What I'm Learning About ... Loving the "Least of These"
Jesus taught us the importance of loving the "least of these" when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. We respond by asking God to open our eyes and hearts to those less fortunate, to those in need of God's touch. We say, "Use me, Lord, to be an instrument of your healing and peace and grace." But what does that really mean? And what if it means that we step out of our comfort zones? Here Today's Christian Woman contributors share their experiences in serving others.
Step of Faith
Rose Averill recalls vividly the moment God revealed the need that prompted her to launch Footprints Ministry. She calls it her "somebody moment."
In July of 2002, Rose, her husband, Frank, and their two teenage children, Ashley and Ryan, volunteered at a summer camp for homeless children in the Clearwater, Florida area. While they were serving as counselors at the four-day camp for 6- to 13-year-olds, many of their fellow counselors brought children to Frank, a pulmonary physician. Frank noticed that 90 percent of their health problems were foot- and shoe-related. When Rose and Frank paid attention, they realized some of the children wore slippers, two left shoes, or hand-me-downs three sizes too big. Their ill-fitting shoes resulted in bruises, welts, bleeding sores on their feet, and some more serious problems.
"One young boy's feet were too small for his body," Rose explains. "There's an old Japanese technique called foot binding, where they bind people's feet from childhood to keep them small. Since this boy wore shoes too small for his feet, he experienced the same effect."
Thankfully, the camp kids were given two outfits and a new pair of sneakers. Rose and Frank had no idea what prized possessions these were for the campers until they heard the story of one little girl who, after walking across a field to the activity center with her counselor, asked to use the bathroom. Afterwards, they walked back across the field, and she again asked to use the bathroom. When the counselor asked if she was feeling all right, she replied, "I'm fine. I just want to clean my shoes." "That's how precious they were to her," Rose says.
Rose and Frank were struck by this need and decided to find ways to help meet it when they returned home. Rose visited homeless shelters in their area and learned 60 percent of the homeless in America are children. Also, while clothes are often donated to shelters, shoes are a rarity. And while hand-me-down clothes are fine, shoes that have already been molded to someone else's feet are less than ideal.
Rose asked which people or ministries were doing something about this dire need. The response surprised her: No one.
"That was my 'somebody moment,'" Rose says. "My gut response was, Somebody needs to do something!" Over the next few months, she became that somebody.
At first the Averills used their own money to buy shoes at local discount stores. Then they loaded up the back of their minivan and went to local homeless shelters for pre-arranged distributions to 20-30 kids at a time. Once word about their efforts got out, friends and neighbors volunteered their time and donated money or shoes. When an article on the Averills' efforts ran in the St. Petersburg Times, strangers volunteered as well.
"An elderly woman called us after reading that article and donated a substantial sum," says Rose. "She was a child of the Depression, and though she became affluent later in life, she never recovered from the foot damage she received from the years when she was too poor for shoes."
As things snowballed, Rose decided to form a nonprofit organization and call it Footprints Ministry, referencing the well-known poem about Jesus carrying someone during the toughest parts of life. Soon people from local churches, schools, and businesses volunteered to help, sometimes as many as 100 people at an event. As Footprints partnered with homeless shelters, the YWCA, the Salvation Army, and various missions in their geographic area, its monthly shoe distributions became larger. For each of these one-day shoe distributions, the mission or shelter provides the publicity, location, and clientele, and Footprints provides the shoes and manpower to run what one reporter called "a moving shoe store without a register."
At a typical distribution, children from infancy to age 18 are greeted, then a volunteer measures their feet. Another volunteer gives them a new pair of socks, since most children don't have those either. Yet another volunteer takes them to the bin of shoes containing their size and gives them one-on-one attention as they select the pair they want. Before they leave, another volunteer gives the child—or his or her parents—a bookmark with the Footprints poem on it.
"I explain to our volunteers that we're giving the children and their parents more than just shoes," Rose says. "We're distributing love and dignity. What a blessing to be the hands that tend to Christ's feet, for as he told us, whatever we do for the least of his children, we do for him."
One volunteer, seeing this faith in action, has started attending church with the Averills. And after one distribution, a young mother called Rose crying and said, "Thank you. I have three children and they desperately needed shoes. I felt everyone had turned their back on me—including God. When I read the Footprints poem, I realized he hadn't."
The Shoe Lady
The Averills' garage no longer houses cars. Instead, it's stacked floor-to-ceiling with big Rubbermaid bins full of shoes, each one marked with a size ranging from baby booties to size-15 men's. Rose buys most of the shoes herself with money from donations and a few grants they've received.
"God has a great sense of humor," Rose says. "You'd think he'd pick Imelda Marcos or somebody with at least a vague interest in shopping to run this ministry. But shopping is the bane of my existence. And now when I shop, it's an Olympic event!"
Several local shoe-store owners know Rose well. One clerk recently told her, "As soon as we put out the signs for our buy-one-get-the-second-half-off sale, we watch for you!" Many of them refer to her as The Shoe Lady.
Keeping up the inventory is a lot of work. While Rose has become a pro at finding shoe bargains, she's also watched God creatively provide. For example, after a distribution of 250 pairs of shoes at a YWCA, Rose and Frank realized they had another distribution of about 250 in just two weeks. As they drove away from the Y, wondering how to replenish their stock, Rose received a phone call. It was the mom of a fifth grader who'd decided to collect shoes for Footprints as a school service project. Though the family hadn't contacted the Averills previously, they'd been collecting at school and church for weeks. The woman called to tell Rose they had 250 pairs of shoes ready to deliver. Another time, a shoe-store owner from Oklahoma shipped her 100 brand-name shoes from his overstock when his sister sent him a flyer about their ministry.
"Through Footprints, God's taught me the blessing of trusting him," Rose says. "We've always had enough shoes and the right sizes for the large number of people we serve at each event. As I've watched God provide for our needs in miraculous ways, I've learned to give up my anxieties and trust him more—not just in our ministry, but in every area of my life."
Bringing the Issue Home
The Averills' biggest lesson in trust occurred when they took in a homeless woman, Virginia, for three months.
It all started when Rose was shopping at a local shoe store. While she waited for her volume purchase to be processed, a woman came up to the counter in a huff. She was buying herself shoes since she'd had a rough day. She proceeded to tell Rose and the clerk about the temp she'd arranged to fill in for her receptionist. The temp had been professional, well spoken, and even had an associates degree in business. "I thought I'd hit the jackpot," she told them. Then one of her coworkers pulled her aside and told her to look at the woman's car. When she did, she saw it contained what appeared to be all the woman's worldly possessions. So she asked the temp if she was living in her car. When the woman replied that she was and confirmed that she was homeless, she fired her.
Rose started praying for that homeless woman who'd been fired. "I didn't know anything about her, but I couldn't get her out of my mind," Rose says. "I prayed for her with an intensity I've rarely prayed."
Shortly thereafter, Rose attended a church luncheon where she overheard a woman talking about how she'd recently been fired from a temporary position because she was living in her car. "I turned to her and said, 'I've been praying for you all week!'"
When they compared notes and confirmed she was indeed the same woman, Rose invited the woman, Virginia, to church that night. Rose also prayed about what to do next. She knew the difficult cycle Virginia faced: that it's almost impossible to get a job without a phone number or address, and that it usually takes about three months and $2,000 for a homeless person to get back on her feet. Countless people are one paycheck away from this downward spiral.
Rose also called her husband, told him the whole story, and asked him to pray. Virginia showed up at their church that night, and at the end of the service, Frank turned to Rose and said, "Invite her home." So Virginia went to live with the Averills for three months.
Rose sent Virginia to a friend who needed extra help at her deli, and she also got a second job at Target doing overnight stocking. Virginia became active with Footprints, helping with distributions and mailings. At the end of three months, Rose helped Virginia find an apartment and get settled.
"God brought us together," Rose says. "I know a lot of people would balk and say, 'She's going to steal from you or trip and then sue you and you'll lose everything.' But it was so obviously a God thing for us. We'd watched him provide in so many other miraculous ways, how could we not trust him in this situation?
"If God would have let me seen how far this ministry would go when I first started, I would have freaked out. I never dreamed I'd be handing out thousands of shoes, or that we'd take in Virginia. I did what we could at that time, and then it grew.
"You never know where God's going to lead you. But we'll always and only be able to do what he calls us to do because his grace is sufficient."
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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