Saturday, February 06, 2010

Testing Hospitality

The call came on a Sunday evening a couple of weeks before Christmas while I was sitting on the couch watching tv with the family - a rare occurrence around here.  It was my "friend" Beverly whom I'd never met in real life but with whom I'd had a friendship for many years through a yahoo group of other Christian moms who homeschool large families - we have a lot in common.  Since it was rather late and she had never phoned me before I suspected what the call was going to entail.  Her family had hit a string of bad luck and poor choices over the past several months and I knew they had lost a house and had since moved from place to place with their eight children - all boys - and were probably in crisis seeking a place to stay.  As the months had unfolded and she had shared her story with the group I had continually offered a place to stay in our home should they ever need it.  The time had come, they needed it.  I kept thinking what it must have taken for her to actually pick up the phone and call me - a stranger, but not a stranger - and beg our provision for her and her large family.  I could hear something in her voice, a weariness perhaps, maybe even shock of having been rejected by her own family and turned out on the streets.  Of course we would have them come to our home and of course they could stay. 

Since it was late and they didn't have a vehicle large enough to get them to our house in one trip I asked if she could find provision for the night and we would come in the morning and pick them up in our large van.  She didn't know.  I gave her the number for another friend from the same group who lived closer to where they were and instructed her to make plans for the night and give me a call back.  About an hour later we talked again and her mother had agreed to let them stay the night at her house - but just one more night and then they were to be on their way.  If ever there was a time to be Christ to someone, this was our time.  How could we turn away this family when they had nowhere else to go?

We spent the next few days gathering up enough mattresses and food to feed and house a household of now 26.  We collected gift cards from friends and family, furniture from freecyclers and a mattress from a friend who cleans out foreclosed homes for a living - there was some small irony in that one.  Those eight boys took over the basement, covering the floor with mattresses, blankets and bodies.  The washing machine began to run, along with the dishwasher and the shower, and they haven't stopped since.  Betsy gave up her room to Beverly and Carlos and their youngest two sons and took up residence under Miriam's day bed.  Tad networked their computer into the household network and Beverly immediately set to work on the internet hunting down new job opportunities for Carlos - while he continues to commute 1 1/2 hours one way to his current position.  (Philip took up residence in John's and David's closet from whence he could spy on Beverly's computer screen.)  They hope to move the family to North Carolina or some other point south when all this is said and done.

Our weekly "adult meetings" have been productive.  Carlos feels like he's finally back on track - able to save up enough money for a security deposit and first month's rent at whatever their next stop shall be - hopefully their final stop for quite some time to come after being in this transition period for close to nine months now.  I have to admit to feeling a bit overwhelmed when they first asked us for two months in our home but a silent "Lord have mercy" is a prayer that goes a long way to assuage doubts and fears in the face of serving others and we agreed to let them stay until March 1st - actually more like 2 1/2 months.  There are lots of challenges they need to meet - they still need to navigate through transportation for 10 people and their belongings once they decide on an ending point.  And, those belongings?  Well, they're scattered over about 3 different households and a storage facility right now and will need to be gathered into one place and transported.  Then there is the emotional toll this has taken on their family.  The boys desperately want to be in a place they can call home - but not just home - *their* home.  They often talk about how good it's going to be and just as often they get frustrated with the things they don't have now - things like the freedom to eat a snack when they're hungry, wear sneakers that fit them because they aren't sure in which house they've been left, play a video game when they want to chill out or be a player on a team sport.  They want to feel like winners when relying completely upon others is not a winning situation.

I'm doing my best to provide some sense of at least equality among the children - to not make our guests feel like second rate citizens.  If there were three Christmas gifts for each of our children under the tree - by golly there were going to be three for each of them as well and if one of them was a nerf gun then there would be weaponry for all.  Things like snacks, candy, movies and even chores can quickly become a sticking point if it seems that "ours" are getting something "they" can't have.  My constant striving the past couple of months has been to eliminate the "us" and "them" thinking. To that end, there's been nerf battles waged, chores assigned and posted, movie nights planned, late night snacks overlooked, extra rounds of candy bingo, provisions snuck in to Beverly in paper bags and many, many, many conversations which always seem to center around the themes of extending grace and love in all circumstances.

Twenty-six people means 26 personalities.  We already had our share of interesting challenges before this family arrived and now we've added to that 10 more people who need to be understood and allowed to express themselves - and who need to understand the special needs of our family to promote tolerance.  This is no small task and admittedly, I'm tired.  Our last adult meeting looked like something from the set of a zombie movie - 4 exhausted and frustrated bodies with glazed over eyes slumped in chairs around the room trying to navigate through the land mine of personalities that are our children.  The next day Ben and I spent sequestered in my room creating the rules for a nerf battle in which all the adults could play too so we could model good sportsmanship and show our kids it's still possible to have fun together.  A pizza party broke the ice before that battle.  We won more than just a collection of foam darts that night - we won back the hearts of our children, at least a good part of them.   That's the real work of living together here like this.

Meals are like running a camp kitchen.  We already had our evening meals divided up between myself, Adora and the children so we simply added Beverly into the rotation and it's been doable.  I usually start my meals with a big pot - a pot in which a friend served a meal in that first week and which I have decided to call my own until the end of this journey.  She's ok with that.  Her kids are all grown now and the pot is too big for just two.  We try to pray together as a family before our evening meal and then dinner is served buffet style with the youngest ones being served by moms or older siblings.  The grown ups don't usually sit down but there are plenty of seats for all the kids - our post-fire renovations have provided more than enough room for that.  The challenge is continuing to keep an additive free kitchen, which means home cooked meals for many more than usual.  Homemade pizza night and taco salad seem to be the two favorites.

So here we are coming down to the last few weeks of this commitment we've made to this special family.  There is a part of me that's so tired and worn out and looks forward to returning to the day to day struggles of "just" 16 members of our household.  But there is something else in me that just can't quit, that wants to get to know this family better and better, that wants more than anything else to part at the next fork in the road as not just friends but comrades in arms, soldiers who survived the trenches together.  Please pray for our friends.  Please pray that the next stop truly is the last stop for them, that these boys can have a house to call their own and feel like winners again.  Lord have mercy.


LucisMomma said...

Praying for them, Mary, and for your family, too.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Praying for you all, and may God bless you all !

Patti said...

Mary, you made me cry, but a good cry. A miracle on so many fronts, and your willingness to do what God asked you to do, that's what made it possible. My prayers for everyone involved continue.

elizabeth said...

Lord have mercy!

magda said...

I usually enjoy your blog, but this puts it over the top. This is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. Glory to God. I'll be praying for all 26 of you.

thecurryseven said...

This is beautiful. I love being able to hear more of the 'inside story' after reading posts on large families.

You (and Beverly) inpsire me with your evident grace.


Jenny said...

A very, very overwhelming task! You have taught your children so much from your example. God bless you.
Jenny at