The first time I heard about Multi-Housing Ministry through Bear Valley Church, I thought, “What a good idea! I'd like to be involved with that someday." I turned my information into the offering plate that day, checking the box "I'd like more information on getting involved with Multi-Housing Ministry." The idea is that in poverty ridden areas, where people need the most hope, church need not wait for them to come, rather take the church to the people. Problems with transportation, and the social stigmas of not having "church clothes" or even a Bible to bring with them, keep many people who would otherwise love to fellowship, at a distance. I called Luanne Turner, the woman in charge of the ministry and introduced myself over the phone. She said "Oh, Rebecca Miles, you are on my list of people to call. There just isn't enough of me to go around!" I met her at the church office just 10 minutes later to pick up pamphlets and information on the ministry to use in this paper, and before I left I'd stuffed 100 envelopes with invitations to receive free thanksgiving meals. I didn't show up with the intention to start my project then, but Luanne had other plans. I was an able bodied person, and my toddler son playing with her stacks of canned foods was no bother to her; she was grateful for the help.
I showed up at 9:30 just as Luanne asked me to at the Green Gables Condominiums. This, come to find out, was a euphemism. I was looking for building 7, and it appeared to me that the buildings went numerically to 6, skipped 7 and 8 all together and picked right back up at 9 to what seemed to be infinity. Building after building on this beautiful Sunday morning looked exactly the same. I pulled up to a man standing on the sidewalk. "Excuse me, can you tell me where building 7 is?" He attempted to copy what I said, but his strong Spanish accent let me know I needed to change it up a bit. Thankfully after years of restaurant service, my Spanish is adequate in most situations. He told me I was on the wrong side of the complex. I realized he was waiting for a ride, and I was made acutely aware of how embarrassing it is to pull up in a newer car, in nicer clothes, and stand out this severely. I suddenly wanted to be at the safe place of the pews and the church clothes where I looked just like everyone else.
I found building 7, a clearly out of place old white woman in fancy shoes pointed me in the right direction. I walked in the apartment to find 4 teenagers and a man in his 30's vacuuming, sweeping, dusting, and arranging frantically. I informed them I was there to help, and they took me back to a "bedroom" that had two long tables and shelves of art supplies. No bed, no dressers, no clothes in the closet. I was confused, but I just kept at my task: clean the paint off the tables from the last art project. The apartment itself was clean, but hardly livable conditions. The drywall was coming off in chunks; the windows were easily from the 50's, I imagine when these condos were the cream of the crop. No doubt about it, this place is covered in lead based paint. It was decorated with adorable "God loves you" posters and faith based art work, whoever lived here was faithful. The kitchen had a long banquet sized table that took up the entire length of the kitchen. Some pumpkin bread and pineapple was out, coffee and water to drink, and some of the most impressive 1970's decor a person could ever want or need! I asked a woman who was doing kitchen work, "who lives here?"
"No one." she says, "This is the church's apartment, and we just got another one in building 11. We use that one for the teenagers, grades 6 to 12!" The kids who were frantically cleaning the place came to tell me they were heading to the other apartment to finish up over there. I came along, hoping to maybe learn someone's name along the way. These kids were part of a small group that does activities together: bowling, toilet-papering, typical high school stuff. But every fourth weekend, they pack up a bag with clothes and toothbrushes and head out, going on service weekends. Building houses, helping small churches with repairs, and of course stopping in with Luanne and one of her many Multi-Housing Ministry locations. I talked with these clearly better off kids, asking them why they gave up a whole weekend for this. Their response was quick- it's fun. On this side, the master bedroom walls were lined with shelves. The shelves were carefully organized by size, from newborn clothes to woman sized dresses, highchairs, car seats, even diapers and formula. This was their storage area for the donations to meet the needs of the community here at Green Gables Condominiums. I dusted the back rooms and headed to the kitchen where I feel the most comfortable. Another woman pieced together a lunch for the teenagers: leftover turkey, lettuce, onions, jalapeños, a loaf of wheat bread and peanuts. I chopped carrots and celery, and put out ranch and peanut butter secretly hoping the teens would eat every last bite of the vegetables, but consciously knowing there was no chance.
Time diminished quickly and before I knew it, 11:00 was rolling around. Luanne arrived, and I felt glad to have a familiar face. She sent me and the man in charge of the service teens to help in building 7 with the children. Last week, the woman who leads the kids grades 5 and under had 17 kids, and no helper. This week 5 kids came. She said this was pretty standard, "the more help you have the less you need it." She had hoped that "the 5 R's" would come: Rudy, Raina, Ralphie, Ronnie, and aRrianna. They had planned to move and gotten a house big enough for all 6 of them in Aurora. They rented a U-Haul and loaded up the truck, but at the last minute the house in Aurora fell through. Green Gables Condominiums wouldn't let them have their apartment back, so they'd been staying in the U-Haul truck for 5 days. Any minute Luanne and her team expected the police to show up and tow them away. We all prayed they'd just come inside. They didn't.
Just a few minutes after 11, the teens were safely in building 11, the adults and kids were with us, the music began. A lone guy and an acoustic guitar is secretly my second favorite sound in the world, second only to newborn cry. He sang old familiar songs: amazing grace, our God is an awesome God. I didn't even notice how different this was than last Sunday was for me. No lights, no synthesizer, no drums, no harmonies, but real honest worship is awesome no matter how it is presented. We took the kids after worship to the room with the tables I cleaned earlier. The kids sat down, Jacob sat at the second table by himself. He was white and the only one of the visitors other than one woman in the adult room I had noticed during worship. She was clearly mentally handicapped but worshiped nonetheless. I wondered if they were related somehow. The other 4 kids were a pair of sisters, and a brother and sister team. Alonzo, the little boy was 4 and hardly spoke English. His older sister did most of his talking for him, and boy did she have a thing or two to say.
The sister-sister team treated Alonzo as if he were their own little brother and they drank juice and ate pumpkin bread, and with full mouths attempted to answer the teacher's question: "What are you thankful for?"
Jacob said "sleep" without looking up from the toy he was playing with. I tried to get him to join us. He declined. The sister's all looked at each other as if they wanted to say something, finally Alicia spoke up, "I am thankful for my mom coming home." I should have bit my tongue but without a real thought about it, I asked "Why? Where was she?" honestly expecting to hear "the hospital." She said, "Jail," again without making eye-contact. I felt bad for asking, but worse for these kids. Come to find out their dad had come to take care of them while the mother was in jail. I didn't find out why she was there, but I was relieved to find out that Dad didn't leave as soon as mom got home. Alicia seemed a little excited at the prospect that her Dad and Mom could live in the same house again.
The rest of the time flew by quickly. The mentally handicapped woman came in and said "Jacob, let’s go."
"Mooooooom! We just started our craft! Please just 5 more minutes," he said.
"No Jacob, I told you we have a place to be at noon!" she demanded.
He broke into silent tears, stood to his feet and marched out. She followed behind him, begging him to cheer up, and the most wasted words she'd speak that day. The child who couldn't even sit near us didn't want to leave, nor did he want us to see the tears that fell. He didn't get his way either time this Sunday.
The day finished with the children finishing their craft- candles rolled in glitter. They prayed, I explained that "Horned thing" is called a cornucopia, and it represents having more than enough, what we celebrate at Thanksgiving. They were the only people in the room unaware that they did not know what a cornucopia was because they had never had excess. I was left in my sore-thumb-of-a-van to jot notes of this experience, words wouldn't come but tears did easily. Sociology will put names, phases, approaches and theories to the experience that Sunday morning at Green Gables Condominiums, but they won't do it justice. Hard to imagine these children coming up out of these circumstances, the section 8 housing, the welfare and the "situation" they are in, to prevail to much better of a situation. Forgive my bluntness, it would take a miracle! My white privilege had scued my view of poverty. My perspective of poverty has changed and I am forever grateful.