Helping Ease the Load

07/28/2017 .
Myra Biernat Wells  .  Volunteer Storyteller

Growing up in Illinois in a low income family, Mary and her four siblings knew a lot about hunger. When it gnawed at their bellies, one brother would fish or hunt pheasant. During the summer, they would steal apples from a neighbor’s orchard. To get milk, the family walked to a nearby farm with a generous owner. Meal times included such delicacies as sugar sandwiches or ketchup soup. School lunches didn’t last long, she’d eat it on the morning school bus drive. Later in the day, she was so famished, tears rolled down her cheeks and onto her desk making learning impossible.

As an adult, Mary married, had three children and moved to California. Knowing Mary was not attending church, a friend invited her to Saddleback.  At first, Mary wanted no part of religion. The God she was introduced to as a child seemed perpetually angry. After her friend’s persistence, Mary eventually accepted the offer. At Saddleback, she discovered a God who loved her and cared for her. Because of his acceptance the scars of her upbringing gradually began to heal. Yes, she had grown up in poverty and was still struggling financially, but God’s love was more meaningful than money. “Rich isn’t about having more — an extravagant home, expensive cars or fashionable clothes,” Mary said. “A craving for Christ makes a person rich.” Mary had that in spades.

After several years of attending church, she felt Christ whispering to her, “What do you want your life to be about?” She empathized with people facing poverty and wanted to help those people, especially the children, who had to overcome scars like hers from being an outcast growing up in an affluent neighborhood. “I knew there was beauty in my desire to serve. The only question was ‘Where?’ I wasn’t sure where I needed to invest my life.”

“That uncertainty lifted when I learned about Saddleback’s Food Pantry. I felt so comfortable and at peace being there. I wanted to give, listen and pray for families. I was so happy to see families getting food, knowing they would enjoy a nice dinner that night. When I completed CLASS 301, and learned how my experiences shape how effectively I can serve. I realized God wanted to use my childhood experiences to bless the lives of others.

“As a youngster, I always felt like an outsider – ostracized because of my poverty. Taunted and bullied during my school years, I was uncomfortable in my own skin. That all changed when I began serving. The volunteers at the Food Pantry made me feel welcomed. More importantly, working with them in community was powerfully transforming. Their acceptance helped build my self-confidence and overcome society’s branding of failure. Their gift of friendship helped me feel welcome and valued.”

Mary didn’t realize how important the Food Pantry community would become. A year after she began volunteering, her son, David, was murdered in Chicago. “He was walking to a friend’s house and became a victim of random gun violence. David was shot in the back of the head by a gang member. We never knew why. That was the worst day of my life.

“My friends at the Pantry became an extended family to me. My son’s death was the most overwhelming, painful and confusing point in my life. At the Food Pantry, I didn’t have to hide my scars. I could be vulnerable. My team sat with me, listened to me cry and prayed with me, reaching out to me when I didn’t have the strength. Their understanding, loyalty and care loaned me the courage to get through my grief. They wildly cheered me on when I was at my lowest. Their presence convinced me I was not alone.  The friendship persuaded me that despite the pain of David’s death, my embarrassment from growing up in poverty and my sense of failure over my divorce…that despite all that my life can still make a difference.”

As a volunteer, Mary saw this outworked serving as a “roller.” This is the volunteer who takes clients out to the parking lot, helps unload their groceries and prays with the family before they leave.  “It was a huge honor and a way to give encouragement and dignity to those I served. One time, I accompanied a woman to her car. Even though she had so little, as a thank you, she gave me a ceramic angel. She didn’t know it at the time, but I love angels. I took that gift home and rested my son’s picture on it. Her kindness is a treasure to me remembered every time I look at that angel.”

A load is always lighter when it is shared. “We all live with the pain of brokenness. I didn’t expect comfort I experienced from serving at the Food Pantry. There was a strong inner voice in me saying I wasn’t worth the effort. My team’s devotion taught me God will carry you through anything; get you through whatever weighs you down. His love will be stopped by nothing.  Getting through my pain, while still difficult, helps me encourage others and ease their burdens.”

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