I married the elusive Donna in the middle of our Bible College experience. Despite not using my roommate Tim’s plan to live on Ramen Noodles™, we found it was cheaper to go to school married. Getting married changed our ‘status’ from “the children of middle class parent’s who the government decided should be able to afford to pay for our education” to “poor, lower class married couple in need of financial aid”. Plus we got to sleep together and that was cool.
Despite being a cheaper way to get our education there was a point during those early years where our months were outlasting our groceries and our bank accounts. I was working part-time after classes and Donna was between jobs and looking for something, anything, to help cover rent, food and our bookstore bill. (O.K., not anything, c’mon, keep it clean, but you get the idea, we were feeling desperate and hand-washing dirty, cloth diapers was not out of the question.) I was feeling pretty low, not being able to have the funds to feed my wife, and looked around for options.
At the time I was a bagger at a grocery store. The store I worked at was an upscale grocery store. It attracted the rich and the poor. The rich could pay the prices and liked the selection of specialty foods. The poor could use vouchers, various government programs for women and children and Food Stamps. Food Stamps were like Monopoly money that actually had value. People would trade drugs for Food Stamps. It occurred to me that we might just qualify for Food Stamps and sucking it up and going in to some government office and begging was an acceptable alternative than watching my wife come up with another recipe that utilized ice cubes and little else in the recipe.
Donna and I went in to the office together. We took a number and waited for them to roll some cage with numbered balls in it until they finally called out our number. When our digit rolled around we walked in to a little cubicle, sat down and asked about applying for Food Stamps. I talked in a very quiet voice just in case someone I knew was nearby and listening in. Of course, if someone I knew was nearby that meant they too were applying for Food Stamps but that never occurred to me. It turned out to be quick process, simple and the lady who consulted with us was very kind. She explained how the program worked and assured us, from the information we provided, we’d be getting stamps right away.
True to her word, a week later we got our first round of Food Stamps. As I added up the Stamps I realized that we could spend more on groceries than we had ever spent since we’d gotten married. I was excited and embarrassed at the same time. The government apparently felt that I’d been pretty cheap with my wife and how much I spent on food for the two of us. It was the excitement that got me in the car, it was embarrassment that took me to a grocery store far from home where we would be less likely to bump into someone we knew. Another student who saw the full cart I anticipated pushing up to the check out would have a lot of questions about how we could afford that much food. At least in my self-conscious imagination they would.
We went up and down the aisles and went crazy buying the name brands rather than the generics and store brands we usually picked up. We bought stuff we really liked, not just what was cheap. And we got meat, real meat. Not just ground beef but we bought chicken breasts, steak, a roast. I felt decadent and a little paranoid that the Food Stamp police would jump out at any minute and bust us for buying “rich people food”.
When we got to the check out I watched the numbers adding up on the register. I started wondering what the woman checker would think of me when I handed her the Stamps to pay for our food. Monopoly money for real food. I was feeling uncomfortable but nowhere near the puke-sick I was about to experience when I looked up at the lane next to us.
In Lane 7, a young college student with his young wife, beside them in Lane 6, one of his professors and his wife. His favourite prof.
I wanted to die. I prayed to die right there but then I figured they’d come across my Food Stamps when they searched my body for I.D. I started putting our food up on the conveyor belt much slower than I had before. Much, much slower. My plan was to stall as long as I could and hope my Prof would leave before I had to pay with my Food Stamps. Suddenly I felt more embarrassed about paying with Food Stamps than I felt humiliated that I couldn’t feed my wife without them. The Checker wasn’t troubled by the Stamps at all. When she told me the total I handed her my little books of Stamps and she took them just like I had handed her real bills instead of Milton Bradley Bucks. She gave me back a couple of the Stamps, told us to have a nice day and we were on our way, my Prof none the wiser.
Just like that.
We repeated this a few more times over the next few weeks and then one day Donna got a decent job. We were both working and what she made covered what we got in Food Stamps and then a little more. So we took the Food Stamps back to the lady at the Food Stamp depot. We sat down and we handed over our Food Stamps. “We don’t need these anymore,” we said, “thanks for helping us out though.” The Food Stamp lady looked at us with one eye brow raised asking us what we were doing. I filled her in, “We started this because my wife wasn’t working; now she is, so we don’t need them now.” “But,” she started, still looking very confused, “If your wife is working you probably qualify for MORE Stamps now.” Then it was me who was confused. I looked at Donna and she looked at me.
“No, that’s o.k., thanks, we’re gonna be fine, thanks for your help.” We got up and walked out.
I can’t explain what I was thinking or what I was feeling. How could feeding my family, however I made it happen, stress me out? Why be embarrassed about needing some help? You can ask Donna and she’ll confirm that I made a long series of stupid choices during those early days. It was like getting married to Donna was such a good choice, a great choice that I used up a few years quota of good choices on that one. It was worth it.
One of the most destructive lies we believe is this: every man should stand on his own two feet.
There’s a place in the Bible where it says, “if a man doesn’t work, he doesn’t eat.” The context is a group of people who’ve given up looking after their and their families day to day needs because they’ve decided to just hang out ’til Jesus gets back. The modern version is maxing out the Visa and hoping Jesus gets back before the bill collectors catch up to you. The reality is that Jesus came to create a community where none of has to stand alone or is meant to. A community where each of us is supported, and has help supporting others. Jesus would’ve had the disciples sing “Lean On Me” if it had been written in time. Paul Simon’s, “I Am A Rock” is a modern day Ecclesiastes, poetry that makes you see the foolishness of the way we live.
Clarence, the angel from “It’s A Wonderful Life” tells George, “Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.” No man who has friends is poor either. So today I’m wondering, who am I supporting, who am I letting lean on me and who am I letting support me, who am I counting on to have my back? And I’m wondering if you’ve got anybody?