Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Poor

The poor, Jesus said, will be with us always. And it’s true. Sometimes they are stereotypes of poverty, the starving African, the North Vietnamese who suffers under communism, the Mexican family who lives in a one-room cardboard house, the grandmother who ekes out a living from her social security check . Other times the poor show up in the most unlikely places.

Last fall when our family went to get a burger at the restaurant up the street, a young waitress served us. As we chatted with her, we discovered that she has six children, ages seven and under. (You could have knocked me over with a feather when she said this; she’s about as big around as my little finger.) Their house had burned down. Her husband was disabled in a work-related accident. They now lived in a low-income apartment complex in a neighborhood so bad that the police won’t come around after dark. They couldn’t afford anything better.

A few weeks later, our church decided to adopt their family for Christmas. When we told our waitress friend about it, she was overwhelmed. Someone had just broken into their apartment and stolen their gifts, their meager savings, and even their Christmas tree. We got the kids toys, a set of warm clothes, and pajamas. Billy and I delivered their gifts and met her husband and six precious babies, sweet, beautiful, affectionate children. As hard as times had been, you could feel the love in their family, their commitment to each other, and the strength they drew from being together. “It’s all about my kids,” the young father told us as he held the two-year-old in his arms.

Shortly after Christmas their situation went from bad to worse and they ended up living in a hotel. Now it’s August and they’re still in a hotel. We saw the young waitress the other day and she’s working twelve hours a day, six days a week, just to keep them afloat. She hardly gets to see her six babies. She was so tired she could barely think.

What amazes me about this girl is her strength. No matter how tired she is or how bad things get, she always keeps a good attitude. Things are always just about to get better, she’s sure. When something else breaks or goes wrong she says, “That’s OK. That’s fixable. I’m alive. I have my family. We’re going to make it.”

I’m sure there are times when she goes back to their cheap, crowded hotel room late at night and cries because she’s so tired and wonders if it really ever will get better. But when morning comes, she heads out again to work her fingers to the bone so her family will have something to eat and a roof overhead.

She doesn’t solicit charity and she’s not looking for a handout. We didn’t know that her kids needed socks and underwear until we asked. Without a vehicle, she rides the bus to work, but she doesn’t mention it unless we bring it up. I’ll be honest, in her place I think it would be far easier to just quit my job and go on welfare. But she’s determined to do what’s right and work hard until things get better.

We try to help her as much as we can. We share the nice hand-me-downs people give us, and eat at her restaurant when she’s working so we can tip generously, we listen carefully for opportunities to give her a hand (because she’s certainly not going to ask for help).

Yet there’s only so much we can do. We want to tread carefully, not insult her by being too generous, not to be perceived as patronizing, but rather to be the people of God who reach out to others because God has provided so extravagantly for us.

If you think about it, please say a prayer for our waitress friend, her husband, and their six sweet little children. They need a home. They need a car. She needs a job that will allow her to make a decent living without working so hard and so many hours. Her husband needs improved health so that he can work as he wants to. And right now they need a whole lot of grace.

The poor will be with us always. They show up in the most unlikely places, they are people you might never guess. So keep your eyes and ears open, and tip well.

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