let. Me. Tell. You. It is because of stories such as hers that I am passionate about helping the poor…no matter the cost to me. No matter the risk. The risk is worth it.
This new friend I have made whose skin color is much darker than mine, who raised her kids on the ‘other side’ of our city, whose story is much different than mine needed hope Tuesday morning. She needed to know that someone cared about her story.
She didn’t need to be coached in achieving the American Dream. She really didn’t ‘need’ our food and clothing.
She needed hope. Even though she knew Jesus, and knew the promises in His word, she needed God’s people to hold out hope for her until she could see the light for herself. She needed the church.
And this Tuesday I watched the church be exactly what the church was designed to do. . . provide hope to the hopeless. I watched the hope found in a relationship with Jesus Christ transform a soul in despair.
I’ve been intending to brush up on my Spanish skills. I have an unopened box of Rosetta Stone in my home office that I bought over a year ago with the intention of being able to understand our guests a little more.
Truth is….I really don’t need to speak someone’s language to know they are in pain and lack hope.
In fact, maybe I’m better off not knowing exactly what some our guests say about me.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
This morning I am posting this on my blog right after I have read the story of the Good Samaritan. My kids know this story. We read it to them in picture books before they could read. They have seen the story acted out many times at church. This story is on several of the Bible story CDs they play as they fall asleep.
It occurred to me as I read this parable this morning. To many people this story is just words on a page or actors on a stage. My kids desperately need to see this story lived out by the church in their culture. The arrows in my quiver need me to launch them with more than inspiring stories in a book. When they think of the Good Samaritan, my desire is that they don’t point to a parable written 2000 years ago. When they hear the word “Good Samaritan,” they will think of real people like Mr. Jim or Mrs. Cleta not a character in a parable. My desire is that my little arrows are launched with memories of real life Good Samaritans they have watched be the church to the world around them.
My favorite volunteers this summer. Watching seeds of compassion begin to bud in their hearts is worth getting cussed out.