The oak leaves hung on! It’s the leaves at the top of an enormous oak tree that are still attached to the branches. In spite of an early winter that blew icy winds and snow through our Michigan landscape, these leaves are still in place! Their non-descript brown color could be easily overlooked against the colorless landscape. But on this cold November evening, the setting sun is sharing the last act of the day with them. In the fleeting light they are transformed into an auburn hue. Moving in response to a slight wind, they grab my attention. It seems like they should have let go when the storms hit a couple of weeks ago. How much longer into the winter will they avoid falling? Standing on my back deck wrapped in a down jacket, I admire their tenacity.
It seems like the people with the least protection from their environment have the greatest endurance. Maybe it’s because that’s the only way they will survive. With no one going to bat for them and no safety net to catch them, they maintain whatever shred of control they have by hanging on. At our church we have a discretionary fund with which I can offer assistance to those whose needs fall through the crack. I usually help folks only one time from this fund. But some people have become known to me, like part of the flock. They have never come to worship. Some I’ve never laid eyes on. But I’ve paid by phone to cover their utility bill lest it be shut off. I’ve called in commissary money to one of my regulars who ended up in prison for a time. I’ve taped a gas card to the outside of our parking lot door. On their evening drive home from a thankless job, when I’ve gone to the comfort of my home, they stop by the darkened church to retrieve their ticket to $25 worth of gas. Some stop by my office to pick up a check that can be used to pay for wood that keeps their modest home warm in the winter. When we meet we size each other up. They’ve learned not to trust their world. I don’t assume that walking into a church feels safe for them because too many people have failed them.
A few of the individuals I’ve helped through our church fund call me with some regularity. I remind them that I can’t help them more than a time or two but we talk about their circumstances. I am their pastor. Over the phone they talk about challenges that I can’t imagine surmounting. Many times their problems are not neatly resolved. They have to move to a new apartment. She loses her boyfriend because he slept with her 20-year old daughter. This fall I had four women stop by the church in a months’ time asking for a gas card. Each had suffered abuse at the hands of a boyfriend or husband. Two had ended up in the hospital with their injuries. One drove into our parking lot pulling a trailer with her worldly goods. Her husband was in prison because of his abuse. She and her twin daughters were driving off to a new life and needed gas to do so. These are courageous people who hang on. With seemingly no community to support them, they are survivors.
One woman, Sylvia, called me with some regularity. I met her at a pharmacy once so that I could pay for her prescription. She and a man lived together out of financial necessity. I helped him a time or two as well. They were not romantically involved but shared close quarters and living expenses so as to have a roof over their heads. She reached me one day as I sat on my front porch reading on my day off. It was a lovely day for me, relaxing and safe. Not for Sylvia. She knew I couldn’t help her again financially so I assumed she wanted to talk. She told me that her roommate had come up behind her in the kitchen recently and made advances on her. He was a big man. She was horrified. She reminded him that she was a married woman. (Her husband lived 45 minutes away in a care facility and they couldn’t bridge that distance without cars or money.) Her voice cracked as she shared her fears of being violated by the man she had to live with. Fortunately he backed away, realizing perhaps that any violation of her will could mean the end to his shelter. It’s the only time Sylvia ever showed any sign of stress when talking with me. She was at a breaking point–so I listened and offered to pray.
For a couple of reasons I’m thankful we have this discretionary fund at our church. Although it may feel like an insignificant gift, whether it’s a $25 gas card that gets them to their doctor’s appointment or $200 to turn the heat back on, it makes a difference in their well-being. It reminds them that somebody–from a church, a Body of Christ–cares. But I’m also glad to manage this account because the people I meet through it change me. They let me in on their vulnerability. They tell me their tales of unthinkable hardship. I witness how one surgery and subsequent leave from work can set them back on the most basic needs. About the time I’m thinking I need a new winter coat, I need to be reminded that I have more than enough in my closet, my wallet, my heart.
So the brown, dried-up leaves on a wintry evening stir something up within me. I admire their stubborness. Oak leaves are usually some of the last ones to fall. They end of getting stuck in the snow, resting in place until the winter melts away and new grass pushes them into the swirl of Spring breezes. While I may feel helpless to truly make a difference in the lives of a few of “the least of these”, as Jesus called them, I am reminded that there is a greater Provider who keeps watch over them. The Spirit invoked in prayers over the telephone or with hands held in my office shows up and carries them forward to another day. Relaxed and released for a moment, the ride is good.