rick was signed up to go christmas caroling with the 3rd graders and i was heading downtown with the 8th grade to a women and children's shelter. my 6th grader was taking christmas gifts and care packages to the workers at DFCS. our school is like that. instead of big, hectic holiday parties, the school schedules service projects for the children on this final day before break. instead of sitting in their classrooms and playing christmas bingo and eating peppermint bark bites, the kids pack up christmas and take it to someone else. and i'm so glad. every time i get to be a part of a day like this, i drive home thinking someone sure did get it right. long ago, someone at perimeter school decided our students could forego the cupcakes and coloring sheets and instead do something for someone else. not that i'm against parties, mind you. anyone who knows me, knows i plan a fair share of them and happen to like the party thing very much -- but when it comes to these kinds of days, i am just so thankful we are encouraged to turn from our own wishes and see someone else's want.
except that as i raced from the babysitter to the school building, i was feeling kind of frazzled and rather selfish. i mean, i knew from experience this day would be as good for me as it would be for the students, but my to do list was too long. i could easily think of 87 other things i could be doing with my last free morning. starting tomorrow, the kids would be right in the middle of my stuff still to do. and as much as i like having them home, a lot less gets accomplished when they are all underfoot. so there i was driving wildly, and somewhat reluctantly, to the school, all the while praying for a changed attitude. i glanced guiltily at the big box of christmas cards i had thrown in the front seat (just in case i had some down time).
we weren't in the women and children's shelter 10 minutes before i met trinity and christian. trinity, age one, was blond and blue eyed and a big old mess: runny nose, sick eyes and fussy, fussy, fussy. she didn't want to leave the arms of the care giver, but finally settled down on my lap and then it was clear all she really wanted was to snuggle. i wanted to eat her right on up. even sick, she was incredibly cute. but there was this little boy with his eye on her. i noticed immediately he was watching us. he'd read a book or play a game with one of the 8th graders, but then he'd stop and look around until his eyes found us. trinity was his little sister and christian had been taking care of her for most of her life. christian was six years old. later in the morning the director told us how christian cares for his sister. "he doesn't eat until she eats. he doesn't sleep until she sleeps. he feeds her her bottle, rocks her to sleep...he is always aware of where she is." christian and trinity's mom is a drug addict. she is homeless and hurting, and as the director explained to me, "completely oblivious to the needs of her kids." they've been in the shelter a few weeks, but christian is still struggling with how to let others help care for his sister. did i mention he is six?
standing at the playground later that day, the director, latonya, said to me, "our kids don't know church or God. they don't know christmas. heck, they don't even know what it means to be children. all they know is struggle. that's it...just struggle." there was that word, "struggle." my eyes began to well up. shame crept hot across my cheeks. i had just used that word a few hours earlier to describe our morning exit from the house. struggle. what did i know about struggle? nothing, that's what. six year old christian who has been caring for his baby sister while his mom shoots up drugs and drags them from place to place because they are homeless...christian knows struggle. and his baby sister will know it soon enough.
while taking a short tour of the mission, i met up with some more struggle. as the students and i walked through the shelter's sleeping quarters i saw struggle, plain as day. bunk beds lined up with toddler shoes below. black garbage bags holding belongings and tired suitcases held together with rope. bed after bed after bed. a few meager items...a ragged stuffed animal, a child's sweater, a coloring page taped to the wall. i held back from the group for a few minutes, sure it would embarrass my teenage son to have his mom begin sobbing in front of his classmates. it was all i could do to hold it together and continue walking. tonight as i type, i sit in my freshly painted bedroom, a cozy fire blazing nearby and a hot cup of tea within arm's reach. my children sleep softly down the hall in warm beds with matching comforters and clean sheets. and i just want to weep for it all. what would it feel like to be a woman with a few children and no place to go but the bleak barracks of this shelter. how does this happen? why can't we stop it? what can we possibly do?
i learned in conversation, this shelter cares for over 300 women and children. it turns no woman or child away. not ever. latonya explained one of the hardest things is the teens. one of the greatest needs they have right now is providing christmas for the teens living in their housing. "no one thinks of the teens," she said. these kids just want to be normal. to fit in. she described how embarrassed they were about their situation. what teen wants to admit his family is homeless? teens don't want to admit they have families, let alone they have a homeless family. i had honestly never thought about that before. i mean we all know homelessness is a terrible thing, a tragedy, but i hadn't ever thought about it from the perspective of the child or teen. the teen who continues to attend school but laughs at the thought of homework. "what a joke," he must think. "what home?" i have a couple of my own teens and even these two well adjusted kids just want to fit in...to blend. the program which houses these families is called "my sister's house." the director named it that years ago in order to save these hurting kids from further embarrassment. when asked where they lived, they could simply and safely answer, "my sister's house."
the truth is, i could write on and on and on about our hours at the atlanta mission and my sister's house. i could write more about what i learned. what i saw. what it touched deep inside me. i am overwhelmed tonight as i pound out my day and my thoughts on this keyboard. i've been around enough of these projects and in enough of these situations to know this is how life is lived for some. but i'll never be numb to it. i pray i'll never be numb to it. their struggle, not mine, but theirs.
so what can we do? well, God certainly does work in funny ways. so, the women in my bible study having been planning a party - yes, a party - for this sunday night. we have called it "cookies, cocoa and coats" and have been busy inviting as many people as we can. we are asking families to stop over at our house sunday night for christmas cookies and cocoa and we've suggested they bring a new or used coat to donate to someone in need. in the past week or so, my friend, kelly and i have been talking about where in the world we were going to take these (hopefully) 200+ coats (gloves, hats and scarves too!) we hadn't settled completely on a plan -- until today. i had never even connected the dots about going to the mission today and having the coat collection on sunday -- but it is perfect, because that is the kind of God we serve. standing in the sunshine this afternoon, i mentioned it to latonya and asked if she could use 200 coats. i wish you could have seen her expression. "oh yes, oh, yes. yes. yes!" she said, "bring em on...we could more than use them, girl!" she exclaimed.
it's not much. well actually until sunday night, i am not sure what it is. but even if we get 200 coats or 2000 coats, christian and trinity's mom will still be a drug addict and people will still fall asleep in the barracks worn out and exhausted from hard living. struggle will still be evident in the eyes of these women and in the need of their children. we can't fix it all over night. i applaud those who work each day trying. i am inspired by those who do what they can. roosevelt said, "do what you can, with what you have, where you are." what if we really lived like that? what if we really did? what if? so many times we see problems -- like homelessness and orphans and poverty -- which are so big we become paralyzed and do nothing. but what if we all just did something small. just something. what if?