I remember the day that things started to change for me in Galveston. I had left a beloved job in Baltimore in 2009 to join Andy in Texas as he started graduate school. At the time we moved the market was at its lowest point of the recession and jobs were hard to come by in Galveston and everywhere else. I felt lucky at the start of my three year stint at a legally embattled housing authority to at least have a job. But luck soon gave way to frustration and depression as I learned that I was essentially filling a place holder position until the organization’s legal troubles were resolved. The Housing Authority had to remain staffed to prove its worth to a watching public but internally it did nothing but shift paper from one place to the next until the powers that be figured out where the legal troubles would land.
It didn’t take long for me to fall into depression. I had been prepped and primed my entire life to go out and make a difference in the world. I had managed to do that for the first three years of my career in Maryland. Then, out of nowhere, I found myself at an absolute stand still trying to figure out how to make a day pass.
I tried any manner of things to fix my problem. I looked for other jobs but there were none. I tried to connect like minded people together only to be told I was not following the chain of command. I started taking classes at the local community college but felt guilty if I did the homework for them at the office. All in all it was a miserable situation that I felt I couldn’t get out of. If I quit I’d still be twiddling my thumbs only it would be worse as we’d lose my income and health insurance.
One of the things our “chain of command” would do during these months of legal trouble was to consistently move staff offices from one side of the building to another. You can’t make this stuff up! A few of these moves made sense as the organization scaled down to size in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Ike. Our building had become a command post for disaster recovery and as people got back on their feet the staffing and space use adjusted accordingly. To this day though I’ll never understand how they justified moving my desk approximately six times over the course of three years. By the third or fourth move I found it down right insulting.
On the last move before I finally left the job my desk was placed in a poorly ventilated space at the very front of the building. The ceiling was probably 12 to 14 feet high, the flooring was a hard brown tile and it was surrounded on all four sides by glass windows. Every time I took a phone call my voice would bounce off these non absorbent surfaces and cause an echo back into the phone, causing conversations to be near impossible. At lunchtime the smell of fried food at the nearby snack bar would waft through the vents that were insufficiently emitting the air conditioning I craved as the hot summer sun inched its way through the windows of my new “office.” This, dear reader, was my lowest point.
I came home from a blissful week away from it all one summer to rumors that another round of layoffs were headed our way. I was sure I was next and as much as I would have been happy to leave I became convinced that a lay off might just be the straw that broke my back. That Monday morning after my vacation I pulled out a devotional I’d been using and there in black and white was the one verse that had come up incessantly over the course of the previous three years:
“Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you…the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” Psalm 32: 9-10
And finally, after three years, I gave up. I wrote a letter to God on the legal pad on my desk. I told him, with heaps of hot anger that HE brought us to Texas, HE started Andy on this path to a graduate degree and so whatever happened next was on HIM. If we couldn’t pay our bills it was his fault. If we had to quit the program it would be his fault. If I went into a depression and anxiety spiral and had to have myself committed that would be his fault too. All I was willing to do from that moment forward was show up and do what was put in front of me to do. If that was legitimate work for the housing authority, I would of course do that. If it was helping some one mop the floor I would do that. But I was officially giving up on trying to do anything more meaningful than what was offered to me because I had tried and nothing had worked.
Somehow, after that morning, things started to change. First, the internal pressure I felt to be productive lifted and I felt freer. If there was nothing for me to do that day I would get some homework done for class and not feel guilty about it. The absolute BEST thing that happened though was that I didn’t get irritated with the people who would knock on my door at the front of the building and ask for help to offices I wasn’t connected with. I just figured I was supposed to help the individual at my door that day even though their questions were not associated with the office i was employed by. If I didn’t know where they should go I would try my best to figure out the answer for them since I clearly didn’t have much else pressing on me.
One day, just as I was closing my door to eat my lunch, a gentleman came by and asked if I could help him. I was still doing all of this imperfectly and given that it had been an even slower day than normal I was not in a great place emotionally. I had waited until three o clock to eat lunch – only really eating at that point to pass the time.
While I wasn’t really in the mood to help anyone at that moment on a Friday I remembered my deal with God and I told him to come in. He explained he had just gotten out of prison across the street for a crime he felt unjustly charged for. He had been in jail for several weeks and didn’t have a phone or any money and he needed a ride back to Houston, 45 minutes north.
I sat down at my computer and considered his problem. I knew enough not to offer a ride to someone who’d just left prison. The only person I knew I could call was a man I’d met who ran a prison ministry for formerly incarcerated men and women. I gave the man in front of me my lunch, hoping to keep him occupied on something other than my clueless self at the computer and got to work finding his number. After eating a few chips the man opened up:
“Ma’am, can I just say. I’ve been walking around this place for HOURS trying to get some help. And you’re the only person who’s given me the time of day. I can’t believe you gave me your lunch! I haven’t eaten since this morning. You must be one hell of a Christian.”
I shrugged his comment off, not wanting to admit to his face that there wasn’t much benevolence behind my actions. I called my friend who told me the last van heading toward Houston had already left for the afternoon but that he could get a ride on Monday morning if we gave him a call then. He would have to stay at the Salvation Army over the weekend where he could have a cot to sleep on and enough food to keep him going until Monday.
I hesitantly told the man the news, fearing he’d be as upset to stay at a shelter for the weekend as I would be in his position. But his reaction was priceless. You would have thought I had told the man that I had organized a limo ride and a four course meal. A smile spread across his face and he gave me a hug! He bounded out the front door of the building with the address to the shelter and I told him I would see him on Monday morning.
Here’s the final punch. On Monday morning the man walked through the door pushing an older gentleman in a wheelchair. He propped open the door to my space and said “Miss Courtney, I was able to arrange a ride to Houston this morning with someone I met this weekend. We’re not leaving until noon though so I figured I’d help my friend here get some paperwork done before I leave. Thanks so much for your help on Friday! I can’t wait to get home.”
If those two men came through the door of the YMCA that I am sitting in as I write this I would remember them like it was yesterday. That was a defining moment for me as I realized that becoming human, becoming Christlike, is really just a matter of doing whats right in front of you. Doing the next right thing, and letting God worry about the impact it does or doesn’t have.
Within a month of that entire experience I had successfully avoided a lay off and got a new job at Habitat for Humanity in Dickinson, prepared to do the same work I had loved but left in Baltimore three years before. This time I was armed with the knowledge that if things went well or things went poorly it didn’t really matter. The pressure wasn’t on me to figure that all out. I had left Baltimore in a step of faith that God had better things in store for me. I walked out the doors of that housing authority three years to the day that I entered it and knew a degree more than I knew before that if I take the next step of faith he can handle the rest.