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It’s been two weeks since we returned from Maine. I want to go back. Fortunately, the exhausting, magnificent week has been freeze-framed in my memory so I can return at will. I remember the kind people and the rewarding work, and more: long drives in glorious countryside, deep sociological and theological conversations that struggled with poverty’s ambiguity, the sweet face of a child innocent of his circumstances, a motley work crew that graciously rolled with everything and anything, meals around a common table, and kids (we had more kids than ever and their hard work filled me with pride). This year, however, one story stands out powerfully.
We primarily worked on two construction sites. We returned to our beloved Marie’s home (see blogs from July & August 2014) to stain the deck we built last year and finish the final stage of insulation. We also met a new family with five children. The family was living in a home with no electricity or plumbing. Inside, the house was stripped down to the studs.
How did this happen? The family’s story is complicated, but speaks of how easily the financial rug can be pulled out from under us. Multiple Sclerosis, downsizing at the local mill, and lead paint hit this loving family at once. The children’s lead levels soared in the old home. The parents were left with no choice: lose your home or lose your children. They chose to have their home purged of lead paint. The result—the entire interior was stripped.
Our job was simple. We installed dry wall in the family’s single heated room. We did our best, but felt like we made little difference, even though the family warmly thanked us. We struggled with what else to offer. Everyone chipped in and we purchased a card they could use at their local convenience store/gas station. Still our offerings seemed anemic. We would return to healthy checking accounts and insulated homes.
I mentioned the family’s struggles to my beloved Marie. She sighed deeply—a sigh that revealed she had never gotten used to heartache in her 70+ years. Then she said without a second thought, “Tell them I have an extra room here and they are welcome to it.” Marie lives in a trailer that is standing out of habit. She subsists each month by carefully budgeting her small check from Social Security. Yet she offered her home to a family of seven she had never met. That afternoon she sent me with 18 eggs from her chickens for the family.
Jesus tells the powerful story of The Widow’s Mite (Luke 21), in which a penniless widow gives all she has faithfully and humbly. During his Sermon on the Mount Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6).” This year in Maine I viscerally understood these passages as I chipped in $40 for a gift card while Marie offered her home and all the eggs in her fridge.
I don’t feel guilty that I live in a well-insulated home, nor that I just purchased new soccer cleats for my quickly growing boys. I feel deeply grateful. Yet I wonder why, even when I push myself to generosity beyond what feels comfortable, my open-heartedness, my compassion, my welcome is never as prodigious as folks like Marie.
Jesus did not think poverty was a blessing. He spent his ministry offering material and physical comfort to the poor. Yet he did believe that the poor were blessed. He understood poverty’s stark reality: poverty strips you down to the very studs, leaves you without, so that in return you must open your heart completely and vulnerably to the world. This wide open heart, I believe, opens the poor to heartache in a way I cannot fathom, yet I believe it also opens their hearts to all that is good in the world as well—generosity, gratitude, compassion, and love.
From a lifetime of struggle Marie’s heart is open wide to the world in a way my heart will never be. Her wide open heart has been broken more times than Marie could ever count, but it is a blessed heart that gives eggs and offers her home to a family she has never met. I have been blessed by her generosity that has opened my heart to God’s love anew.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.