by Helen Bache, Parish Nurse
Welfare Line at the County Agent’s Office, Chicago, 1903

An immigrant man walked from an old one-bedroom house, leaving his small but growing family behind for the day. He boarded the “Stage” (bus) for the long trip into town to ask at the Welfare office for money. His last stamp was used to mail another request for a job, any job. This was not the dream he and his friends, from another far place in the world, dreamed when they left home and traveled across the ocean to Ellis Island. They all worked hard with strong hands and backs and stronger wills to make this dream come true.

What does it feel like to make that journey? How do you hide your shame and ask for money?

I think about this as the congregation plans for and provides help for many people in our larger community. What is it like to be desperate for food, clothing, shelter and bus fare? What is it like to be desperate to find a safe place to sleep and watch over the children at play?

I remember starting my first job and carefully planning to make my money last until the next paycheck; but I was not desperate for milk and bread and diapers for a baby. I could speak English and could find a job.

The shame of asking for Welfare money, the head hanging in silent defeat and dependency, led the young immigrant man to leave his family for seasons to take any job and to save diligently. Husband and wife allowed no luxuries in their lives as they counted and saved. He saved until he had an amount equal to the Welfare his family received. Then, on another day, he left his small house and family and took the “Stage” to town and spread the money on the counter at the Welfare office. He caused a stir at the Welfare office that day because they didn’t know what to do with cash on the counter…for them. He would not be deterred and refused efforts to reassure him that he did not have to repay the money. But he did.

My Father was the young immigrant man. He and his childhood friends from a small island on the coast of Norway never lost their sense of gratitude and thankfulness for the help and opportunities they were given.

How many of the people given our help will want to repay our generosity? Not with money, but by finding ways to lift up their heads, by finding the words and gestures of gratitude and thankfulness?

And how many of us will see and respond with open, loving hearts?