The Day I Saw Real Hunger For The First Time And Said My First Real Prayer
He was only three years old, his hands too small to dextrously tear into the package of smashed hot dog buns, but he tore it anyway. His hair was dark and closely shorn, his eyes wide and green.
“Oh, no! No Joshua, don’t do that!” his mother said, but he was too quick for her. His little fingers ripped the plastic. Bread crumbs flew across the church pew and onto the floor. Half of a bun was already in his eager little mouth.
My God, I thought. My God this little boy is starving.
She batted at his tiny hands but another piece of bun was in his mouth, then another.
“It’s all right,” I said. “All the bread here is free.”
Her eyes were like her son’s, wide and green. Her hair was cut straight across her forehead above her brows. She was thin, but not extraordinarily so.
“Please, come back,” I said. “Let me help you.”
I led her through the hall to my corner office in the old church building. It was lunch-time at Family Service and everyone except me had already left to eat out or run errands.
I, already a workaholic at age 25, had stayed behind to catch up on paperwork. Would you believe we still typed up reports on typewriters? Yes, we did — it was a hot July day in 1987 and I was the director of Family Service Assn. in my hometown of Redlands. We were a charity, “the charity” in my hometown. And I had been there about three months and had zero idea of what I was actually supposed to be doing.
The young mom, let’s call her Sarah, had arrived late in the morning. Unaccustomed to our charity’s schedule, her late arrival explained why she was sitting alone in the lobby with her three-year-old and no one had helped her before I walked out and saw them.
The first thing she did when she got to my office and calmed her son was apologize for him eating the hot dog buns again. The second thing she did was burst out crying.
The way I will tell this now is not the way I’ve told it before, because I’ve had a lifetime of reflection on what was really happening with myself, my sister this young woman Sarah, and this little boy, Joshua.
So, as I listened to her story, I felt a kinship with her. She was about my age. Here is what she said:
“Joshua is three and his daddy and I got married last year. I work at Denny’s. So about a month ago his daddy left. I don’t know where he is. Our rent is $450 a month and I take home about $600. I ran out of food and money three days ago. I gave Joshua the last of our cereal last night. I’m really sorry about the bread …”
Oh my God, I thought. Oh my God, three days without food. He’s so little.
I felt my throat tightening.
“I’ll get you food right now,” I said. I quickly ran to our food pantry, got a cart, put a brown paper grocery bag on it.
As soon as I looked at the shelves, I remembered what I’d heard — more than once, actually.
“We always run out of food over the summer.”
So I was looking at a can of beets and a can of sauerkraut and other than that? Jack Diddley and Mr. Squat.
Wait! Wait! Sack lunches …
I ran to the refrigerator … those were all gone, too.
The smashed hot dog package was the very last bag of free leftover bread.
You screwed up so bad, Amy. So very bad.
Then I remembered: my lunch. The one I wasn’t going to eat. It wasn’t that great, but at least —
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’m — I’m pretty new here. I didn’t realize before but we actually ran out of food. This is all I have.”
I gave her my lunch. Then I leaned under my desk and pulled out my purse. I had a $20 bill in the wallet. We used to call them “yuppie food coupons.”
“Here,” I said. “Take this and buy food for you and your son. Come back tomorrow if you can. We’ll have more bread then.”
She did not want to accept the money.
“Just get it for your son,” I said, pressing the money into her hand. “He needs to eat.”
Then I remembered … I’d been at the Chamber of Commerce before work. The local Chevy dealer was hiring and they paid well — a lot better than a small town Denny’s.
“Hey — do you know Tom Bell Chevy? They’ve got jobs open. Go down and apply and tell them Amy at Family Service sent you.”
Her face lit up. “Okay,” she said. “Thank you!”
I did not see her again for quite some time.
I think I was crying before I got to the pantry. I looked around the empty shelves, saw the onion skins on the floor, and the dust left behind. The can of beets stared at me, its homely label accusing me of complacency, inattention, and ignorance.
We were in a converted former church building so the ceiling was very high, some two stories above and gabled. I looked up, and said out loud,
“Please Lord, don’t let them go hungry. Please send us food. We need the food.”
I was a churchgoer but I can’t say I ever said a true, heartfelt prayer before that moment.
Then I went back to my office and picked up the phone. I started dialing for food and money, an action I took repeatedly thereafter, but never with such urgency.
First, I called the newspaper, where I had not long before, been a reporter. “Family Service is out of food,” I said. “There are hungry children.” I called the radio stations, including the one I’d also worked for at the local university. I even called nearby towns. Same message. Everyone seemed willing to help.
Then, the back doorbell rang.
I didn’t want to stop the calls to answer whomever it could have been. The back door was where we accepted donations, I was alone, and chances were, it was going to be an elderly person with a bunch of ancient polyester leisure suits no one wanted.
I trudged to the back annex and threw the door open.
There stood two guys in bright red t-shirts and white shorts.
“Hey!” said the taller guy. “We’re here from Redlands Christian. We’ve got all the food from our Christmas In July food drive. Ya got any help, young lady?”
This is approximately 40 minutes post-prayer.
And they had a flatbed carrying 5,000 pounds of food.
“You were supposed to call,” said the shorter one.
“No, you were!” the taller one replied. It turned out that some years later, he was going to be my not-yet-born daughter’s school vice principal, and my rescue dog Badger was going to knock him off his bike into our neighbor’s ivy.
Yes, they had been having the food drive throughout the summer school session, and had just neglected to notify us they were doing the project.
As soon as the news hit the papers and radio stations, thousands more pounds of food rolled in. Family Service never ran out of food again, not for the next ten years I served as director.
There’s a little bit more to the story.
Not that Thanksgiving, but the next, I was bagging potatoes with Dorothy Gerrard and trading quips with our board president Ed Losee as we were making up Thanksgiving boxes that weighed up to 100 pounds and sometimes more.
The work spilled outside our converted church building, so we were in the driveway on the side street and cars were pulling up and leaving constantly, dropping off donations and picking up boxes of food for delivery.
A gorgeous brand-new white Chevy truck pulled up across from us — we could already see the bed was filled with boxes of turkeys and other fresh foods.
And I really didn’t recognize her. Her hair was shorter and curly. She jumped out of the truck, ran across the street, and grabbed my shoulders.
I got a big bear hug and felt something pressed into my hand. A fat wad of bills.
Ed and Dorothy looked on wonderingly as she pulled back and I finally recognized her — Joshua’s mom, Sarah.
“I know there’s lots of families who need this,” she said. It was somewhere between $1,000 and $1,200.
And she explained that she hadn’t come back because after she fed Joshua and started her shift at Denny’s, she had gone to the Chevy dealer and had filled out an application. Now she was the assistant finance manager and her son was in preschool and they were doing well. She had gone back to school for her accounting degree.
She had absolutely no idea that the board members, in a funny way, knew exactly who she was because of course I’d told them the story of the hungry little boy and how Christmas had arrived in July.
Did you know that we waste between 30 and 40% of the food that is grown here in the U.S.? We waste more food now than we did in 1987 when I saw my honest sister Sarah hungry and desperate to feed her little boy.
Why do I call her my sister now when I wouldn’t have done so before?
Because there but for the Grace of God go I and everyone else. We could all easily be in her situation. We tell ourselves “no,” but that is simply fear or ego talking.
Even Dorothy Gerrard, who owned a local grocery chain with her husband, may have been brought to the point of having no money and no food, were her life circumstances different. Certainly former school superintendent Ed Losee, one of the best men I ever knew, a man who reminded me so of my grandfather Bampy, knew that his happy home and secure family were the result of good fortune as well as a lifetime of hard work.
Things are worse now than they were in 1987. There are millions more young women like Sarah and millions more little boys like Joshua. I’ve seen our culture grow crude and hard and hateful and unbelievably blind and selfish.
We live in a culture that would prefer to throw food in a landfill rather than give it to a hungry child.
We live in a culture where we would have a young mother serve meals to strangers for pay, yet not earn enough to feed her own self and her own child.
She could have so easily become homeless with her boy, my sister Sarah. We saw so many homeless families, at Family Service in those long-ago days. And there are more of them now, so many more.
And our country is willing to spend $60,000 a year of our taxpayer dollars to incarcerate people in prisons or homeless shelters.
Why is this so? Because a very wealthy person is making money from these prisons and shelters in many different ways.
My board members, and even the owner of our Chevy dealership, may have had some money and financial security but they were not “wealthy” — not like Jeff Bezos, Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates, and all the rest. They weren’t like the internet multi-millionaire’s wife who literally called me a “worm” when I interviewed for a “women’s leadership” position at my undergraduate women’s college.
They were not “too good” to bag potatoes and deliver gifts and food to family homes in a way that did not shame or embarrass the recipients. They secretly wrapped presents and let little children believe they came from Santa and allowed parents the dignity of providing holiday gifts and meals for their children.
A lot of people have read the articles I wrote — absolutely stunned — by the vile and extreme corruption of the Clinton Foundation. Fewer read what I wrote when I learned that Nancy Pelosi’s daughter had made a film about motel children in Anaheim for HBO — and left every single one of those little kids there to suffer while she got her awards and ‘recognition.’
So here’s another Family Service story. Unlike Pelosi’s wealthy and privileged daughter, I haven’t chosen to exploit the people whose lives touched mine for a decade. But I’ve seen some things.
I held the hand of a monolingual Spanish-speaking Pastora (traveling pastor) in the 4' x 6' bathroom in the Family Service lobby while she miscarried a baby of about six months. He was blue and she wept and cried for Jesus Christ but he did not come that day. I held the head of a homeless black man who had epilepsy, covered with dirt and weeds who smelled fiercely of sweat and shit and piss as he seized up in the same annex where I greeted the men from Redlands Christian School that day, in the same location where I helped Ed and Dorothy bag up the potatoes. I screamed at the EMTs including one I went to high school with to help him, because he’d bitten his tongue, there was blood, and they did not want to touch him because he was black, poor, dirty, and they thought he had AIDS.
John, the man who had epilepsy, came back from the hospital and brought me a teddy bear by way of thanking me. He had a seizure because it was such a hot day, and he wanted to work for the food he received, but he had forgotten to take his medication.
I look at the teddy bear a nurse gave me the night that Anthony died in the hospital in Tarzana, and sometimes I think of John. How in his way, he was a great, brave man.
I know a lot of people don’t believe in God, but God or not, we all have spirits and we all have souls. How poor so many people’s souls are, these days.
This is a kind of poverty no amount of money or food will ever fix.