I didn’t know we were poor.
Our home was filled with things that mattered – music and literature, friends and laughter, traditions and love. I knew that we didn’t always have milk in the refrigerator, and I knew that all of my clothes were second (and third) hand, but I never knew that mattered. Every Thanksgiving, it seemed, someone would arrive at our door with a frozen turkey and a bag (or two) of groceries. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t know who they were, or why they were giving us food. It was just something that happened, without fail, at Thanksgiving. Moments like that were so predictable in my childhood that it wasn’t until my last two years of high school that I realized we were poor.
See, though my mother struggled to provide for seven children, and I’m sure she must have felt utterly alone at times, there were always people around us who gave. There were always generous people from the local churches who made that we not only had food for Thanksgiving, but that we would have enough to really celebrate and be filled with the joy of the season. And, we were. To this day, I don’t know who those people were. I know a few of the churches that took us into their hearts and helped us, but I don’t know who the individuals were who spoke our names and wrote down our home address and packed bags and delivered them to our big green house. As far as I’m concerned, they were angels.
According to the 2016 Income and Poverty report, the official poverty rate last year was 12.7%. Though declining for two years now, 12.7% represents more than 40 million people. For the wealthiest nation on our planet, even that seems like too high a number. Can you even picture that many people? I can’t. But I can picture one hundred. Roughly 12 out of every 100 people is living in poverty in our nation; that’s 6 out of 50 - or 3 in 25.
Three in twenty-five – that’s a number I can easily see. Including myself, between my siblings and their spouses and kids, there are twenty-five members of my (living) family. Can you picture twenty-five? Maybe it’s your co-workers, or your Bible Study group, or the PTA at your child’s school, or the number of people who work out at the gym with you every morning, or the length of the line when you’re waiting to check out at Walmart, or the neighbors who live on your street. Twenty-five people is not so difficult to imagine. But once you have that image, choose three. Any three. If three of those people you care about casually or socially or intimately are living in poverty (and with statistics like this, chances are, they are), that’s a more realistic image, isn’t it, than just knowing that 40 million Americans are struggling to survive economically?
See, the question is not whether there are people in your world who are gasping for breath; the question is whether you know it. The question is whether you can help. Let’s be those people – the people who give so generously that those around us in poverty don’t even realize they are poor. It is, perhaps, the best gift I received as a child.
One of my favorite lyrics, penned by one of my favorite writers and speakers, Gloria Gaither, says,
If you want more happy than your heart will hold
If you want to stand taller if the truth were told
Take whatever you have and give it away
If you want less lonely and a lot more fun
And deep satisfaction when the day is done
Throw your heart wide open and give it away
This Thanksgiving week, someone in your life is in need. It may be someone you know, but it may also be a complete stranger. Seek that person out. If you have been blessed to not be worrying about things like whether you’ll be evicted for late rent or whether you’ll be able to provide any food (much less a turkey and the fixings) for your children, then throw your heart wide open. Give to those who are less fortunate than you.
Because the truth is – Thanksgiving is not about the abundance of a meal – about turkey and pie and ridiculous amounts of stuffing. Thanksgiving is about the abundance of gratitude. It’s about realizing how very blessed we are, even in the midst of a difficult time in our lives.
The best way I’ve found to really know gratitude in my own heart has been to give to someone who has absolutely nothing to give in return. In doing so, I remind myself to be thankful for what I have, rather than complain about what I lack; and in doing so, I give the gift of gratitude to someone else who – though living in poverty – may take a moment to be overcome with the knowledge that someone cares for them.
So whether it’s a frozen turkey for your neighbor or a knit hat for the homeless man on the park bench or a fifty for your co-worker who doesn’t have gas money to drive home for the holiday, whether it’s a gift card to a mom struggling to provide for her kids or a pie for your pastor who is likely very rundown and never burdens his congregants with complaint or the turkey bucks your local grocer gives you each time you shop that you know you won’t use but you know your best friend’s mother will, whether it’s a smile to a complete stranger or waving a car into traffic when it’s packed and snowy on the road or an hour of your time to have coffee and hold the hand of someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one – I urge you: Take whatever you have and give it away.