Not everyone who comes to LPC asking receives. Many don’t. It’s one of the few things about my job that I don’t like. People call and occasionally they just stop by. Their needs are great and if they could just get a little help. We do our best to assess the situation and to respond faithfully. That’s the hard part. We never turn down anyone who wants some food from the Deacons Food Pantry. Our only rules have to do with how often you can come (once a week) and how much you can take (two bags and just one each of a few keys items). Thousands of cans and boxes, tons of food go in and out of the Food Pantry every year. No questions asked.
But we have to ask questions when it’s going to require some money to solve the problem of the person on the phone or who’s dropped by the church office. Unfortunately, by the time someone is facing eviction or having their power turned off, the amount of money that’s needed to make things right with the landlord or the power company is simply more than we have to give and we need to know if what we might be able to give is going to make a difference or not. We almost never give cash for anything, a wise policy in a world where we know that 80-90% of those asking for it will not use any money we give them for the need described in the story they told. You learn to say no. You let some callouses harden around certain parts of your heart.
Even when I’m certain beyond any shadow of a doubt that the person asking for money has no intent of helping an ill child or an elderly parent, I don’t like having to say no. I’m haunted by the “what if?” What if there is a sick child or a aging parent. What if $50 would make a difference. What if he or she is the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters to whom I have just said no?
Still, you learn to say no.
So when Ernesto came by the church office the other day, I figured I’d be saying no. I was busy with someone else but I had seen him when he came in. Everything about him said that he’d be asking. Disheveled. A little unkempt. Weathered skin and tired eyes that said that life had been hard.
The first thing I noticed about Ernesto after my previous appointment had ended was that he was still there. Barb Chase had gotten him a cup of coffee and he had waited patiently. A long time. Most people who are working a scam don’t have time to wait. They’ve got more numbers to call or more churches to visit. They’ve learned to size up their prospects just as we do. You cut your losses and move on. But Ernesto was waiting.
Ernesto told me his story and I ended up giving him some money – just $40 for another night at the Ace Motel on Business Route 1. There really is an Ace Motel on Business Route 1 and the few on-line reviews talk about dirty linen and bed bugs.
Ernesto could be sixty; he’s probably fifty and life has taken its toll. The story Enesto told me, and I believe it, is of growing up in a small town in Cuba in the hills west of Havana. He had served in the Cuban army and been to Russia and Angola during the time of its civil war. I asked, in Portuguese, and he knew as much of the local language a Cuban soldier might have learned while he was stationed there (Angola had been under Portuguese control during the colonial period).
Enesto returned home and life was not easy for the ex-soldier back in his hometown. Finally, and as too many still do, about five years ago Ernesto raised what money he could and bought a place on a small boat headed to Key West. He and his seven compatriots made the journey successfully and were given immigrant status and, finally, a green card. Ernesto made his way to Trenton, New Jersey, where a cousin lived and he looked for work, but never found much. Finally a friend told him about jobs in the poultry industry in Arkansas.
For the last three years Ernesto has worked in a turkey processing plant. Work in the poultry industry is miserable work we’re told. He had to return to Trenton to take care of some paperwork for his green card renewal. He bought a round-trip ticket on a Greyhound bus and had enough money for two nights in a cheap motel. But the paperwork was delayed by a day and he was going to need another night at the Ace Motel. $40.
Ernesto told me to call the front desk at the Ace Motel and they would confirm that he’d been there the previous two nights. He showed me a copy of his green card and an employee ID from the Butterball plant. I didn’t call the Ace Motel. I already believed Ernesto’s story and was glad we could say yes.
When I asked Ernesto why he had come to the church for help, his face lit up. He told me about having come to faith in Jesus Christ not long after arriving in the U.S. Oh, a lot of the con artists will tell you about how much they love Jesus, but Ernesto talked as one who follows Jesus. He told me how God has softened his heart towards Fidel Castro and given him a joy he never knew. His friends back in the mountain town west of Havana kid him about becoming a preacher. He laughs it off. It’s still hard to be a Christian in Cuba. Ernesto doesn’t know if he’ll ever see Cuba again; he can’t go home now.
Ernesto took some food from the Deacon’s Food Pantry before he left the church, some crackers and snacks he could use on the 38-hour bus ride from Philadelphia to Fort Smith.
He thanked me over and over again for my generosity (extended on your behalf in the name of our generous God!).
So why did I give Ernesto $40 for another night at the Ace Motel? I’ll never know if he went and bought some cheap wine or if he really grew up in that little town in the mountains west of Havana. Why $40 for a night in a rundown motel? Well, his story sounded plausible, more plausible than most. But I think it was his joy, that joy he had in telling me about having left family behind in Cuba – he misses them a lot – but of the faith he’s found here.
I think it was Ernesto’s joy, the kind of joy you only see in those who know that Jesus is their brother. When I met Ernesto, I’m pretty sure I met one who may be more than least among Jesus’ brothers.