Did you know that on the first Sunday of every month, the loose offering goes to the Rector’s Discretionary Fund? Not many people know that, and I’m supposed to remind the congregation about that from time to time. The discretionary fund is set up to be used exactly how it sounds–at the Rector’s discretion. Usually, this fund goes to helping people who are crunched for cash, which many people are these days. I am always astounded by how God continually provides for this fund. Even though I don’t promote it as much as I probably should, I get regular donations to it often. I also deposit any money I receive for weddings, funerals, or any other gifts I receive as part of my priestly duties into my discretionary fund.
Every once in a while, I think it’s important to tell stories of how this money is used. My buddy Brent Owens, a priest in Monroe, GA, calls these “T.R.U.E. Stories–True Relief of Urgent Emergencies.” Of course, helping people can be sensitive, and I would never break confidentiality to use a story, so I’m going to change the names (“to protect the innocent” as they used to say). Those of you who give generously to the church and to the discretionary fund probably want to know that God is using the money you gave to the growing of the Kingdom. This is one such story.
Once a month, I work over at FOCUS, which is our local outreach center in Harris County. I help in the direct service office, giving out food from the food pantry mostly, but also helping people with utility bills and the like. I’ve been doing this for quite a few months now, and let me tell you, I absolutely love it. You get to work with fantastic volunteers who care about those in need, and you get to meet the most interesting people. We rarely get any “shysters,” or abusers of FOCUS’ generosity. Pretty much everyone who comes in has a legitimate need, and FOCUS goes to great lengths to not only give money and food, but to build relationships with the people who come in. You should also know that part of St. Nicholas’ budget goes to FOCUS every year and we also raise money in December for “Share The Warmth of Christmas,” which is a fund that gives people propane to keep warm during the colder months.
Last week, a woman named Karen called to see if we were open (we do direct service Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:00am to 2:00pm). I told her we were open and she asked if we could help with her utility bill. Before she could even get the words out of her mouth, she burst into tears. Through her sobs, she said that she had come upon some hard times and needed help. I encouraged her to bring her bill in and we’d see what we could do.
A couple of hours later, Karen showed up and began to tell me her story. She grew up in Atlanta and was raised by a mother who was not the most nurturing person. She had cast off most of her children, but raised Karen and allowed her to be exposed to a number of horrific things. Karen got out of her mother’s house early and got a job. She eventually bought a house in Atlanta. Years later, her mother was dying, and none of the other children would claim her or take care of her. Karen decided to take care of her mother in her final days, even though their relationship had been strained. She said all of this without a hint of regret or resentment about it. Her mother died in 2004, after she and Karen had made amends.
Last year, an opportunity arose for her and her husband to move to the Harris County side of West Point. One of her estranged sisters lived in a house there and the house came up for sale, so Karen and her husband bought the house. Now with two mortgages, things were tight. Karen had an injury and could no longer work, and her husband was not able to work either. They lived meagerly, taking care of Karen’s sister, who didn’t get along with them. She noticed her sister was getting sick, and later found out that she had HIV, which then morphed into AIDS. Her sister was now in Hospice care, and Karen was taking care of her completely. She now needed help with her utility bill, which was over $350.
Karen told me all of this through many tears, and I held her hand as she spoke. Listening to her for a while, I was struck by her ability to care for family members despite their treatment of her. I asked her what made her want to do that, when she had no real obligation to them. Both her mother and sister had written her off. She stopped crying and looked me right in the eye and said, “Sometimes the only way to end suffering is to suffer yourself.” Immediately, she jerked and began to speak in tongues right in front of me. I was surprised only in the timing of this, as I’ve been around people in worship experiences where they began to speak in tongues. I had not ever experienced it in a conversation like this. So I let her speak in tongues and just sat and watched her. She soon stopped, and began talking very plainly as if the Pentecostal moment hadn’t even happened. I can’t explain it, but it was indeed a holy moment for me, especially considering what insight she had shared in serving people who hated her.
After hearing her whole story, I sat back to consider how we might help her. FOCUS usually only helps with $100-150 bills at the most, so I knew that the $350 would be too much for FOCUS to do. I asked her if her church might help her some. She commented that “they don’t have much…people just don’t tithe anymore, but I’ll certainly check!” I said if her church could do $50, FOCUS would do $150, and out of my discretionary fund, I would cover the rest.
At this point, Karen burst into tears and said, “Hallelujah, thank you Jesus!” She just wept uncontrollably with her hands over her face. I don’t think she expected such abundance. She just wept and wept, and I stood up and wrapped my arms around her. We stood there for a few minutes in extreme gratitude. There was no clearer moment of God’s provision in time of need in her mind nor in mine.
Most of the people who come in are grateful for what FOCUS does, but never with such surprise and emotion. It was an extremely gratifying moment. So thank you God, and thank you to those of you who give to FOCUS and to the discretionary fund. Miracles really do happen.