Lessons in Poverty

IMatterA red-haired girl, about 7, energetically dragged her prize — a rolling Disney princess bag — toward my table as her beleaguered grandparents followed, their arms laden with treasures of their own. Six panels of curtains, a leather jacket, an assortment of glasses. On top of this, a dizzying assortment of tiny, sparkly skirts and tees that were clearly intended for the little fashionista who stood in front of me, ready to check out. Her dirty face shone as she squealed again over each bit of clothing as my daughter loaded it in to shopping bags with a smile. I was so glad she’d decided to come; it had been a good day.

At 2:00 I dropped off Sarah (who promptly went upstairs for a nap) and picked up Christopher, and headed to meet the others at the Center for the Homeless, to unpack the trucks full of donations for the food pantry. I have never seen more boxed mac and cheese in my entire life, and made a mental note to start donating more toiletries — toothpaste, laundry soap, and aspirin had been much asked-for items at the Cove. I made a mental note to collect soda bottles and fill them with detergent for next time.

After spending a full day rubbing elbows with the neediest members of our community, first at the Shepherd’s Cove Clothing Pantry (Elkhart), and then at the
Center for the Homeless
(South Bend), I dragged my body home and collapsed on the couch. I was tired and sore all over from the lifting, bending, and stretching. But I had learned a few things as well.

Don’t forget to pray. I saw an elderly woman’s eyes tear up in front of me when I asked if I could pray with her. Her granddaughter was moving in with her, and she had just found out her kidney cancer was back. She grabbed both my hands as I asked God to heal her, and to keep her granddaughter safe.

Little things mean a lot. A little kid tripped and fell, and his mother and grandmother both had their hands full. So I went over and picked him up … and saw that this was precisely the wrong thing to do. So I set him down and did a little song and dance, and got a laugh, the boo-boo forgotten. At the end of the tally, little Richard waved at me. “See you next time!”

Fear can make you greedy. I’d often heard this in foster training, in relation to food hoarding, but it came back to me as I watched people bring 30 shirts and 20 pairs of pants to clothe a single child. I wondered why they needed so much … but quickly dismissed the idea. I had seen the mountains of unopened donation bags. There would always be more. If this is what they believed they needed to get by, who was I to say no?

It really does take a village. I was surprised to see how much “stuff” was available for the people who needed it. The problem was that there were so few volunteers to sort, organize, and help the clients that much of the stuff sat there for weeks, unopened and unused. Donating just five hours a month — a single Friday or Saturday — could make a real difference.

If you live in St. Joseph County (IN) and would like to volunteer your time, or if you live outside the area and want to make a donation to keep the lights and heat going, contact Sharlee Morain at shepherdscove@hotmail.com 

 

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“How Was Your Trip?”

It’s a question we’re getting a lot these days, now that we are home again from our family excursion to Costa Rica. The truth is, the effects of this trip will stay with us a long time. The friends we made challenged us, blessed us, and made us look at the world — and ourselves — in new ways.

Dios te salve, Maria, llena eres de gracia; el Senor es contigo…

"Angie" at midwife'sOur experience at the Center was eye-opening. One fifteen-year-old girl, great with child and terrified of the pain of labor and delivery, had a healthy baby girl … and returned just days later with a dehydrated infant whose umbilical cord had become infected. “Angie” did not want to be a mother, she wanted to go back to school. But the hospital sent her back to the Center to learn how to care for her infant, and to care for herself, and to take up the mantle of maternity. Another mother, “Patricia,” seventeen with two children, came alongside Angie and empathized with how hard it was, and how important.

Benedita tu eres entre todas las mujeres, y benedito es el fruto de tu vientre, Jesus.

In a few days, Angie’s smile had returned, and her daughter’s cheeks began to plump. I had not touched the baby, except to smile at her in passing — it was critical that the mother bond uninterrupted with her child. But there were others in need of holding, in need of changing, in need of singing. There were older ones, too, who needed to be reminded of how much God loved them, too. We colored and sang and read aloud in my deplorable Spanish. Soon ten-year-old Lola was reading, too.

Labor room - before

Labor room – before

 

Baby Room Costa Rica 001

New Labor Room

Santa Maria, Madre de Dios, ruega por nosotros pecadores,

When my own family joined me and the Spanish-speaking volunteers who had started the trip with me left, things took a different turn. Susana, the woman in charge of running the Center, a no-nonsense “Tico” (as they call themselves, native Costa Rican – as opposed to the indigenous Cebecar who come from the mountains to have their children) had very different ideas about how much babies should be held. Susana was of the mind that there was too much house-cleaning to be done, that they should be left alone to go to sleep.

At one point just before I left, we were all getting ready for the new bishop to visit the Center, to give his blessing to the women there. Susana had everyone busy scrubbing and tidying the common areas; after doing the breakfast dishes I went out on the porch and tended the children so the others could work undistracted. Around noon lunch was served, and Susana told me to put the baby I was holding in his crib so I could eat my lunch. I had just gotten him to sleep, and the moment his head hit the pillow, he started crying. So I picked him up again … and Susana grabbed him from my arms, took him to the sink, and doused him in cold water. Above his screams, she lectured me in Spanish. Even if I could have understood her, I doubt I would have listened. At that moment, I just wanted to grab the baby and run. Instead I stood there, rooted to the floor, as she wrapped the baby in a towel and handed him off to his mother to nurse. Gradually his sobs relented and he drifted off to sleep.

I realized at that moment it was time for me to go home. A journalist from the diocesan paper came ahead of the bishop, to do a story on the Center. I chatted with her about my visit, about setting up the laboring room and sharing about the Center with people in the United States. At that moment, my daughter came up cradling a kitten, who was rapidly declining from the combined factors of not enough food (his mother had run off, and he had to subsist on whatever the dogs didn’t eat from the mealtime scraps) and too much rough handling from the older children. Animals serve a utilitarian function in Costa Rica, something Sarah had a hard time understanding. “Why don’t you take him to the vet? He’s going to DIE!!!” she sobbed. Seeing the cat’s neck was nearly devoid of fur, I wondered if he had mange. Gently I took the animal from her grasp and set it down so I could give her a hug. “I know. It’s hard. Life here is harder that it is in the States, honey. We can’t really change that. All we can do is love them as long as we are here.”

She looked at me, accusing. “You don’t care about that cat! You’re mean!!!”

Ahora y en la hora de nuestra muerte. Amen.

Her words rattled me a bit. Yes, her teenage outburst wasn’t unprecedented. And I knew it would be impossible to explain to the satisfaction of her tender heart why I was not taking a more active role in saving the kitten. Just as I had not been able to persuade Susana that the babies needed the stimulation I had been giving them, that I was not just spoiling them. When two worlds collide, there is always the risk of misunderstanding. But it is also at this crossroads that transformation can occur.

It had been years since I’d been engaged in any kind of missionary work. Frankly, I should have learned more Spanish before undertaking this trip … though I quickly learned that not all the indigenous women were fluent in the language. I saw these women sit at the back of the church, unable to go forward to receive the sacraments, and wished I had been able to teach them. I saw the mountain of suitcases containing baby clothes from previous volunteers, and realized that they didn’t need more onesies. What they needed was for someone to tell them, in their own language, how much their Father in heaven loved them and their children.

Saida and KennethThese young mothers could not count on the support of husbands, or even the financial security of a job back on the reservation. Based on what I had seen, it was very likely some of them would be back the following year, with another baby. Would someone be ready to teach them then?

During my time in Costa Rica, I was reminded of how short and hard life can be, despite its wild beauty. I saw that love does not always come wrapped in soft flannel and warm water. Sometimes it simply stays, bearing silent and prayerful witness to the longing of the human heart. And sometimes, love cries along.

Why Foster Parent? Lots of Reasons… Here’s where it started for us!

seventh grade

See that geeky girl in the first row, second from left? Permed and bespeckled, wearing a too-short dress even though everyone else was wearing cool blue jeans?

You’re looking at the genesis of a foster mom.

Like most middle-school students, I led a fairly self-involved existence. It was years before I discovered that not everything is always as it seems. The pretty, popular girls — the ones who could wear mascara and had pool parties at their house that I was never invited to — had parents who were divorcing or drank too much. The unpopular kids … well, they had their own stories. It’s amazing how resilient kids can be.

Me, I was living out my own family drama. My sister’s cancer and the related financial devastation my parents faced had left its mark on my childhood. I was a good student primarily because books were my escape (we had no television, and secular music was forbidden). Money was so tight, there just wasn’t enough to buy the jeans the other girls were wearing. I didn’t even ask, because I knew the money wasn’t there. Instead I wore my best friend’s hand-me-down water print dress. It was too short, and my mother made me wear a longer skirt underneath. But to me, if was the epitome of haute couture.

There was a lot I didn’t tell my parents back then, not wanting to add to their load. (A neighbor lady who used to watch my sister and me while Chris was in the hospital planted this idea in my head, and it took root.) I spent a lot of time alone. One sweet boy (with the unfortunate last name of “Roach”) who talked to me and sometimes walked me home after school, disappeared after eighth grade, and I never knew what happened to him. I could only hope the rumors weren’t true.

How did all this add up to my becoming a foster parent? When Craig and I first started to talk about having a family, we knew we couldn’t conceive. Adoption was an option, but I kept thinking back to those months of being passed around as a kid, staying with one set of church friends or neighbors after another. I was always being reminded to be good, quiet, helpful. That, too, took its toll.  Looking back on my middle-school self, I can see now that I wasn’t ugly, or fat, or worthless, or unlovable. But back then I felt it to my bones.

I wanted to spare some other kid those same feelings. Each time I passed Catholic Charities in Detroit on my way to and from seminary, I thought about that twelve-year-old, until finally Craig and I pulled in and asked about becoming foster parents. We attended the classes … and next thing we knew, our children arrived on our doorstep.

To be perfectly honest, we were pretty naïve going into it. Like many foster parents, we discovered that sometimes love and compassion isn’t enough to heal the wounded heart of a child. Sometimes you just have to journey with them as patiently as you can — and remind them, over and over, that they are loved, and wanted, and safe. For me, it was the ultimate middle-school payback.

Have you ever thought about becoming a foster parent? I’d like to hear your story!

Waiting… and Fuming

Sarah 2005Have you ever wondered what a speaker does in the hour or so before she gives her presentation? I don’t know about Pat Gohn or Lisa Hendey or Kelly Wahlquist . . . but I can tell you what I was doing last night.

Fuming. Because I couldn’t find a lipstick. Real spiritual, right?

I wear makeup about 12 times a year, usually a swipe of mascara and a dab of lipstick. My husband thinks I’m a natural beauty, so why mess with it? But like any gal, when it’s time to stand and deliver, I like to get a bit gussied up.

Only this time, my child-who-shall-be-nameless had swiped all THREE of my lipsticks along with a few other items. And frankly, it was the last boundary-related straw that week. I’ll draw a veil of privacy over the discussion that ensued (for both our sakes), but suffice it to say that I arrived at church feeling rather depleted. What made me think that I had anything worth sharing with these women, when I could barely get myself to the church without strangling my daughter?

I was happy to see another writer friend, Jeannie Ewing, in the audience. Several other special-needs moms as well. And as I shared my Lipstick Story with them, I heard warm and appreciative laughter. I guess I wasn’t the only mom in the room who ever had to put her makeup under lock and key.

Later, one of the women took me aside and told me the story of her struggles with her own teenager. She spoke of her anxiety in waiting, in wondering what the future would look like for her daughter. This, I understood. All of it. And in that moment, I was reminded of something: That being a speaker or teacher — or a parent — is not about handing out dazzling perfection from a pedestal on high. It’s about bearing witness to the mercy of God in my own life, despite (and sometimes because of) its imperfections, and helping others to see that same Providence at work in theirs.

Where is God calling you to witness?

Are you waiting and fuming, or waiting and worrying, this Advent? “Let nothing trouble you, let nothing frighten you,” said St. Teresa of Avila. “All things pass away, but God never changes. Patience obtains all things, and those who possess God want for nothing. God alone suffices.”

It’s not too late to pick up a copy ofAdvent with Saint Teresa of Calcutta on Franciscan Media or Amazon.com.  Happy Advent!

The Long-Distance Daughter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALosing a parent is never easy. All the steps leading up to that moment, whether sudden onset or gradual decline, and whether physical or mental or both, bring their own set of challenges for those who are close enough to assist. But these past few weeks I’ve discovered that being the “long-distance daughter” is its own kind of hell.

Often there aren’t any good options. Drop everything and go? Maybe — of course, it may be only a temporary (and costly) solution to what is likely to be a long-term need. Meanwhile, jobs and kids and responsibilities pile up relentlessly. Airplane tickets cost money, and driving may not be practical.

Stay in touch by phone, praying, and wait for a call to come? Sometimes that is the only thing to do … still (and this may be the “oldest child” in me talking) it’s hard not to feel guilty about leaving the heavy lifting to siblings who have equally busy lives and equally limited resources.

Years ago, I remember my mother commenting how hard it was for her, as the oldest daughter, when her mother chose to move in with her granddaughter, my cousin. Mom felt that she should be the one to tend to her mother’s needs, and make her mother’s last days as comfortable as possible. Yet in the end, Mom’s role was one of welcome visitor, rather than care-taker. It was a painful, but unavoidable, reality: She was the firstborn, but not the one to whom her mother reached out for help.

Rationally, she may have understood why things turned out the way they did, just as I see the logic of my own parents’ choices: It makes sense to have the daughter with a financial background manage the finances, the daughter in closest proximity to handle the medical decisions, and the daughter who is an advocate in her professional life to advocate for my mother’s needs where she is. It is also true that, even if I were the best person for the job, I have real limitations due to the needs of my own family, not to mention the eight hundred miles between us.

Even so, I have to say, it stinks to be the long-distance daughter. With all the engrained sense of responsibility of being the oldest, it’s hard not to be self-incriminating and reproachful. And yet, having watched my own mother walk this particular path, I have witnessed some of the landmines. Resentment. Anger. Helplessness. Pettiness. Fear. Did I mention resentment?

And then, the greatest bugaboo of all: plain, interminable grief. She has not died, though she is no longer herself. A dying of a different kind.

Have you ever been a long-distance daughter? How did you get through it? What did you find helpful?

31 Days of De-Stressed Living, Day 30: Zebra Girl!

az_zebrasWhen I think of zebras, I immediately think “black-and-white.” Black-and-white thinking can be extremely stress-inducing. (Unless we’re talking about cookies, fresh from the Reading Terminal Market or Zabars Bakery. Those are stress-lifting, served with a proper cup of tea to cut the sweetness.)

But on zebras, those black-and-white stripes serve a purpose that is most fully realized when the zebras stick together. While no two sets of stripes are exactly alike (stripes on zebras are a bit like fingerprints on humans), when a herd of zebras stand close together, their stripes camouflage the individuals, making it harder for predators to attack.

What’s more, when predators do attack, the injured zebra is surrounded by the others, who band together to drive off the predator. For that reason, zebras do not sleep away from the herd; they depend on the safety of the group.

Are we really so different? When God said, “It is not good for man to be alone,” he was pointing to the simple truth that one of the ways we reflect his image and likeness is that we are intrinsically social, designed to be in community with others. For women, it’s especially important to find the society of other women.

We are Zebra Girls: Individually, our stripes make us beautiful … yet we are strongest with the support of those whose stripes are like our own.

Recently I received a note from an old friend, whose absence from my life has been particularly difficult this past year. I had tried to reach out, tried to reconnect, but something had come between us. In time, I realized I needed to let go — I had to focus my energies on more immediate needs. But seeing her familiar handwriting in the mail, the pang hit again, and I realized just how much I had missed her.

Not every friendship is meant to last a lifetime. Some friends pass through our lives like gentle breezes, momentary gifts from the hand of God to fill a pressing need. What my friend taught me, though, is that even lifelong friendships have chapters. Sometimes the zebra steps away — or gets separated — from the herd. But our strength is in our stripes. And our stripes work best when we travel together.

Who do you need to call this week, Zebra Girl?

Photo Credit: “One Kind” webpage on the Zebra