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!


Merry Christmas to Me!

I finally had MY Christmas this morning. I know it’s December 29th and four days beyond the blessed day, but for me, I had my moment at the kitchen sink at Peter’s and Isaaca’s house an hour or so ago.  I was making a ham bone and Navy bean soup, chopping celery and onions and singing “Ham Bone, Ham Bone Where Ya Been”, when I looked out the window and saw fine snow gently falling.  I had to look a few times, putting my nose on the window glass and making sure that my eyes weren’t deceiving me. Yep!  It was snow! Fine as powder, but snow, all the same!  I started smiling and then looked out into the yard.

The kitchen window looks out onto the chicken yard and hen house.  I must admit; I find myself standing at this window, throughout the day, watching the six chickens chase each other and peck at the ground.  They fascinate me.  I have learned enough of their chicken language and noises to understand when one is telling the other to get out of the hen house, she has an egg to lay.  I watch them run to the bird feeder in the middle of the yard each time chickadees fly in for food.  The tiny birds drop seeds and the chickens know they can have dessert if they are under the feeder.  Today I see them chase a beautiful blue jay out of the yard.  Are blue jays mean to chickens too?

2012-12-29_15-13-01_231I look beyond the chicken coop into the neighbor’s yard.  He has bright yellow and blue birdhouses in a stark naked tree, shining like a Picasso painting from the leafless branches.  They are so cheerful and almost out of place on this winter’s day.  Two bright red male cardinals land on the tree’s limbs and they perch there, talking in their one syllable language. Three other cardinals hone in and rest on the ground under the tree.  Is it boys day out? The females must be nearby, out of my sight.

I remember Christmas Eve day.  I had spent the entire day shopping and planning for the holiday meals.  I was so exhausted that I could hardly think.  At 4:00 that afternoon, I found myself at the Walmart.  I know.  Crazy, right?  But I was desperate.  I went for three ingredients and came back with a trunk load of groceries and little gifts.

Bill called me as I was standing in the long checkout line.  “Donna, what are you doing?  You’ve been gone for two hours!”
“I know, but I thought of other things and it’s busy here.  I have a headache.  Don’t fuss at me!”
I hung up on him and then thought of something else to say and hit redial. He answered after four rings.  He had no reason to hurry and I was furious at him for not appreciating all I was doing for the family.  “Bill…just for the record, do you remember that every Christmas night you thank me for making Christmas ’happen’ for our family.  That without me and my planning and buying skills, there wouldn’t be much of a Christmas for our family?! YOU THANK ME!  So don’t tell me to come home when I’m not done yet!” I clicked the off button and hung up on him again.  If it weren’t for me we wouldn’t even have Christmas.  Didn’t anyone care but me?

I put the groceries and gifts in the car and waited my turn to back out and get out of the Christmas madness.  I tried to relax.  Let my shoulders fall down…let my neck roll around and stretch.  Where was that Tylenol?  It had to be somewhere in my big old purse.

I turned off the Christmas music on my car radio.  It was getting on my nerves.  I stopped at a red light and waited. A song popped into my head.  An old church song.

“There is none like you.
No one else can touch my heart
Like you do.
I could such for all eternity long
And find there is none like you.”

I was surprised that this song crept into my mind. Was God telling me it was time to focus on Him, forget Christmas’ craziness and concentrate on Jesus, the reason for the season?

The song popped in my mind again.  I began to hum it.  Then it hit me.  “God, are you singing this song to me?  That’s so sweet!”  I paused and more reality seeped in.  “Are you singing this tongue in cheek?  You’re making fun of me!”

The message hit home.  I thought Christmas was about me making memories for everyone else.  I thought I was Mrs. Christmas and without me our family would have a horrible Christmas mess!  “There is none like you,” God was chiding  me.

I got home, shouted out my orders to the boys to empty the car of all of the groceries.  I went straight to Bill and told him about what God had sung to me in the car.  I apologized for being so mean and then started laughing.  How had I missed it so badly?

Today, the guys are watching football in the next room and the smell of the soup begins to fill the kitchen.  Peter pushes one of the buttons on the Charlie Brown Christmas Band Hallmark Christmas Keepsakes.  They play a jazzy version of “Oh Christmas Tree.”  I smile.  I love these little guys and they make me happy each time I hear them.photo(30)

The business of the season is over.  I’ve been tapped out financially and emotionally. Plus, God ordered me to take a chill pill.  Today is a gift.  I “feel” Christmas for the first time. I look out the window.  The snow is still falling, the flakes bigger. What if it sticks?  The chickens have never seen such a thing.  Merry Christmas to me.

Here’s your song. Enjoy!

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