Editor’s note: Darla Isackson has recently written another article on the principle of agency. Read it here. She has also written about her experiences as an inner-city service missionary. Read that article here.
The whole experience with the African refugee family Doug and I are assigned to help as service missionaries for the Salt Lake Inner City Project was such a vivid microcosm of my life. This single mom and her three children were in crisis – big time!
I’m a rescuer, a fix-it person (okay, a recovering codependent who still gets easily caught in the mire). When I was finally informed of the complexities of their current situation, I was overwhelmed.
They had one week and two days to find a new place to live, wade through a labyrinth of red tape with the Housing Authority in regard to Section 8 eligibility and assistance, move out of and clean their old cockroach-infested, crowded apartment, and arrange for and carry out 35 hours of court-ordered community service for the fifteen-year-old – assigned because of a trespassing charge.
The mother was convinced either she or her daughter would go to jail if the hours were not completed on time. They’d had six weeks to get these service hours done, and we thought they had been consistently making progress, but found out nothing had been done at all.
The First Problem is Easily Solved
I made many phone calls and arranged for the hours of service opportunities the girl needed to fill the court’s requirements, driving her across the valley to help my neighbors and me when every other possibility had been exhausted. I got the bishop to approve and sign off the hours, and took the girl to the court clerk to get the necessary papers turned in – in the nick of time. Both mother and daughter were relieved and grateful.
The Housing Problem Is Much More Difficult
We had actually been working on the housing problem for some time. A month earlier we’d fielded a major problem: Amy Wylie, our refugee and housing specialist for the mission, went directly to the Housing Authority when I reported the problem to her, and insisted they track down the reason this family had lost their place on the waiting list for Section 8 assistance after a three-year wait. (The mother’s plea to them had gotten no results whatever.)
It turned out to be their mistake; a new hearing was set. I gathered letters of recommendation and attended the hearing with the mother, and she was approved for assistance.
And we’d thought they had a place to move. After an agonizing wait, their application had been turned down for two different apartments we’d helped them find. The managers said the problem was a low credit score; they had never had a loan or a credit card. (They have been in the country less than three years and their income is so low they would probably have been turned down had they applied for either one.)
It seemed so unfair, but since all corporate-owned apartment complexes have the same rule there was little point of applying for other housing unless privately owned.
But the problem was staring us in the face. The family had to be out of their apartment in a matter of days and had nowhere to go. The wait to get into the homeless shelter was 22 days.
I searched the Internet and newspapers and made dozens of phone calls, trying to find a place for this family to move. (The mother had no computer skills, no Internet access, and very little time outside her job and all the appointments and errands we were arranging for her.) The list of places that had potential was very short. Amy and I intervened with the Housing Authority to assure the mother a place in the next orientation class for Section 8. I helped her locate and gather all necessary documents and kept in touch with the appropriate people in the Housing Authority office to make sure everything was in order. But the orientation and Section 8 assistance would do her no good if she didn’t have a house to apply the assistance to.
As the deadline loomed with still no housing solution, a member of the ward offered a storage shed and the bishop offered to pay for a week’s stay in a motel. Members of the ward helped my husband fight the cockroach war, move all the stuff into the storage unit and bug bomb it (twice!). Comfort and her three children moved into a motel.
Then, wonder of wonder I found a landlord willing to work with a refugee family. I was certain the Lord had made a miracle. Not only was the landlord offering a rental home that was really nice and met all specifications, but knowing of the family’s background of living so many years in a refugee camp (which gives them no life skills for keeping up property), he offered them a $50 a month rebate for every month they kept the place clean and did no damage.
This had to be a miracle! I took them to see the place and meet the landlord. They loved the house, and all of them seemed so excited! They oohed and aahed and the girls ran breathlessly from one room to another. It had a fenced yard so the two-year-old could play outside and be safe! (In their previous apartment there was NO place to play). It was close to schools, church, library, park, bus stop. And it wasn’t so close to relatives who (from our point of view) had over-run them, constantly leaving extra children for the fifteen-year-old to tend, which kept her from getting her homework done. It seemed perfect.
One hour before the landlord left on a trip and two days before her motel rent ran out, we were able to get the papers for the landlord to sign, not only for Housing Authority, but for Community Action. It takes weeks for Housing Authority to process papers, make inspections, and come up with rent subsidies, so our refugee specialist, Amy Wylie, knew about the Community Action program that can provide emergency money for deposit and help on the first month’s rent. She put a rush on the application process and got it approved in record time.
We breathed a huge sigh of relief and, again with the help of wonderful ward members, moved the mother and her three children into the house. My home ward donated bed frames to get the girls up off the floor, and a new daybed for the oldest daughter who finally had a room of her own. They donated new sheets and bedding, lamps, waste baskets, laundry baskets, and plastic containers for all the food (for cockroach prevention!).
By the time we left that Saturday, most of the rooms were in order. The girls, delighted with the house, had put out knick-knacks and silk flower arrangements. They put a lace tablecloth on the kitchen table. (If you had seen their old apartment you would know why I was surprised that they even had such things!)
I left that day with the greatest feeling of satisfaction.
From my perspective their situation had improved 10,000%. Imagine the blessing of having peace and quiet and clean, private space for the first time in their lives! To make things even better, I had found out about a wonderful school called Newcomer’s Academy for the fifteen-year-old (who had been mainstreamed into the 7 th grade with almost no previous education and hated school). It was a small school, specifically aimed at giving special tutoring to those who had moved here from other countries. Finally she would get the help she needed. (But she had to live in the school district where they had just moved in order to quality.)
Who Would Have Guessed?
Three days later the mother was contacting everyone she could think of saying they wanted to move – downtown! She said the girls felt isolated, lonely, uncomfortable, bored and that the new place was too far away from everything.
Instead of moving ahead to complete the paper work, request the inspection, and complete the process to get her Section 8 Housing Authority assistance, the mother was complaining about the location, and saying they didn’t want to live there. She should have registered her two school-aged children in school this week and didn’t.
“I can’t believe it!” was my first incredulous thought. I was exhausted from all our efforts in their behalf and now I was angry. But the more I pondered their situation, the more compassion I began to feel. They had never lived in a single unit dwelling. They had never had a yard. They had never had rooms of their own. From the time they were born they had lived with wall-to-wall people all around them. Imagine the unfamiliarity of being so alone!
What if the tables were turned and I had to move into a place with dozens of other people, where I only had room to lay a mat on the floor at night (as they had in the refugee camp)? What if I had to move into a tiny, cramped apartment and had visitors night and day after I had been used to the peace and quiet and privacy of my own home and yard? Perhaps their discomfort with the total change of environment was as great as my own would be. I told them they would get used to this new, wonderful situation. But I wonder if I would ever get used to it if I had to make such a drastic change.
I was assigned to go over and talk with them, outline the benefits of this location for them, how much more conducive this situation will be for the girls to have time and space for homework, and how important education is. I was also supposed to clearly point out the danger they are in of losing what has been gained in regard to housing assistance if they don’t follow through with this process.
They seemed convinced that day, but their efforts are still going in the direction of looking for another place. And Housing Authority has found out the title of the house they are renting is not in the landlord’s name – another situation that must be resolved.
I’ve asked myself many questions this last week – didn’t the Lord have a hand in this? Didn’t He rescue this refugee family from the rapids and provide a solution? So many times during this crisis I lifted this family up to Him, knowing He was the only One who knew what was best for them. I surrendered it all to Him because I had no idea what to do. Wasn’t it the Lord that opened this door for them?
If so, maybe they will still recognize it and decide to accept His blessing.
Of course, I have to review my own involvement in the process: Did I do too much or too little? If I hadn’t found that house for them, would they have somehow found an apartment more to their liking? Were there other options I could have found if I’d looked harder that would suit their needs better? Was I obsessed instead of inspired? Do I need this to work out so I can be the hero instead of for the right reasons? Did my over-concern for their well-being (I really care about these people!) keep me from listening as well as I should have? Had there been a language barrier? (They speak English, but with such a strong accent that I have a terrible time understanding them over the phone.)
If they find another place to live and decide to move, that is their choice. It is my job to honor that choice.
(After I finished this article I went to visit the mother. I’m adding a P.S. here to explain that she told me much more this time about her need to move. There is always more to a situation than meets the eye, which is why we are told not to judge. She expressed concern that we would think her ungrateful because she wanted to move. However, in addition to their discomfort with the feeling of isolation, she likes her daycare provider and is afraid she can’t find another one close to the new place. A potential part-time job she really wants would be too far away. I felt a whole new wave of love for this family wash over me. The plot thickens.)
I must always remember that agency rules.
I have a lot of soul-searching to do over the opportunities I’m being given on this mission. I suspect it is one of the “tailor-made trials” so perfect to get me to look at the areas of my life that still hold me back. And maybe this new situation is a tailor-made trial for this family to learn some important lessons.
I can see so many reasons to let go and trust God that in the long run all will be as it should be. The Lord knows what is best for all of us, but I don’t! Who am I to say what is best for anyone else? I certainly wouldn’t want the responsibility of choosing for anyone else.
Agency and Our Choice to Accept What the Lord Offers Us
I’m gaining, little by little, a deeper perspective of the importance of agency and of the Lord’s amazing capacity to allow us to choose for ourselves no matter what. It’s beyond my comprehension why His great heart does not break every day for the short-sighted and wrong choices of His children. I know intellectually that the answer is His knowledge of the whole eternal nature of our lives – His understanding of our line upon line learning and eventual redemption. Yet it still seems to me that our current blindness must cause Him grief.
There are many analogies I can see from my perspective of the refugee’s situation (which may be far different from His). How many times He holds His arms out in love, offering to rescue us from spiritual dangers, dead ends, situations that cramp our souls – yet we turn and walk the other way. How many conditions in my life are confining, limiting, yet so familiar that I don’t want to give them up for the unknown? How many times have I not recognized the greatness of the opportunity when the Lord was offering me so much more? How many times am I content to live in a spiritual hovel when He is offering me a mansion? How many times have I been content to stay in a cocoon when He was giving me the chance to fly?
Fear versus Faith; Coercion versus Agency
At this point I can buy into fear for my African refugee family, and dilute any good influence I still might have.
Or I can choose faith, trust that somehow they will learn the lessons here for them, trust that the Lord will look out for them. I can trust that agency really is the best plan. The only reasonable choice I can make is to let go of all I can’t control.
Whenever those we care about – whether family, friends, or those we are assigned stewardship over for any reason – are in a difficult situation we can only do what we can do . I could arrange the service hours for the fifteen-year old, and undoubtedly that was a good thing to do. I could help them find options for housing. But, at this point, even if I could control the choices of this family in regard to their new situation, (which I certainly can’t ! ), it would be totally unrighteous and against God’s plan to do so.
If we just knew the millionth part of what He does for us, of how He orchestrates our learning and does all for our best good, we would not be inclined to counsel, to doubt, to question – but would totally trust in all His ways. His ways are so different from ours, but so sublime in purpose, so far-reaching – always for eternal purposes, rarely for immediate comfort. He loves us with a pure and unchangeable love and wants only what will bring us long-term joy and growth. We can always depend on that.
Every day this Lord who loves us so much watches without interfering while his children turn down His greatest gifts, walk away from opportunities tailor-made for their growth, and refuse His invitation: “Come unto me.”
Why? Because He knows so well that no spiritual growth is possible through coercion.
The Lord sent us here to learn from the consequences of our choices and to grow through the use of our moral agency. If a better plan than agency existed for our mortal probation, God would have known about it and implemented it.