I recently attended an all-day seminar put on by a couple of colleagues from North Dakota. Their organization, Ministry on the Margins, has a similar mission to Peace House Community, although their activities are more diverse than ours. Among other things, hey provide toys to children. Sister Kathleen Atkinson, who runs the agency, shared many stories, but one struck me because of a personal experience I have had.
Sister Kathleen, like many ministry directors, wants to provide her clients with good quality items. She said that one day she was horrified to see that a seven year old boy had received a stuffed dinosaur that was missing an eye. To her, the toy was defective and shouldn’t have been offered to the child. She didn’t want him to feel like he was unworthy of a good toy just because his family was poor. However, when she approached him, he showed that he had already developed an attachment to the toy.
“You see his eye,” the boy asked Sister Kathleen. “Yes,” she replied, but before she could say more he continued. “I chose him because he’s been through a lot. So have I. We’ll get through it together.”
The story resonated with me because of my daughter’s stuffed unicorn Brockie. She loved Brockie, but a few years ago our dog, which had never touched any of our kids’ toys, started chewing on Brockie’s head. By the time we rescued Brockie, the dog had opened up two large tears on Brockie’s face, and Amber was understandably distraught. I have some basic sewing skills and told Amber I could heal Brockie. By my own standards, the repairs were really good. The stitches were almost invisible and her head was almost back to original shape. But, of course, Amber could see the difference. “She doesn’t look the same,” she said, and she wouldn’t play with Brockie as she had before. I was pained that I hadn’t been able to restore Amber’s joy in her unicorn, but that changed some months later when Amber fell sick. Suddenly, she insisted on keeping Brockie with her in bed. “She knows what it is like to feel bad,” she said. Since then, anytime anyone in our family is sick, Amber makes sure Brockie stays in bed with them to help them get better.
I’m finally old enough to understand that my life has been different from the lives of most of the people I interact with. I’ve had more material security and haven’t experienced the discrimination and challenges that others have. While I’m thankful for the advantages I’ve had, I sometimes think I’m a poorer person for it. I’ve seen people who have much less than me be far more generous, because they understand the need for people to help each other in times of need. I’ve watched people go through traumatic experiences without any idea what to say or do to help them, despite having a Master’s Degree in Christian Ministry. By contrast, individuals with severe mental health problems and no resources have jumped into action, making sure their friends know they aren’t alone in their times of darkness. These days I still feel clumsy and inadequate when I try to help people, but I have at least learned that being present and going through things together is the place to start.
This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.