Saturday morning, March 24, the heavens are slate gray and misting but temperatures are comfortable for the outdoor work. It’s 7, and another Off the Floor Pittsburgh (OFP) delivery day. William and I are at the grocery store buying donuts for our volunteers. Just after he purchases a dozen, I open the box and feed him his favorite with chocolate frosting. He’s zombie-like, given that he’s going on less than five hours of sleep after another 16-hour shift, and I’m hoping the sugar rush will help wake him up. As we walk towards the car, the mist grows stronger while I pray for clear skies and safety for our volunteers. But dry weather was not the blessing I was to later receive.
Off the Floor Pittsburgh is one of several mission projects at the church I attend. Its purpose is to help those Pittsburgh residents who cannot otherwise afford mattresses, box springs, sheets, blankets and bed frames to get “off the floor.” Other gently used furniture items such as desks, coffee tables, couches or kitchen tables are also accepted as donations from either individual residents or businesses. Presbyterian churches around the Pittsburgh metro area take turns each Saturday morning with different teams doing pickups and deliveries. About every three months, team leader William rounds up five to seven volunteers from our church and drives the yellow moving truck. Some Saturdays, we do about two to three pickups, and then drive downtown to the Presbytery warehouse where all the furniture is unloaded, inspected, organized and stored.
This morning, there are no pick-ups, so Denise, Alex, Rachel, Mike, William and I drive directly to the Presbytery. Several times I plead with God to ease up on the precipitation. At the Presbytery, the specific furniture to each household is color coded with duct tape and arranged neatly at the front, thanks to the outstanding efforts by the OFP director. We heave, lug, push and pull couches, mattresses, coffee tables and a couple lamps into the truck. I’m always dazzled at the skill it takes to maneuver and stack it all so it fits and marvel at how well the guys do with that spatial arrangement.
We arrive at our first delivery in Homestead, a main street apartment located above some businesses on the third floor. My eyes grow big as I gaze up at the narrow exterior wooden staircase from the rear of the apartment, now slippery from the drizzle, and I wonder how we’re going to wrestle a full size mattress, two dressers, a sofa, living room chair, end table and small desk into these tight living quarters.
The six of us clamor up the stairs together first with small items to meet Romona, our recipient, and the stench of stale cigarette smoke reaches my nose. We step inside the cramped kitchen where some sort of pressed wood bookcase badly in need of dusting is to my immediate right and the only brown item to contrast the white linoleum, countertops and refrigerator along the opposite wall. Clothing is scattered all over the table. Romona greets us, clad in a ratty red t-shirt and sweat pants. She thanks all of us about three times and asks if there is anything she can do to help. For the moment, we say no. Rachel greets the two children and they disappear down a hallway.
Back in the truck, William, who is used to maneuvering patients on stretchers and hauling them from astounding heights into an ambulance, promptly issues directions to Mike and Alex regarding the bulky couch. The men are steady until halfway up the stairs. They readjust their grip on the now soaked upholstered furniture as the drizzle strengthens to a downpour. Inch by inch they make it to the top where a new challenge awaits them. No matter how many ways they rotate the beast, it will not cooperate through the doorway. Mike and Alex lean it against the single four by four post, Denise squats beneath and catches the screws as William attacks the hinges with a screwdriver. The minutes drag by as the rain pours. By now I’m feeling useless, trotting up and down between the stairs and shelter of the truck, because nothing else can be carried in and I can’t get inside the house to talk to Suzanne. I entertain visions of a forklift. Then I remember my camera in the car and rush to retrieve it, and start snapping photos of this arduous process. Just as they manage to shove the couch inside, the rain subsides.
The men lay it on its side in the living room and the children are immediately jumping on and off it like grasshoppers and declare it to be a mountain to climb. I giggle and approach the younger one. Rachel introduces me to the little girl, who is five. I ask if she’s in school and she beams and yabbers about learning her numbers and letters. Her brother announces that he is eight and then returns to his imaginative world with the couch. Rachel and I enjoy the children together. “Are they bothering you?” Romona wants to know as she helps Alex position an end table in the corner of the room. I give a pocket-sized Bible to Rachel, bestowing on her the responsibility of passing it onto Romona at an appropriate moment, and just then William and Mike begin shoving the mattress up the second, interior staircase.
I bring in the couch cushions, bedding and other small items now that the doorway is free, and ask Romona how long she has been waiting for the furniture. Sometimes the wait can be anywhere from a week to four months. Just two weeks, she says, and thanks me again. When we realize we have everything in the house, William reminds us that the door needs rehinging. Just as he squats in the doorway, clutching the screwdriver while Alex holds the door in place, Denise remembers the cordless drill in the van. Does William want her to go get it or is he close enough to finishing? I’m not sure what his expression is since I’m standing behind him, but she sprints off and returns in less than 10 seconds with the magic tool. William seizes it as if it contains the winning lotto numbers for the week and resumes work on the hinges.
Meanwhile, Rachel and Denise engage Romona in more conversation, and for the first time, I really see her. Her hair is rich and dark brown, pulled back into a low ponytail. Her thick eyebrows perch over clear grey eyes and when she smiles, she reveals one upper tooth. Although her voice is raspy, her heart is full of gratitude, which is perhaps what draws me to her. She invites us to a church function located just across the street, peppering her chatter with “God bless you all.” Normally it’s us encouraging the recipient to attend church. She explains that she had run from her significant other because she feared his behavior was leaning toward physical abuse. She left him with all her furniture because it just wasn’t worth it to go back and claim it.
If wrestling a couch and full-size mattress up a steep flight of stairs and arguing with the door hinges is what it takes to keep her from being another domestic violence victim, then give me 100 more couches and eight more floors to climb. I could use the exercise. And bring on another down pour. Only God knows what other horrific circumstances a lot of the female-headed households who request the furniture are escaping from.
As soon as William and Alex had the door back in place, I give Rachel a nod, and she prays for the children and Romona.
On our way to our second delivery, Rachel tells us more about Romona that she learned while the others were dealing with the door. Romona had a third child in January that she gave up for adoption because she knew she could not provide. And still, Romona holds onto the gratitude that this is an open adoption so she can maintain a relationship with her child. Recognizing that you don’t have the resources to give your own child what he or she deserves takes courage and maturity. I suddenly sprout a whole new level of admiration for Romona.
The first time I volunteered for this ministry three years ago was guilt and obligation driven. The book club I was enjoying was also meeting on exactly the same Saturday morning. Something compelled me to answer an email plea for OFP volunteers just days before the reminder email for book club was sent, which I had forgotten. I could have ignored OFP and gone to book club, but an inner voice urged me to do otherwise. I believe God rewarded my reluctant obedience by bringing me face to face with William, whom I had no way of knowing on that day, was to become my future husband.
One Saturday about every three months I rise at 6:30 and devote the morning to hauling furniture around for strangers regardless of weather conditions – not because I expect their thank you’s and appreciation, but to support and encourage William, nurture relationships with the other volunteers the Lord places in my path, and to discover where the Lord is already at work. That morning, I glimpsed Him in Romona’s heart.
What continues to make OFP deliveries both exciting and challenging for me is that I never know what to expect. Our recipients are generally lower income folks, and we get a variety of responses, from gratitude, entitlement and sometimes downright rudeness. And yet some recipients have actually ministered to me. Others just need a listening ear, and their stories are always fascinating. Often their clutter is overwhelming. I’ve also seen empty living rooms that we’ve come to fill with a giant flatscreen television in the corner. I can’t help but wonder about happened to the Daddy, or Daddies, in a lot of the single female households we furnish where the moms are pale, disheveled and trying to control four or more children.
Whether or not OFP recipients have made poor choices leading up to a request is not my judgment to make, as tempting as that is. Who among us has never made any bad choices – financially, relationally, or otherwise – and not needed help in one form or another? It’s not about comparing myself to the recipients and believing that I’m somehow superior, because that’s also an unfair judgment. I feel called to extend grace to them in the same way the Lord has extended grace to me time and time again when I didn’t deserve it either. These are the people who I believe Jesus would hang out with if he was walking among us today.
The combination of talents and skills the Lord provides through the other volunteers also amazes me. I find myself growing concerned about this and praying for all volunteers past and present the longer I’ve been involved with OFP. God miraculously assembles the right mix of intellect, compassion and muscle for what we will be facing each time.
William and I have had our own moments of panic and despair over finances and home maintenance issues, but when our eyes are opened to some of the desperate situations OFP recipients are facing, we are continually reminded of our God’s goodness and faithfulness. Saturday’s rains may have drenched my hair and clothes, but I finished soaked in humbleness and gratitude, two gifts that I needed more than extra sleep.