I love Thanksgiving. It’s my most favorite holiday of the whole year. There’s just something beautiful about a day dedicated toward looking with gratitude at what you have. I also love that Thanksgiving helps me, and ultimately (or hopefully?) our family, set the tone for the remainder of the holiday season- hopefully one of appreciation and kindness to others. We have a family tradition of adopting a family in need and providing their Christmas gifts, and we’ve been intentional in choosing families with teenagers, since those families tend to be left out. But this year is different for us.
As we’ve sat in church Sunday after Sunday, the hubs and I have been grappling with what it looks like for us to give sacrificially. Not to just tithe or send support checks to our favorite missionaries, but to actually give money or time that we would genuinely miss. That would cause us to think differently about how we live our lives and how we use our resources. On one Sunday this year, our pastor had many of us squirming in our seats as he mentioned one of his biggest pet peeves:
Parishioner: “Pastor, our family would like to do something really nice for a family in need this Christmas. We want to do (XYZ), and we want it to be really special. But we don’t know anybody. Can you tell us where to find a poor family who we could give to?”
My takeaway from his message that day- when we don’t know anyone who is truly in need, we are living in the shelter of our own affluence. And that is so true for me and for my family. In my early days of working, I struggled to pay my bills as a single mom. But I was also an assistant manager in a large discount retailer, and made considerably more than the hourly employees I supervised. It was easy for me then to identify who needed help, and easy for me to help them- to give sacrificially. I remember my first assistant- a security guard in my little store- whose car was stuck in the shop and who was having to choose between paying her rent and driving to work. I remember realizing I’d be buying less expensive gifts for my children and wearing the same coat from years prior, but that I had to pay to get her car out of the shop. I couldn’t let her suffer and do nothing. There were others later- employees whose children needed a uniform for school, or who needed someone to drive them home to less than ideal neighborhoods when my kids and babysitter were waiting for me at home. I remember driving employees from my small town in the middle of nowhere 2 hours into the city for an interview on my day off- because I knew they needed a break and I saw that I could be the opportunity for them to get it.
As my career progressed I became more and more distanced from issues like that. I just genuinely didn’t see them. I remember doing things like handing the homeless man who waited by my office a coffee, or a bottle of water, and I remember giving change to people begging here or there, but I don’t remember genuinely setting aside my needs or wants for the sake of others. I just didn’t see people hurting in that way. And now, from the comfort of home, and with my focus fully on my little family of young children, I am more removed than ever from the suffering of the world. Until recently.
Not long ago, a dear friend asked me to lend my work experience to a group of women at a local non-profit. Our Sunday School class hosts a quarterly awards banquet for families who are enrolled in a Homeless to Housed program, and I had the opportunity to speak to a group of women about resume building and effective interviewing. That small speaking engagement led me to an amazing volunteer opportunity, and now, I review and offer suggestions for several resumes a week, supplying (at this point entirely) women with interview tips, and practicing some interview questions with them. I can do most of this from the comfort of my bed while typing on my laptop, and from a sacrificial standpoint, I give up my free time- my “mom” time, but it feeds my soul.
Last week, things took a turn. While most of my work has involved reviewing resumes and swapping emails, this time a case manager reached out to me to meet with a client in-person for a mock interview. When I met with this particular client, my heart was moved. I saw a person who was truly at rock bottom. She and her 14 year old daughter had been homeless, living on the streets or in shelters, for the better part of the last 5 years. Her resume showed more than 30 jobs in the last 15 years- mostly contract or temp work that just didn’t ever pan out. And as I sat across from this precious woman, who was wearing a bathrobe to keep warm because she had no heat and no coat, in a hovel of an apartment, I saw myself. I saw an educated woman (with a degree) who had taken lots of chances, and instead of those chances turning into big opportunities, they all pushed her further down. She told me she just wanted to work. She didn’t believe she go to one more interview to get turned down. And that the previous Friday, when we were originally scheduled to meet, she had to cancel because her car broke down. A car that is riddled with problems that have been “repaired” by dishonest mechanics, while she pays an interest-only loan to a predatory lender who can shut her car off if she gets behind on payments. Friends, for every person who is “working the system,” there are 15 more like this precious woman. Who need a break, and everywhere they turn are met with dishonest people who keep them trapped in poverty without a chance. We worked on her resume, we held hands, she cried, I listened, we prayed together. When I left, I promised her we would find something for her, one way or another.
That night, I told my husband that this was what we were supposed to do. We had to help this family- not some random family selected from a radio show (although we love that program and highly encourage you to participate if you want to give somewhere). I wanted warm clothes for them and a car that works and a house with furniture. But surely we couldn’t do all that. My hubs’ response? “Find out how much she owes on the car. Let’s get her car fixed and pay it off. She’ll never get out of debt with that looming over her.” **Swoon.** My man is both practical and generous. I always have crazy schemes and he always supports them. I called her case manager and made arrangements to help this sweet lady, and after I hung up with her, I got a call. It was this client, calling to tell me she’d gotten the job she was interviewing for that morning. I could feel her smiling through the phone. I believed her when she said, “Lauren, you saved my life. You just don’t know. I thought after all these setbacks and all this disappointment, I just don’t want to live anymore. I knew I had good things in me, but I was so tired of no one ever seeing them. I think I just needed to know that someone believed in me.” She didn’t know about our plan for her car, or our plan to set her up with winter clothes. She was just thankful for kindness and time spent.
Friends, if you are looking to give to someone this season, look close to home. I learned a heart for giving from my parents- my mother tutored at-risks students in my school for years, and still does this today. My father drove a van once a week, taking disabled and impoverished adults from local housing projects to a hot meal at our church, and it was often the only hot meal those men and women had all week. Our children learn from us. And they can learn to spot hardship around us. This election has brought out the worst in so many of us, and highlighted the worst in those around us. But we can change that. If you’re passionate about abortion, spend time with kids in foster care, or counsel young women in crisis. Teach young girls about consent and power over their own bodies. If you care about LGBTQ rights, volunteer with a suicide hotline for teens, or check with your local Boys and Girls Clubs- those counselors can tell you which kids need extra support. If you care about people with special needs, there are churches and recreation programs in every city that offer respite programs for families like mine. If schools are your passion, find a Title 1 school in your area and offer its teachers your help- there are classrooms all over America that are desperate for supplies, and teachers who are desperate for encouragement, now more than ever. Arrange a teacher appreciation drive or take coffee to put in a teachers lounge. Concerned about elder care in your area? Adopt a grandparent and take your children. Concerned about diversity? Join a girl scout troop in a tough neighborhood- better yet start a Girl Scout troop in an impoverished neighborhood. If you care about how people live on welfare or public assistance of any kind- work with organizations like the Cobb Center for Family Resources, that helps families move from homeless to housed and supports them as they learn to sustain themselves financially.
Most of all, look around you. There is no shortage of places, people, or organizations in need. Those of us with affluence can stay in our warm houses and think about the joys of adopting families for Christmas, and that’s a beautiful thing. But if you’re looking for something more, if you want your children to learn something more- start looking now. And I’d challenge you to find a place and a plan to give that doesn’t end. Look for the suffering. It’s there. And if this election has taught us anything, it’s that not all suffering looks the same. As sad as it is, whatever our passions are, there is someone suffering who can benefit from our interests. Follow yours- look for a place to give that energizes you. You’ll find it. And then don’t stop. Whatever you do, don’t stop. Someone is waiting for you to save their life, just by being you.