Confessions of a Scared White Woman

 

 All we knew to take with us into this hell-hole of an apartment complex was love.  I hoped it was enough.  

I always thought that by this time in my life, I’d be like Ruth Bell Graham, sitting in my mountain home at my breakfast nook, looking out over the hills that I loved as I drank a cup of tea and wrote inspirational notes to those who needed a sweet word of encouragement.  Instead, I’m standing in my downstairs apartment on the intracoastal waterway looking at a winter’s thunderstorm come in from the southwest, bringing its watery grey sheets of rain across the narrow pier, scattering the shells left earlier by hungry gulls.  I always wondered how the shells piled up and then mysteriously disappeared overnight.

I have no sweet notes to write to anyone today, (or most days, for that matter.)  These days I remember a lot from ministry experiences and the years we raised our children.   I’m thinking that these stories are part of their heritage, to be told to our grandchildren and shared by our friends.  I’d like to think that if I write them down, they can encourage or entertain, at the least.  Here’s one from 1995.

“We came from Bethlehem, Georgia bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle.”
― Barbara KingsolverThe Poisonwood Bible 

We’d been asked to come and minister at an apartment complex in Orlando, Florida:  George Town Apartments.  It was in the Pine Hill’s area and was nicked named, “Crime Hills.”  We couldn’t wait to get started.  So ready to make a difference in the world, we were fearless and had no idea what to expect.  Ever read “The Poison Wood Bible?”

We decided to have our first meeting on a Wednesday night.  Rita, the apartment manager, had taken a two bedroom apartment and turned it into a clubhouse.  Chairs were set out in the living room and Bill’s keyboard was in the corner.  With great music combined with a message designed to touch the heart of  this troubled mini-world we had found ourselves suddenly assigned to, plus light refreshments,  we were ready to take up our challenge.   Let the good times begin and let our light so shine before men!

About thirty minutes before the meeting began,  those of  us who came early decided to go and knock on some of the resident’s doors to ask them to come.  I didn’t go.  The children were all with me at the clubhouse.  Bill put on his best preacher’s smile and went to the first apartment door, knocking loudly.  A lady with a checker-board smile greeted him and asked him into her house.  He stood at the door, introducing himself and telling her about the new services that would begin that night.  He wondered if she would like to come and try them out.

Very graciously, she declined, saying, “Well, You see….My sista’s just got stabbed!  I don’t think I can make it this week!  The amb’lance is here and they’re gettin’ her ready to take her to the hospital.”  And sure enough, two EMC’s passed by Bill, carrying a lady out on a stretcher.  The ambulance was out in the parking lot.

Apologizing, Bill backed out of their way.  He was so freaked out he didn’t offer to pray for her or offer any words of comfort to the sister.  “I understand…maybe next time,” he muttered, and  moved on a little more cautiously to the next apartment to see if anyone was home.

Meanwhile, back at the clubhouse, some of the residents had started to trickle into the room.  There was a man there who seemed to be nervous and sweating profusely…either he had not had his medications that day or he had taken them all and then some!  There were a few dear old “mommas,”  who had for a few years been afraid to come out of their apartments .  They entered the room with  wide eyed curiosity, wondering if their prayers for thetumblr_lwbl09AKsK1qf84ybo1_1280 neighborhood were finally being answered.  A church, right down the sidewalk from their doorway!  A few young momma’s were sitting happily in the seats, seemingly unaware that their children were running around the room, glad to play  in a new environment.  Of course, we didn’t mind babysitting.  We took care of the children and promised them snacks for later if they behaved themselves during the meeting.  The mothers were just relieved to have someone other than themselves show some interest in their rambunctious children.

I can’t seem to recall the others who came.  I believe there was a gay man named, Richard.  It was explained to me that he had at one time been a big time night club owner (of the drag queen singing and dancing variety)  and had experienced a radical conversion over to Christianity.  He had even been interviewed on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club.  I didn’t ask questions but it seemed that he felt he had taken a fall from Grace, again, and didn’t feel worthy of God’s love.  He was mentally disabled, beaten down  and lived quietly at George Town Apartments.  He only wanted to “feel” Jesus like he used to.  I wanted that for him too!  It seemed so important for him.  He would talk and cry, remembering when he used to “be” someone.  If nothing else, he was loved by us.  Sometimes he would cook for us, Cajun food and luscious cakes…He later moved to South Carolina near the beach and lived in a trailer.  It’s funny the particular things one can remember.

The room was almost filled up and Bill was back in time to start our meeting.  Allen and Betsy Quain, our partners in ministry were there with their four children.  Between us, we had ten children!  That was enough alone to start a church!  Oh, wait a minute….We had already done that!

Bill started to play the keyboard.  We had set up a sound system loud enough to blow the roof off the building!  Rita wanted us to open the doors and set the speakers outside so that the residents could hear the music and the gospel as it was preached.

I  have to admit…Bill, Allen, Betsy and I could sing!  We sang as if we were singing  before thousands of people in a stadium that night!  People started opening the doors to their apartments, letting the music seep into their hearts and souls.  Black folk, white folk, people from the Islands….it didn’t matter.  A peace seemed to descend down from heaven over our city block.  The Kingdom of God was near and the people could touch it.

A few policemen came in as we started our meeting.  One stood by the front door and the other by the open sliding glass door.  I thought it was sweet and later mentioned it to Bill, “Can you believe that even the police came into the meeting?”  You could imagine my surprise when Bill answered back, “Oh, Donna…Rita told me she asked them to come.  She wanted them watching both doors because the word was out that we were there and we were messing up drug deals that were going down…Even messing up some prostitution rings… The prostitutes couldn’t come out on the sidewalk…You know…They were there to protect us from getting shot.”

You know, right then would have been a good time for me to put my foot down; to say,  as a mother, “Bill, we can’t take our family into this hell hole!  It’s dangerous!  Someone could get hurt.”  But I didn’t.  Because I knew deep down inside of my spirit, there was a calmness that couldn’t be explained.  I had felt God’s spirit of peace descend upon us as we sang, as we held those beautiful children in our arms as their mommas worshipped God.  As we did the only thing we knew to do: love them.  Love was already in the air.  It had come in on the gentle breeze, through the windows and doors, on the music notes in the quiet summer night.  It had entered my heart, causing me to want to serve these lovely, lonely,  people.  The adventure was calling me….I couldn’t help but say, “I’m glad the police were there, then.  I may be afraid but I can’t wait until next week.”

I had fun choosing this song to go with this post.  I’m sure the writers intended it to be for two people in love.  I’d like to think this one was meant for me and the people of George Town Apartments.  It always helps to fall in love with the group of people God calls you to serve!

HERE’S YOUR SONG!  ENJOY!

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Aside

Did I Ever Tell You About the Time… Confessions of a Food Stamp Thief

My husband, Bill and I were having dinner with some friends last night and in keeping with a conversation we were having about how  poor we were when we were young and in “the ministry,”   I told them this story.  They asked if I had ever written a blog post about this and I said, “No.  I’ve never written about any of my adventures in faith that I experienced when we lived in Orlando, Florida.”  I went to bed later, sat my computer on my lap and inspired by what we had talked about, I decided to tell you some of our stories.  Maybe they are for now.  For you or for me, I don’t know.  This is only one of them.

There is nothing beautiful about poverty.  I can’t think of one poetic thing to say about it that would make it sound romantic or make it more “hip.”  No, it is the ugliest and scariest thing I’ve ever confronted as an adult with six children.  It kept me wary of its power as I kept it at bay from an uncomfortably short distance.  I hated it.

Bill and I  had gone out on a limb.  Way out.  We had moved our family of nine and thirteen other families into an apartment complex in the most drug infested area of Orlando, Florida. Moving into an apartment complex in the Pine Hills area of the city, sometimes jokingly referred to as “Crime Hills,” our family had taken two, three bedroom apartments and cut a door between the two to make a six bedroom apartment, big enough for us all to spread out. Compared to everyone else’s apartments, ours was newly renovated and as long as we stayed inside, we never felt like we were living in the “hood.”  But inevitably, we had to go outside and live amongst the others.  We became them.

We had always wanted to make a difference in the world and be on the “cutting edge” of what God seemed to be doing.  Having been on large church staffs,  there was always the idea that we were taking back our cities for God. Taking back our nation.  One day Bill asked me, “Donna, what if we just took one city block and brought the Kingdom of God down to it, close enough for the people to feel God’s presence?  Do you think it’s possible?  Forget taking the city, let’s just take a block!”

Be careful of what you wish for!   At the request of our friend, Rita Garrett, the apartment manager of George Town Apartments, we moved into the “stronghold,” to live with the drug dealers, addicts and prostitutes.  The only way for God to get us to know him was to send Jesus to live with us down here on earth.  We thought that was a good example. I had never felt poor a day in my life until I moved into George Town Apartments.  Byrd fam Orlando

As a ministry, we lived off of tithes and offerings. Something about moving our ministry into a drug and prostitute infested area made stable, financially secure families want to run away from us as far as they could.  Heck…I couldn’t blame them.  It was a ministry and a rather dangerous one at that.  We didn’t expect everyone to jump on our bandwagon of servitude to the down and out.

Tithes and offerings began to dissipate.  We had to look to God as our source and lean totally on Him for our finances, not just those who were tithing to the ministry.  Every morning, Bill gave me $20.00 to go shopping for our family.  $20.00!!!!  That’s all and that included paper goods and toiletries!

I would go to the Winn Dixie, right up the street from the apartment complex and get my grocery cart and shop for the day’s needs.  It didn’t take long to spend the money and somehow I managed to get the basics for all of my family.  All of my needs for the day would barely cover the bottom of the grocery cart.

I remember doing something that I was ashamed of.  We bought well over $100.00 worth of food stamps from someone willing to sell theirs.  I’m sure it was illegal.  We probably paid $25.00 for them.  I’ll never forget going to the store and buying all the groceries I could possibly use but in the end,  I pulled out the suspect food stamp book and paid for them.  I was humiliated.  I never did that again.  True confessions of a food stamp thief.  But I was lucky.  I was an educated,thirty-something white lady who spoke English. Those few things alone made me a misfit in a community of brown skin and generational poverty.  I was the lucky misfit.

As our finances dwindled, so did my high hopes and spirits.  As we voluntarily lived in this ghetto hell, we understood more and more the power and prison of poverty.  Our experiment with living in the stronghold was making differences in others around us, but it mostly was making adjustments in us. I began to understand how impoverished people lost themselves to despair or held on to their faith in God as if their life depended upon it.  It was always one extreme or the other.

One day, I was walking around the store, trying to make my needs fit into a $20.00 grocery budget.  I walked beside a lady who had a cart full of food.  I prayed, “Lord, let me fill up a grocery cart like that.  It would be so nice to buy for several days in advance.”  I looked at the meager supplies in my cart and kept walking.  I knew that one day things would change.

A few weeks later, I was at the apartment managers offices, just talking to the staff.  I told them I had to leave and go to the grocery store.  For some reason, I had Bill’s cell phone with me.  (This was  in 1995 when everyone in the family didn’t have a cell phone and it was quite a luxury.)  I was carefully going through my grocery list and nearing my limit, when all of a sudden I got a telephone call in the grocery store.  I had never had a telephone call in a store!  Literally, I tell people that God called me up that day through His servant, Rita, the apartment manager.  When I answered, she said, “Donna, I intended to give you some cash when you were in here a while ago for groceries.  Can you come and get it?”

Well, of course I could and I did!  I parked my cart on an isle that didn’t seem busy,  left the building and went straight to my car and drove to the George Town Apartment offices, picked up the cash and went back to Winn Dixie to fill up my cart (to the brim!)

I’ll never forget how God heard the prayer of a poor minister’s wife!  All I wanted was to be able to feed my family as we ministered to the impoverished in a crime ridden area.  God was faithful and to this day, I will always remember when God called me on the telephone in a grocery store (via Rita Garrett’s voice) and told me to come and get the money to fill up my grocery cart!  Is there anyone reading this who is looking in their “grocery cart” and coming up short ?  Don’t be surprised if “God” calls you up in a grocery store and tells you to come and pick up some cash to make it happen!  Ask God to fill up your cart!  Really…if He did it for me, He can do it for you!

HERE’S YOUR SONG…ENJOY!

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