Last night I took my two boys to volunteer at church while Families Moving Forward was there. If you know nothing of this ministry, FMF is an organization that takes a certain number of families and houses them in different churches each week to take care of their housing and meal needs. This allows families to focus on work and saving money. My job with my children was to play with the kids after dinner and help with homework.
We joined everyone at the tail end of dinner. This allowed my kids to play right of the bat, and I was able to visit with some of the parents. It was great getting to know of these parents and talking about how hard it is to provide for the needs of our kids. We talked about the major dysfunction in meal assistance and how harmful the food that is provided is to the body. We talked about our families special diet and the food that is offered to them. It was so enlightening to listen to these parents want more fresh fruit and veggies for their kids, and sometimes their only option is a pudding pack.
I spent a good portion of my meal time with a single dad named Jason, who incidentally is trying to move into a place two blocks from where we live. I'm not sure if I gained more points with him once he learned that. He looked rather surprised that we live in North. I say that because I believe his words were, "WOW, a white chick? You live in north? Get out?" I'm not sure I understand. The diversity is huge all around this city, white people included. But he was super excited to get the names of the programs that have helped us in the past in creating a safer and cleaner place for our kids to live. So there I was, helping at the homeless ministry sharing tips on government programs and how to find that helping hand when you need one.
After playing basketball with the kiddos, Mary, Jason's daughter who is in the second grade, asked me to help her with her homework. She was the star student for the week and she had to complete a poster that was all about her. There were questions like, "What is your favorite color? Favorite food? Who is in your family? Where do you live?"
Simple enough question right? Where do you live? Except if you are Mary or another 37% of grade school students and an even higher percentage of high school students, according to our local Camden neighborhood paper.
Where do you live?
Mary's answer was written without hesitation on her large poster board paper that will be displayed and highlighted to all the students in her grade and school.
That's where Mary lives. She lives in a church. Her mattress is on a classroom floor shared by a handful of other people. The only other person in her family is her dad, who is trying his best to provide what he can for her.
If Mary has a nighttime routine with her dad reading to her, saying prayers, tucking her in, it is disrupted by other kids playing out in the gym. It's disrupted by the doubt and fear of what will happen next. She gets to stay at a church for one week, and then they move. Again.
Mary lives at church. And hopefully not for long, but she is only one of the dozen that were there yesterday. One of hundreds that live in the system just in our city.
I am not here to defend or protest the system, the programs the issues wrong with hand outs and hand ups. I am not staking my claim on either side of this issue.
What struck me was two things.
First, I'm confident you wouldn't know that Mary was homeless or that she lived in a church, unless she told you. She would go to school with her backpack and her clothes that maybe you might notice she wears more than other kids. But lets be honest here. In full disclosure, I have my favorite five outfits and most likely its the only thing you see me wear. If you knew me when I was pregnant at all, I had one skirt. ONE that I wore everyday. I'm not kidding. If it was dirty, I wore my pajama's until it was clean. Then I wore it again. My husband would joke that living with me was like living with the Scooby Doo clan, always wearing the same thing no matter where they were. (I think he burned the skirt. I know he hid the pajama pants.)
My point is, you often don't know the story behind people. We look at people, but we don't see them. We judge before we really get to know. I can only imagine how difficult school must seem to a young girl who moves every week. Who has to check in at her host church every night at 5:15. What does she do until then? She can't go to a friends house. She invite others over to her home. She can't go to a birthday party because she can't afford a present. She goes to sleep every night without security. Focusing on school would be increasingly difficult and nearly impossible if it were me. How is she supposed to succeed at her grades? At her friendships?
You wouldn't know Mary was homeless by just looking at her. You might I assume I was by looking at me. You never know what someones story is until you ask. Until you invest. I encourage us all to keep our judgement at bay. We are quick to judge so we can either understand in our own conclusion what we do not know, or dismiss it so we don't have to deal with it. Judgement hardens the heart. Understanding ushers forth mercy.
The second thing I noted that evening, is that my kids were genuinely confused about where Mary's mother was. I asked the boys what they thought and they said she either died or someone took her. I asked why they thought someone would take her, and Big's response was, "Because there is no reason a mommy wouldn't be with her kids."
My heart broke. I didn't correct them. Some truths aren't meant to be shared at such a young age, and I want my kids to believe that there is nothing that would take a mama away from her kids as long as possible. That will always be their truth.
So we prayed for Mary and her dad and her mom wherever she was. We agreed to leave that unknown truth to God. Only he knows where Mary's mom is, but we prayed that God would bring peace between Mary and her mom, whatever happened.