Native American Heritage Month: November
“You have despised the poor” (James 2:6 KJV).
Above a half-century ago, not long after my husband and I were married, in our church was an elderly widow, of Native American extraction, about seventy-five, large-boned, with high cheek bones, straight black hair (it never grayed), russet-brown, sinewy skin, and a few remaining discolored teeth. She wore ordinary street clothes, black or somber colors, no jewelry, and, each service, sat alone, about the third or fourth pew back, near the aisle—as if people didn’t want to associate with her, though, I noticed, that when asked, she gave a rousing testimony.
One Sunday, after church, while I was talking with Grandma Bean, as they called her, she mentioned that no one came to visit her. She was lonely. Maybe I could come see her sometime. Or come to Sunday dinner.
“Next Sunday?” Well, okay, next Sunday.
When next Sunday rolled around, I was making small talk with others, when I revealed I had a date—sort of—with Grandma B_, that I was supposed to go home with her today—I guess.
“You’re not really going home with her, are you?”
“She’s not clean” … “I’d never eat anything at her house” … “Or sit on her furniture” …
Was that the reason for the social stigma? They thought they might get cooties? Or was it because she was different? non-Caucasian? or, at best, a half-breed? To a good pastor, to good parishioners, all souls were equal: the high and mighty, the meek and lowly, the cherished, or the forgotten. “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”
Evidently these women had never read the Book of James. “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, ‘Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor” (James 2:1-6 NKJV).
Or they had never read that anonymous sage who counseled: “Don’t judge any man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins.”
Ideally we are not to show partiality. On the other hand, maybe these women knew something I didn’t know. So I walked over to the old woman and tried to beg off. Maybe I could go home with her another day.
Her lips quivered, her eyes watered. “But you promised!”
Begging off was not worth hurting someone’s feelings. What would it take to please her? a couple of hours? I could give her that. Besides I knew how to behave myself in an awkward environment. How many times I’d visited the poor with my parents! We knew how to accommodate without offense.
“It’s alright,” I assured her. “If it means that much, of course, I’ll go home with you.”
She was smiling again.
I didn’t know who brought her to church or took her home, but this Sunday my husband and I put her in the back seat of our car and followed her directions. She led us to a three-room house, not much bigger than a wood shed, at the entrance to a “holler.” Did they mean “hollow” as in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow? a small wooded area? Or did they call it that because everyone was within “hollering” distance? Back that dirt road, sprinkled over the unfenced low rolling hills were spare frame houses. Probably all the occupants of that area were related in some way. Probably all were related to Grandma B_ since her place was first.
Inside the tiny house were three tiny rooms separated by curtains: a front room, with a sagging sofa and a potbelly stove; to the left, a single bedroom, without closet, just shelves, and a nail for draping work clothes and nightwear; and in back, an eat-in kitchen, with an old-fashioned wood-burning range. No indoor plumbing. No electricity. No way to take a bath or wash clothes indoors. Was that it? Were she and her clothes not fresh enough?
Leaving my husband seated on the sofa, I followed Grandma B_ into the kitchen and watched her make biscuits the old way: using a starter from the last batch of bread, adding Crisco and milk, mixing the ingredients in a bed of flour, and shaping biscuits by hand. Once they were baking, then she turned to the meat and vegetables. I felt guilty: it was I who should’ve been cooking for her. Or, maybe it made her feel appreciated to be useful again.
The only place to eat was the kitchen where happily we found three cane-bottomed chairs and seated ourselves before a friendly meal spread on a rickety old table shoved against the wall. We pretended not to notice the inadequacies. After all, my husband and I weren’t that fancy ourselves. And, wanting not to offend, I ate. Pretty good food. Come to think of it: once upon a time, hadn’t Grandma B_ prepared many a meal for a family?
For dessert, out came an elegant coconut layer cake. Where? How? From the bakery truck, which made house calls a couple times a week. She’d had to flag down the driver. I didn’t ask; I knew: that cake cost at least $5. About half a week’s wages for an unskilled laborer, maybe more for an elderly person on Social Security—if she received Social Security or widow’s pension. She must have had some kind of income, though what I didn’t know.
“You shouldn’t have!” After I had tried to beg off, not knowing she had gone to such trouble and preparation, I was almost shame-faced with embarrassment. Now I was hoping I hadn’t also abused her weekly allowance for meat and potatoes.
“You said you were coming to dinner. I wanted it to be nice.”
Afterward, we retired to the living room, where she insisted on showing us her photo album. Husband. Children. Grandchildren. Great-grandchildren. Her husband was dead, of course, but the children or grands, many of whom lived almost outside her door, never came. Ashamed of her humble circumstances, maybe. Certainly too selfishly absorbed with their own lives. You knew the children when you saw them because they had her straight black hair, her high cheek bones, and her deep tan.
She’d be better off if she were Old Order Amish, I thought, remembering the Anabaptists from my past. The Amish would never treat her as her children and the churchpeople do. They’d look after her. Build her a decent house. And look in on her to make sure she was alright. How insufferable this American way of thinking more of material possessions, and of how and where you live, than who you are!
“Nobody has ever before asked the nuclear family to live all by itself in a box the way we do. With no relatives, no support, we’ve put it in an impossible situation.” ~Margaret Mead
My husband and I couldn’t eat and run. Not after her provision. So we stayed and talked. Grandma B_ said she used to be afraid, living here alone, the first house in the “holler.” Why, no telling what could happen! A stranger could break in, rob, or maim, and there’d be no one to call for help. She was so afraid that she prayed the Lord to send an angel to watch over her. She reminded Him of His promise: “Because you have made the Lord, who is my refuge, Even the Most High, your dwelling place, No evil shall befall you, Nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; For He shall give His angels charge over you, To keep you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:9-11 NKJV).
The Lord told her not to fear, that He would watch over her. And one day, she opened her front door, and saw standing guard duty an armed, bright-shining angel, taller than her little house. “I haven’t been afraid since then,” she said. “God takes care of me.”
Grandma B_ took me back into her little bedroom, barely big enough to walk around the unmade bed, also shoved against the wall.
“You just have to learn not to care about the dust mites under the beds.” ~Margaret Mead
On the shelves were home-canned vegetables. She wanted to give me some. I noticed low-acid fruit and vegetables, garden produce: corn, squash, green beans, and peaches. The only way she had to can was a hot water bath on her wood-burning range. High-acid vegetables like tomatoes, pickles, and pickled beets could be put up that way, but not low-acid vegetables: they needed to be canned in a pressure cooker. “I’ve never had any to spoil on me,” she said. “And I’ve been canning this way all my life.” Another evidence of Providence watching over her.
When we went back to church for the evening service, she was tired but glowing. She’d had company! Someone had come to Sunday dinner! And spent the afternoon!
Such a small thing to me. Though it was a visit I never forgot. It was also a problem I never forgot: church snobs. If people are underprivileged, we are not to shun or belittle them, we are to share what we have so they too have their needs met. “If anyone keeps the law and yet offends in this one point, he is guilty of all” (James 2:10).
“If you have respect of persons, you commit sin” (2:9).
There are over 200 verses in the Bible* about caring for (1) the poor. Many others address (2) the widow, (3) the fatherless, and (4) the stranger (the one who is different, living among you). Four people groups we are charged to care for.
“Jesus … associated with the outcasts; He spoke with them, touched them, ate with them, loved them.” ~John Ortberg
God holds us accountable for how we treat one another, especially people different from ourselves: outsiders or disadvantaged. Someday, if we are uncharitable to them, the Lord Himself may say to us, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me” (Matthew 25:41-43 NKJV).
We may not take neglecting the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger that seriously, but God does. “That is why we must listen very carefully to the things we have heard. We must never forget them” (Hebrews 2:1 WEB).
Grandma B_ died a couple years after our visit. Went to sleep one night and forgot to wake up in the morning. Her granddaughter worked where I did. I watched as she was called away from her workplace, smiling. A death in the family meant three days paid bereavement leave. A holiday. It seemed crass. So beneath the dignity of the grandmother she had little known. And where would that granddaughter be if Grandma B_ had been that blasé toward the family? …
Forgotten in life. Forgotten in death. By her own. But not by God. “Remember … you are my servant. I have formed you … you will not be forgotten by me” (Isaiah 44:21 WEB).
“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints” (Psalm 119:15).
“You are no desolate wanderer, but a beloved child, watched over, cared for, supplied, and defended by the Lord … If the Lord be with us through life, we need not fear for our dying confidence … It is peaceful living and glorious dying to repose in the care of Heaven” (Charles Spurgeon).
“The Indian knew how to live without wants, to suffer without complaint, and to die singing.” ~Alexis de Tocqueville
Copyright © 2012-2014 Alexandra Lee
Photo Credit: Loneliness
* “You shall not afflict any widow or fatherless child. If you afflict them in any way, and they cry at all to Me, I will surely hear their cry” (Exodus 22:22, 23 NKJV).
“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not wholly reap the corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest … nor shall you gather every grape of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger” (Leviticus 19:9, 10 NKJV; cf Deuteronomy 24:19-21 NKJV).
Boaz told Ruth, when he met her, “Stay close by my young women. Let your eyes be on the field which they reap, and go after them.” To his workers: “Let her glean even among the sheaves, and do not reproach her. Also let grain from the bundles fall purposely for her; leave it that she may glean, and do not rebuke her” (Ruth 2:8-16 NKJV). Handfuls on purpose.
“For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality … He administers justice for the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. Therefore love the stranger” (Deuteronomy 10:17-19 NKJV).
“If there is among you a poor man … you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him … whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart … against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the Lord against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘… Open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy’” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11 NKJV).
“Is this not the fast that I have chosen … that you bring to your house the poor who are cast out?” (Isaiah 58:6, 7 NKJV).
“Cursed is the one who perverts the justice due the stranger, the fatherless, and widow” (Deuteronomy 27:19 NKJV). “Do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10 ESV).
“When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14 NKJV).
“It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).