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What the Poor Need More than Money

alec vanderboom

One of my Sunday School students stopped coming to class this winter. When I called to check in on her, I heard a rough story. Her Mom is a widow with five children. My student and her siblings had been out of school for more than two weeks with "walking pneumonia" and her Mom was having trouble finding contract work with so many needy, sick kids to care for at home.

I called our Church to see if we could give this family some help and first person I talked to was not so helpful. (It's hard to explain but in very poor parishes, versus more wealthy ones--there is this strict line between the "deserving and undeserving" poor. Charity doesn't just go to whoever scores low on an income-asset test. When an entire parish is poor the poor box money often goes out to the "good" poor and not the "bad" poor. The "good poor" are widows who show up reliably at Mass, serve on the Social Concerns Committee and are poor through "no fault of their own." The bad poor are the ones who show up irregularly at Mass and Sunday School, have children far behind the neat sacramental schedule and constantly "need charity instead of give charity.")

I'm a horrible, messy, distracted, barely able to stand on my own two feet Catholic myself. I'm the one in Mass with a pregnant belly, a toddler with mismatched shoes, and a naughty seven year old who sometimes KICKS his sister's dropped bottle all the way down the pew instead of handing it gently to his mother when asked.

As a result, I have soft spot for the "undeserving" poor of my parish. I wasn't about to let this needy family go unaided. At this point, I could either "fight" with the parish, or just handle the situation myself. I asked Jon and we decided to send a good gift card from Target in case they needed Christmas presents, clothes or food.

The actual gift card purchase was so fun. My kids picked out the "scratch and sniff" Merry Christmas Card. I wrote a nice note saying "God see the work that you are doing for your family" and attempted to disguise my handwriting. Then I put our Catholic Church on as the return address and popped it into the mail.

On Christmas Eve the Mom called me.

I freaked out when Jon handed me the phone. I thought that she had figured out that it was our family who sent the gift card. I felt all squeamish inside. "It was supposed to be a secret" I complained mentally to Jesus.

The Mom never mentioned the gift card. Instead she was calling all apologetic that her family couldn't come over for Christmas dinner. (Honestly dear readers, I forgot I had mentioned that as a possibility three weeks earlier). She couldn't come because her 15 year old son who suffered from Depression was committed into a Adolescent Psych Ward over the weekend. My Sunday School Student was going to be spending Christmas Day visiting with her brother in a mental hospital in another state.

I was stunned.

I was stunned because of the glory of the Holy Spirit. Here I was concerned that this family was unemployed and recovering from pneumonia, when the cross they were really struggling with was so much harder.

And I was stunned that my "almsgiving" task, for which I was busy patting myself on the back-- was the least important thing I was giving to this family.

This woman was in tears on Christmas Eve because I had invited her family into my home. I wanted them to visit.

I took a deep breath. I do not know this Mother well at all and there seemed to be all sorts of hidden minefields in a conversation about a child's commitment to a psych ward. But I just asked the same caring questions that I ask if one of my friends was going to Children's National Hospital with a physical illness. I asked if she trusted the doctors. I asked if she was scared to bring him home. And that was the right questions to ask.

I'm so freakin' grateful to be a Catholic. To be a Secular Carmelite like Mary. I keep wanting to do something "big" to fight poverty in Appalachia. I want to join a committee, or volunteer at a legal clinic or sew sleeping bags for the homeless. God keeps reminding me about the virtue of Humility. He brings me people to serve--I don't need to go out in search of them. The tasks he asks me to do for them are always simple and light. Invite a stranger to Christmas dinner. Listen to a Mom talk as she drives back from the hospital where she just left her sick son.

St. Bernadette, please pray for Family "X" to heal. Please help my fourth grade student make her First Communion this Spring despite all the health challenges that her family faces. This is a cause so close to your own heart!