It was a beautiful evening in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where we had our own little piece of paradise: a one-acre micro-farm with a small barn, large garden, fenced pasture, a couple of bummer lambs, and a goat named Isabella who was forever outsmarting us. Our children were finally at the age where we could leave them in the care of the oldest for brief periods of time; tonight, my wife, Catherine, and I were taking advantage of that freedom with a twilight stroll down the country road we lived on.
As we approached home, we saw a bicycle rapidly coming our direction. As it got closer, we realized the rider was our oldest child, Mark. As his bike came to a stop, Mark informed us that Stacey (not her real name) was at our front door and seemed frightened. He thought she might need help of some kind.
Stacey was about 12 and lived a few houses down the road from us with her mom and an older sister who was often gone. Stacey’s mom had multiple challenges in her life: substance abuse, limited parenting skills, a succession of short-term live-in boyfriends, etc. My wife frequently transported Stacey to or from our tiny rural school several miles away. And as the school’s music teacher, Catherine also interacted with Stacey in the classroom, building a friendship with her.
We hurried home and found a very frightened, unsure Stacey waiting for us. She was home alone and her mother was at a bar in a neighboring town about 15 miles away. For reasons unknown, Stacey’s mom had called and instructed her to walk out to the highway (most of a mile), walk down the highway into town (about 2-3 miles) and wait at a fast food restaurant on the edge of town to be picked up by someone who would give her a ride to where mom was. It was now pushing 10 p.m. and Stacey didn’t feel safe doing as her mother had requested. She was scared and there were lots of tears.
We confirmed that doing as her mom had asked was not safe and assured her she had done the right thing in coming to our house. We invited her to spend the night at our house and she said yes. She also accepted our offer of food, a shower, and some clean clothes (generously donated by our daughter, Jeanine). While Stacey was bathing, I called a social worker friend who told us we should take Stacey to school the next morning and tell the principal what had occurred. He assured us the principal would know exactly what to do, and he was right.
Stacey went into foster care in a nearby town. She visited her old school several times before the school year ended and seemed to be doing well. A year or so later, we moved out of state and lost touch with her.
Thirty-plus years later, Stacey’s story still puts a lump in my throat. Her mother’s life was in shambles, making it impossible for her to responsibly parent her daughters and rendering Stacey a “throwaway.” The dictionary tells us a throwaway is “a child or teenager who has been rejected, ejected, or abandoned by parents or guardians….” Sadly, Stacey qualified.
Society’s outcasts, those who had been rejected and forgotten, occupied an important place in the life and ministry of the Savior. The writers of the gospels chronicle His ministry to the throwaways of His day: the lepers, the paralyzed, those possessed by demons, and others. The Savior had the power to heal and He used it to mend both broken bodies and wounded spirits.
Who are the throwaways of our day? Certainly there are Staceys among us, children living in dangerous circumstances of neglect or abuse. But shouldn’t our definition of “throwaway” be broader than that? Children have no corner on the market when it comes to neglect or rejection.
What of the teenagers and young adults who have rejected the value system or religious affiliation or hopes and dreams of their parents, only to come home one night and find their suitcase packed and waiting on the front porch? Or individuals of similar age who have announced they are something other than heterosexual, only to be ordered out of the homes or churches of their upbringing?
What of those with debilitating, untreated mental illness, who all too often live on the streets of our cities? What about senior citizens who desperately yearn for contact but whose children just don’t seem to have any time to spare?
We are all called to minister to those who have been “rejected, ejected, or abandoned” and thrown away. Often that ministry requires little more than being present, listening, feeling, and offering appropriate help, as our family learned the night Stacey knocked on our door. Sometimes much more is needed.
We would all do well to remember the words of Mother Teresa, who said, “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”