Almost seven years ago, God took me on a journey that only he could orchestrate. To say that my Christian bubble burst is an understatement. One day, I am driving children to soccer practice and running late to a PTA meeting, and the next day, I am sitting across women battling homelessness and poverty.
My arrogance made me believe I would enter this agency and change the hearts and lives of the homeless women. It didn’t take long to realize that the life that was going to be changed would be my own. I had spent years trying to surround myself with strong women that made me better. Much to my surprise, the person I needed wasn’t driving a minivan and drinking an overpriced latte. Who I needed was living in a shelter and drinking strong coffee in a Styrofoam cup. She was genuine and didn’t hide behind an upbeat Facebook post and pretend to have it all together. She openly shared her struggles and asked for help, not approval.
If you want to know what strength looks like, spend five minutes with a woman trying to navigate and possibly “get out” of poverty. Listen to her as she tells you how many buses it takes to get to her destination. Ask her how she finally decides to break the cycle of generational poverty while feeling alone and abandoned. Try not to be shocked or moved when she describes her frustration in being told “no,” “not now,” or other excuses and negative replies when asking for resources.
What women experiencing poverty taught me were lessons that can’t be learned by watching a video, reading a blog, or packing a bag and traveling overseas. They were lessons that came from those living from one crisis to another and not looking beyond the now. The lessons came from women that could speak firsthand rather than from the story of others. They taught me while showing me their calloused hands and scars. They were authentic in their descriptions and honest with their stories. My teachers rarely focused on the desire to “get ahead” but were grateful for getting by each day. Their future included one month from now instead of next year or next season. Living in the now is necessary and dreaming beyond is a luxury.
It is not us and them…it is US.
As I look back on all of the women that have sat and shared their story in my office, it is hard to choose which one affected me the most. Was it the woman that came to us straight from incarceration and explained how she finally felt free from more than prison for the first time? Maybe it’s the woman who left for work two hours early insuring she wouldn’t miss her bus connection, returning to the shelter late at night to begin the same route the next day. Possibly it’s the woman who desperately desires to reunite with her children and live beyond the “system” and the waitlists for resources.
If we truly took the time to engage in a conversation similar to the ones we suburbanites have in coffee shops, we would learn we have much in common. Often it’s only one decision that defines our differences.
Poverty is all about persevering.
When I hear a “no” following a job interview, I have a choice to persevere or to stop. I don’t have to be concerned about my next meal or shelter. I have a support team that will fill the gap until situations change. When the “no” affects your well-being, livelihood, and a meal for your child, you don’t have a choice. An impoverished mom, with four kids in tow, always needs a plan A, B, and C. Poverty taught me what perseverance looks like.
Poverty requires patience.
Think about the last time you truly had to rely on strangers for daily living. Imagine relying on the agency employee that sees you as a number and a case file. You hope and pray you didn’t forget the one form that separates you from food assistance. Too many times you have endured the long line only to be told, “not today.” Poverty means these women often find themselves at the mercy of another appointment and the impending, “we will mail you the results.” Waiting is not critical when the refrigerator is stocked, and the gas tank is full.
What praise looks like.
I remember often hearing women give praise and gratefulness to God for the simplest of things. Thanking him for their food card, for their days of sobriety, for the friendliness of an agency worker and for just being awake another day. When is the last time we thanked God for being awake? Oh, what a selfish spirit we can have. If life has always been good, we assume it will continue on that track. When a curveball comes, and situations change, we feel blindsided and begin to ask why. I rarely heard a woman, at the shelter, ask “why?” It was more like “why not?” and “where do I go from here?”
Contentment isn’t difficult.
Nonprofits are usually lacking in many areas and overflowing in others. I remember the joy that would come to a woman’s face when she received a new purse. It didn’t come straight from a department store, but it was new to her. How refreshing it would be to watch women match fashionable outfits from clothing donated in black garbage bags.
I am grateful for the opportunity to walk alongside these strong and courageous women. Many times, feelings of inadequacy creep into my soul, and God reminds me of my role. It is not to lead the women to self-sufficiency or to encourage them from behind. My role is walking parallel with them and strengthening myself in the process. I am not their mentor, guide, or worker. I am their sister, friend, and fellow pilgrim on life’s journey. We learn from each other and consider ourselves stronger because of the experience.