This story has been published - better-told, I'm certain. It is now nearly 20 years later. But I remember the prayer, I remember the way the high ceiling looked, I remember the empty, dusty shelves. I remember her face, and the little boy's face. He would be the age now, that I was then, or nearly so. I hope he is through college. And I hope his mom has her own car dealership, or a house in Tahoe -- she said she loved the area so much. And if anyone ever deserved dreams come true, it was her and her little boy.
When I was 26 years old I took a job as the director of Family Service Assn. in my hometown of Redlands, California. Even though my husband and I had struggled when we were first married, those days were over. I was proud of my nice clothing, nice shoes, and nice new car. Family Service was a very old, traditional organization that helped very poor, and homeless families in emergencies. The greatest help we could give was from our food pantry. It was stocked full of food, like a grocery store. The building was a former church, and the entire pantry was the former sanctuary. The seats in the waiting room were the former pews.
I had been there about three months when summer came. I had been warned that food often ran short in the summer, but I paid little attention. It seemed there were endless boxes of donated cans, rice and beans to fill the shelves. Also, a man had begun to donate day-old bread from his delivery route, so we also had that to give. The bread went quickly, though. Many people from the neighborhood knew about it, and gathered at the door each morning to rush in and take a loaf or two.
One day, the morning "rush" was over. It was almost lunchtime and I had told the others to go. I was working in my office when our receptionist Loretta called back to say there was a lady in the waiting room and she needed help. I walked out to see a pale, thin young woman sitting on the pew, with a little brown-haired boy at her side. I greeted her, but before she could stand or say anything, the little boy noticed the bread box and ran to it, grabbing the only thing that was left: a smashed package of hotdog buns left behind because -- who would want that? He immediately tore the plastic and put a handful of bread in his mouth.
"No, Danny, that's not ours -- put that back!" she said, trying to put the package back the way it was.
I realized that I was seeing hunger -- true hunger -- for the first time in my life.
"It's all right," I said, telling her that the bread was free to anyone. She still looked reluctant and ashamed as I asked her to come to my office with her son.
There, she told me why she was asking for help. She was a waitress at Denny's, and her husband had left a few months before because he couldn't "take the responsibility" of their little boy. She had tried to ask her family for help, but they had never approved of the marriage, and said that her struggles were her own fault. She made enough to pay the rent and bills -- they had no car -- but there was less and less left for food every week. This last week, she said that all they had left was Cheerios.
She was very pale, and the boy was pale also. I said, "When did you last eat?" She didn't answer for a long while, and then she said, "three days ago," but that she had given Danny the last of the milk that morning.
"I'll get you food right away!" I said, hurrying to the pantry. I felt so ashamed of my nice clothing, and my fancy, expensive shoes, but I thought, at least I could give her plenty of food.
That was the morning we had run out of food. The pantry was row after row of empty shelves. All that was left was a can of beets, and a can of sauerkraut.
It was then that I said the first honest, sincere, real prayer of my entire life. I had prayed before many times, but I never really understood it. I never felt as though I was speaking to the Lord before that day. I looked up at the high ceiling and said, "Please, Lord, don't let this lady and little boy go hungry. I will serve you and follow you. Please don't let us run out of food again."
Fighting back tears, I remembered there was something: my lunch. I got it and took all the money I had from my purse: a $20 bill. I came back to my office with the lunch and gave it to the little boy, who immediately ate the apple, smiling.
"I'm sorry, I said," handing her the money. "We . . ." I could hardly choke out the words. "We ran out of food today."
She refused the money several times until I went to her and pressed it into her hand. "Please," I said. "It's my money. You have to use it for your little boy." And she started crying and took it.
I told her that I'd heard that they were hiring at a local car dealership. That was true -- it had been announced at one of my fancy Chamber of Commerce meetings that morning. She thanked me and hugged me and left.
I immediately picked up the phone and started dialing. I called every newspaper, and every radio station I could think of, and even the television station (it's a small town - there weren't that many). I told them that we had run completely out of food, and to please bring more.
After about half an hour, even our receptionist had gone to lunch, and I was alone in the building. Then, the back doorbell rang, where people brought deliveries. I opened the door to see two men in white polo shirts and shorts standing there grinning.
They gestured to two flatbed trucks parked outside. "We're from Redlands Christian School," they said. "We had a summer can drive." The trucks were full, with over 5,000 pounds of food.
Since I was standing there unable to speak, they thought I might be upset because they hadn't called ahead. They looked at each other and one said, "You called," and the other said, "No, you said you called." I finally got the words out and told them what had happened. When they saw the empty shelves, they were ready to start another can drive.
I did not see the young woman again for more than a year. The prayer was answered -- beyond all belief. We had more than enough food, even enough to give to organizations in poorer areas, like South Los Angeles. At Thanksgiving, we were packing food boxes for hundreds of poor, working families. I was outside with five or six board members, when a shiny, new white pickup pulled up. A young woman got out, and walked across the street toward me.
I didn't recognize her until she was right beside us. Smiling, she hugged me and pointed to the truck and its dealer plates.
She had gone to the grocery store that day, and then to the car dealership to apply for a job. She had returned to school and excelled, and was now the office manager. The truck was full of turkeys donated by the dealership. She had a roll of money in her hand, which she pressed into mine, just as I'd given her the money on that day. It was her money that she'd saved. It was for the children, she said. And then her little boy Danny ran out of the truck toward us.
I told the board members that it was her, and that he was the little boy. She said that I'd changed her life that day. I told her, "No, I didn't do it. He did."
And she did.
This is a true story. The pantry ran out of food in July, 1988. The Thanksgiving was November, 1990.