A late evening call to the church: “I’m in a motel with my little girl and I can’t pay the bill tonight and I can’t go home because I’m running away from my husband. Can you give me the money to spend another night here?”
A friend accompanied me to the motel where we could check out the story. We plunged into the dark underbelly of that town where I was serving, both a little frightened. We noted that the little girl was sick but it did not look serious and both appeared to be safe for the night. We pooled our funds and paid the room fee.
I told the woman to have her things packed and ready at 10:00 the next morning and notified the domestic violence shelter to expect her around then. I was a trained volunteer there and knew they had the support system this woman needed.
The next morning, my friend and I arrived promptly at 10:00. I knocked on the door. No answer. I kept knocking. The woman finally opened the door, obviously just then waking up.
Piles of clothes were scattered around, nothing packed. The room reeked of cigarette smoke, the mother’s body odor so bad I fought against gagging. The child lay on a filthy bed, engrossed in a TV show.
We had brought a roll of large plastic bags just in case they were needed to gather anything up. After retrieving the roll, my friend and I began to stuff dirty clothes into the bags. The mother lay down on the bed and joined her child, turning her full attention to the TV.
My frustration grew. Suddenly I stopped and asked my friend to stop as well.
“We are here to help you, not to do this for you. If you want to be safe and give proper care for your sick daughter”—who had un-wiped nasal and eye drainage all over her face—“then get up and start packing. If you don’t, we are leaving right now. We’re not going to do this for you and there will not be another night here at our expense.”
Startled, she got up. I pointed to the roll of plastic bags. She took one and began stuffing things into it, filled it and started on the next one. My friend and I helped, but no longer directed the process.
When we were finished, we loaded the bags into my friend’s old pickup truck. I am embarrassed to admit it, but I asked my friend to transport the woman and daughter while I led the way in my car. Frankly, I couldn’t deal with the body odor.
After I knew she was properly checked into the shelter, I apologized to my friend for my olfactory cowardice and sadly headed to work, figuring this was a lost cause.
About eight or 10 weeks later, a call came to the church. “I want to speak to that tough-talking preacher lady.” Since I was the only one who remotely fit the bill, I took the call.
“Thank you. You talked tough to me and told me to get my act together. I did. Thanks for telling me the truth.”
I quickly identified the caller as the woman I had taken to the shelter—and been so disgusted with.
She had cleaned herself up, was taking advantage of the help offered at the shelter, freed herself from the abusive relationship, and was taking better care of her daughter.
The Oath for Compassionate Giving has this as its first statement, “Never do for others what they can (or should) do for themselves.”
Keep this in mind as the year-end charitable appeals start coming. This woman is one of millions who need a hand up. But they’ve got to grab the hand when offered. This cannot be a one-way process. It just doesn’t work.
The Rev. Thomas is pastor of Krum First UMC in Krum, Texas. Her blog is at www.thoughtfulpastor.wordpress.com.