#ForTheMargins: Maria’s Story

Salt, and light.

We “get” salt and light.  We understand it.  (we’ve got salt for our popcorn…we’ve got lamps for reading…) But in our Gospel, Jesus goes way beyond that.

We know that we use salt to add flavor, and that we use light in order to see.  But if you take a broader perspective…say if you move from ground level up to a 5, or 10,000 foot view, we understand that salt does more than add flavor.  Salt is a preservative…salt protects foods that can spoil and gives them a longer life.  In Biblical times, when there were no preservatives, food was packed in salt so that it would last longer.

And light is more than a convenience.  Light is safety.  At night, in a world that could feel dangerous, to be near light was to be able to see danger coming and to be protected and comforted.  That was true then.  It is true now.

As people who follow Jesus, we know the 10,000 foot view of what it is to serve God…that we should serve and care for those in need.  The challenge for us is at ground level.  How do we do this?  How do we be the hands and feet of God?

To not just sprinkle salt…but to be salt…to not just shine light…but to be light.

What does this look like?

Let me tell you about someone I met:

Maria was a single mother I encountered here at Trinity a couple of years ago.  She has two children.  Her parents were migrant farm workers who went back and forth every year between Texas and Colorado, working in the fields.  Her father died when she was 14 and her Mother moved Maria and her 2 brothers to southeastern Minnesota to be closer to family.

Maria had been married, with 2 children.  But when I met Maria and her kids, her abusive husband had left them, and she was now divorced.

Despite a court order, Maria was receiving no child support from her ex-husband.

When Maria’s mother had a stroke and needed constant care, she moved into a care center.  MnCare covered her medical needs.  But unable to work, she couldn’t maintain payments on her home.  Maria, with two young children, could not find work that would allow her to afford child care and earn enough to pay the rest of the bills.  When Maria’s mother lost her home, Maria and the children lost their home.  With no other family in the area, Maria was alone.

Maria and her children stayed in their car.  One afternoon, Maria called Trinity and asked to speak to a pastor.  I picked up the phone.  She was looking for any kind of help we could give.  I was able to provide her and her kids a night in a motel and $20 in gift cards at the grocery store.  She was thankful for that help, even though we both knew it just scratched the surface.

I never heard from Maria again, and I’ve always wondered what happened to her, and her kids.

This is where the factual elements of our story end…but lets just take a moment and dream together a possible alternative ending to this story.  Let’s ask together “What if…”  “What if.”

What if it was a Tuesday night, and Maria and her children were parked at Dartt’s Park late at night in Owatonna.  She was running the car so the family would stay warm.  It was about 11:00pm when an Owatonna Police Officer noticed the car in the parking lot with the engine running and approached it.

The officer listened to Maria’s story and said “I think I know who we can call to get you some help.”  He picked up his phone and called.

Trinity’s resource center line rang and an “on-call” volunteer, a retired woman who was a part of the resource center team answered.  The police officer explained the situation and the woman said “I’ll be at Trinity in 30 minutes.  Please bring her there.”  As she had learned in her training, she then sent a quick email to Trinity’s resource center director, to let her know about Maria and her two kids, and she and her husband drove to church, opening the doors and turning on the lights before checking one of the sleeping rooms downstairs to make sure that the beds were made and there were supplies in the bathroom.

Maria followed the police officer to the church, and he walked her and the two children into the building.  All of their personal belongings fit into 3 backpacks.

The volunteer and her husband brought them downstairs and showed them their sleeping room, the bathrooms with showers and the kitchen, offering them some simple food if they were hungry.  They were hungry, but they were more tired.  They made use of the donated toothpaste and soap, and then went to bed exhausted.  The volunteer and her husband stayed in the “host room” and slept there overnight, to be a resource if Maria needed anything.

The next morning, Maria was awakened by her children, who were hungry.  She stepped out of the sleeping room with them to go to the bathroom, and was met by the staff person who directed the resource center, who was in the kitchen, pulling boxes of cereal, bread, a toaster, fruit and juice out of the refrigerator and invited them to eat.  After breakfast, the director showed Maria where her office was, and invited her to return after she had showered and gotten dressed.

In this initial conversation, the director got to know Maria, and heard her story.  Right away she was able to offer Maria the use of a washer and dryer to clean their clothes, and then explained the process to her.  If she wished, Maria and her family could receive housing while she connected with the assistance she needed to lift herself out of the situation in which she had felt trapped.

Over the next couple of weeks, Maria met with Trinity volunteers, and was coached in job skills, in interviewing techniques, and in setting goals and plans.  She and her children were connected (and driven to) the Steele County Free clinic for checkups, and had appointments set up at Community Pathways, for food and clothing, as well as at Transitional Housing, who agreed to work with her.

And one of the requirements was that every Wednesday and Sunday evening, Maria and her family would come to the meals Trinity hosted, because she was a part of the community.  Maria heard about the Cherub Choir.  Her oldest child was old enough to participate, and so she joined.  To sing brought her joy.

During her time in the program, after she had received coaching in interviewing and new clothes to wear, she met with a representative from one of the temporary employment services in town.  The interview went well, and while Maria didn’t have a lot of experience, she now had a sense of what was possible, and she worked to impress the interviewer.

Maria was placed as a temporary employee at Wenger and began to earn an income.  One of the Trinity volunteers went with her as she went to the bank to open a checking account.

Through her connection with Steele County Transitional Housing, Maria found an apartment, the rent for which was on a sliding scale based on her income.  It would increase over time as her situation stabilized.

When Maria completed her program at Trinity, she had a job, an apartment and a community of people here, and she had found her family’s church.

Six months later, Wenger asked if she would consider joining their staff full time instead of working through the temp agency.  Maria was ecstatic to say yes.

A year later, Maria volunteers as a host in Trinity’s resource center program.

My friends, I don’t know if this exact ending to Maria’s story is in our future or not.  This is the question our vision team is working on right now.  But I do know this:  Maria is real.  And she is out there.  And so are many others.  According to our school social workers, the Owatonna Public Schools currently has identified 175 children within our district who would be classified as homeless.  175 who do not have a permanent place to call home.  175 children on the margins.  And the social workers were careful to say, “That’s just the ones we know about.”

And I know that salt preserves; and that light illuminates and brings hope and safety.  And there are people right in our community who are out there, on the margins…who desperately need salt, and light.  Trinity’s pastors receive calls from people like Maria every single week.

My friends, this is our call.  This is what God calls us to be.  We are to be salt…we are to be light…we are to do the work, and to care for the Marias’ and all of the others who are in need, to accompany them as they from the margins, where they feel stuck.

You are able to be salt…to be light…because Jesus is salt and light for you.  Through Jesus’ love, you receive the same measure of grace that Maria, and all the others who are on the margins receive.  And through Jesus’ love, you welcome, connect with, learn with and serve those on the margins.

Because of God’s great love, because God is for you,

  • You can be salt for those in need
  • You can be light for the world
  • Together, we can be FOR Maria, and for all like her
  • We can be #ForTheMargins

Together, let’s be those things…let’s be salt…let’s be light…through Jesus’ love.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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