The Holidays

Hello, family and friends!

Though I had a lovely time celebrating Christmas and ringing in the New Year with friends and family, December has been the most challenging month of my service year thus far, chiefly due to the mass influx of applications for furniture at the start of the holiday season. Before the month began, the December schedule was already crammed with appointments for clients to come in and select their furniture (the Furniture Bank serves forty to fifty families a week), so when clients not already on the schedule came through the front door hoping to furnish their homes before Christmas, we had to inform them they would have to wait until January. At least twice a day I spoke to potential clients in person or over the phone imploring me to make an exception, and all I could offer was an apology.

One day a military veteran who had been scheduled for his appointment in early January told me over the phone he desperately needed furniture before Christmas; he had been sleeping on the streets for the past nine months, suffered from a back injury, and had children who needed mattresses to be able to sleep comfortably. He stressed that he had not ended up in his situation because he was a bad person, but because of factors outside of his control. In turn, I stressed that I believed him and wished I could help, but unfortunately I could not.

“If I could just come by and pick up a mattress for my kids,” he said. “Is there any way I could just do that? That’s all I need. Please.”

One of the lessons I’ve learned at the Furniture Bank is that, no matter how determined I am to accommodate each client’s needs, it’s impossible to attain this ideal. Soft spots and wrenched heartstrings cannot interfere with an adherence to guidelines and a process that treats each family equitably. Like many other people who called over the month of December, I heard the hope in the man’s voice wane after I repeated that there were no other options available for him. Before hanging up the phone, he sighed, “I understand. Thanks anyway.”

The song, “Someday at Christmas” by Stevie Wonder was playing on the radio, and I found myself feeling sullen and skeptical of the song’s quixotic vision of a world where “men won’t be boys, playing with bombs like kids play with toys” and where there will be “no hungry children, no empty hand.” The front office was festooned with Christmas decorations, with colorful lights strung along the walls and a Christmas tree propped up under the welcome board. Looking at the presents wrapped in glittery paper and bows under the tree, really only empty boxes, I thought about how the merry décor belied the reality of Christmas: many people are lonely and grieving, or struggling to play the role of Santa Claus for their kids, or waking up Christmas morning on a hardwood floor or on a bench outside in the bitter cold.

While it was difficult to turn clients away over the course of December, the Furniture Bank was not impervious to the joy of the season. Lit by the Christmas spirit of generosity, Buckhead church, a local congregation that serves the Furniture Bank on a regular basis, donated a ton of brand new bed sheets, comforters, and boxes of kitchenware, and the families who were able to furnish their residences before the holidays seemed especially thrilled to pick out the couches, chairs, dressers and tables that would transform their apartments or houses into cozier homes.

We received a Christmas card from one family who we all remembered well because they were so eager for their furniture they had arrived at 7am for an 11am appointment. As they were waiting to go back in the warehouse, the front office manager moved them to tears with his story of how he himself had received furniture from the Furniture Bank. They were such a sweet couple, with two little twin girls who kept trying to hug one another and twirl around in circles at the same time, giggling when one tripped over the other’s boots.

The family was gushingly grateful; on top of sending a card, they also called the Furniture Bank twice after their appointment just to say thank you. I made a copy of the Christmas card they sent to slip inside my journal so I wouldn’t forget them. They wrote:

“We would like to sincerely thank you for being so kind to our family during our financial hardship. Especially [the front office manager] with the Furniture Bank for his inspiring testimony. Also Mrs. Martha for having patience with us and remembering the chairs! The deliverymen who came on the first day of snow in Atlanta really touched our hearts. Your act of kindness goes along way! We wish you all a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.”

Because December was a tough month, their appreciation of the Furniture Bank’s services meant a lot to me, lifting my spirits when I was beginning to feel disheartened. While they were singing our praises, I don’t think they had any idea how much of a blessing they were to us.


Food Stamps

Hello, family and friends!

Over the course this past month the most difficult hurtle I’ve had to jump is applying for food stamps via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Young Adult Volunteer program provides a meager monthly stipend with the intention that participants will live simply and, though I qualify for food stamps under these conditions, I initially had reservations about applying for assistance. For the first two months I lived in Atlanta I procrastinated and made excuses to the site coordinator about why I had not submitted my application for food stamps, my chief concern being that I would be taking resources away from families who urgently need aid.

After the site coordinator explained that, instead of depriving others, my request for assistance would help ensure more government funds will be allocated to the SNAP budget in the future, I was still hesitant about applying. I know that when I go home for Christmas I will be able to gather around the table with my family and share delicious meals, with breakfast casseroles and oyster stew, eggnog and sparkling cider. I’m also well aware that in the past, before my three housemates and I had to count pennies at Aldi, I have sometimes let produce spoil or crackers and cookies grow stale and tossed them in the garbage without a second thought about their value. While millions of people across the globe are starving, I’ve been profligate and heedless with regard to nutrition, privileged enough to not only afford healthy food, but waste it also. The dissonance between requesting food stamps and having taken an ample food supply for granted struck me again and again as I filled out the blanks on the application. If it were not for my desire to be able to afford healthier groceries, I would have left them blank.

As it turns out, though it has been over a month since I submitted my application in mid-November, I have yet to obtain food stamps, and I doubt I will. Last Thursday I was scheduled for a face-to-face interview for food stamps at the State of Georgia government building downtown. I took time off from the Furniture Bank to be there, arriving thirty minutes early for a 9am interview that never occurred. After I explained to the security guard at the front desk I was there for a food stamps interview, she asked to see the letter I had received verifying my appointment time, sighed and ticked her tongue against the roof of her mouth as she read it, then handed it back to me and told me to wait on a bench. Anxiety began to percolate in my chest as the minutes passed. I realized when I put clients who call the Furniture Bank on hold to search for their paperwork or look up their appointment date and time they must feel similarly, wondering as the silence stretches on whether their has been a miscommunication or an oversight.

The Georgia Department of Human Services seems to have made several oversights in processing my food stamps application. After I waited on the bench for a while, a woman came down from her office to apologize for the inconvenience, and then told me someone would call me as soon as possible about scheduling another interview, even though I had just walked forty-five minutes to be there for an interview. Before I could ask her to explain the particulars of the situation, she briskly turned away and marched off, the rap of her heels against the marble tiles resounding throughout the lobby. I sat there for a few moments afflicted by a stinging bafflement, feeling as if I had been the victim of some sort of con scheme.

A week later I have yet to get a call from anyone regarding another interview, though I did receive a letter today informing me that I missed my interview on December 7th at 9am (the same interview I have described above, the one that exists in letters, but somehow ceased to exist when I showed up for it promptly and with all the necessary supporting documents in hand). According to the letter if I do not call the food stamps office to schedule another appointment after I “missed” the first one, my food stamps application will be denied on the 22nd of December. Unsurprisingly, when I called my only option was to leave a voice message. The caseworker sounded weary in her voicemail greeting, towards the end of it emphasizing that clients should refrain from leaving her multiple voicemails before she has a chance to return their calls. In the end, I decided not to leave a message for her requesting another appointment date. Not only did I not want to unnecessarily burden a caseworker who seems to be overwhelmed, I felt it was a waste of my time and energy when I likely will not get a call back before next Friday, the day my application will be denied anyway.

At first I thought my experience applying for food stamps has only been so infuriating because, since I am not in dire need of assistance, my case was not a priority. However, after talking to my housemate Cat, who works at an advocacy center for people experiencing homelessness and helps people who desperately need aid overcome the crushing bureaucracy of the state and local government, I’ve realized my experience is the rule rather than the exception. Because the Furniture Bank allows for flexibility in my schedule, the fact that I had taken the morning off for a food stamps interview that never happened was merely frustrating. If I were a single mother who had sacrificed money for transportation and hours at work to be there, it might have been devastating.

The other day there was a mother at the Furniture Bank who asked me if she could take a flier pinned to the bulletin board about how to apply for food stamps home with her. As she was going out the door, I noticed her son, who looked to be around six or seven, had used the orange puffy paint at the kid’s coloring table to squeeze out the words, “Merry X-Mas” on a piece of construction paper. If she does plan to apply for food stamps, I hope the process will be much more expedient for her and her family than it was for me. Though I now know how maddeningly circuitous applying for food stamps can be, at the end of the day, I will be able to get by without them. I cannot imagine what it would be like to need food stamps to provide for children of my own, having to be patient with every roadblock and roundabout along the way while they complain about being hungry.

The Furniture Bank!

Hello, family and friends!

October was an eventful month; I celebrated my 23rd birthday, marched with Central Presbyterian Church in the gay pride parade, dressed up as a narwhal for Halloween, and helped set up for the Furniture Bank’s annual Bed Race, a fundraiser in which competing teams decorate twin beds on wheels and race them across a parking lot. Each bed had a different theme-one group of contestants wore Care Bear onesies and tied rainbow balloons to their beds, another wore Ninja Turtle costumes, and my favorite team dressed up as The Golden Girls, trying not to trip over their dresses or lose their wigs as they sprinted and pushed their bed to the finish line. The Bed Race champions had dressed up as Stars Wars characters, their team named “The Last Bedi.”

As I noted in my previous post, I’ve been working as a Young Adult Volunteer at the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta, helping individuals and families fleeing domestic violence, transitioning out of homelessness, or living with HIV/AIDS furnish their homes. During the day I answer phones at the front desk, welcome clients, and guide them through the warehouse as they shop for their furniture. I’ve also been helping the previously homeless veterans who participate in the Furniture Bank’s warehouse and truck-driving training program navigate online job applications. The veterans work at the Furniture Bank for eight weeks, loading and unloading trucks, hauling furniture donations around the warehouse, and fine-tuning their resumes. Afterwards the Furniture Bank pays for them to obtain either a forklift certification or a commercial truck-driving license so that they can graduate from the program with full-time employment.

Sorting and filing paperwork in the afternoons would be much more monotonous if not for the companionship of the front office manager, who was a part of the veteran intern program himself and often tells clients that he has been in their same shoes, having received furniture from the Furniture Bank for his own apartment eight years ago. He’s a jovial guy with dimples the size of quarter slots and a high-pitched hoot of a laugh that I can hear even when I’m in the back of the warehouse. Throughout the day he plays either the Billy Joel or George Benson Pandora Radio station on his desktop. When a song with a prominent bass line comes on, he’ll put his fist to his lips as though holding a mouthpiece and imitate the buzzy bopping of a sousaphone, then point to me and say, “that’s you, sousaphone-payer!” If I start singing along to a song he’ll provide annotations, letting me know when the song came out and what he and his friends were up to when it was popular. He owns a dachshund named Rufus who pads behind him wherever he goes and takes naps under the front desk, curled up next to the computer monitor. Rufus is a bashful dog and tense around clients, though in the mornings he likes to jump up and paw at my kneecaps, licking my arms while I pet him. For Halloween Rufus came dressed up as a shark.

When clients enter the Furniture Bank they see their names listed in dry erase marker on the welcome board by the front door. On the board, beside the place where we write the names of the clients who are coming in to select furniture, the front office manager has written, “Today is your day to be blessed!!!” Many of the clients I’ve worked with thus far are grateful for the service the Furniture Bank offers, some effusively so, though there have been a few clients who left disgruntled. Sometimes clients cannot find the particular type of, say, dresser or kitchen table they are looking for, other times they see a previous client has already tagged an item they wanted, and sometimes they arrive for their appointment too late to pick out the furniture themselves.

During my first couple of weeks working there I remember a woman with limbs slight as saplings and beads dangling loose from her sweater pleading, “Won’t you let me have another dresser for my grandbaby? We lost everything we have in a fire. You’re not gonna let me have another dresser for my grandbaby?” She looked like she had waded through decades of hardship and was at least three times my age. Though I was not authorized to bend the rules, I could not look into her wizened face and tell her “no” over and over as if I were speaking to a toddler. Such moments ignite a blazing consciousness of my privilege at the forefront of my mind. I feel its heat rise in my cheeks as I stand there checking off items on a clipboard, explaining that the amount of furniture clients receive varies according to the number of household members and that the Furniture Bank cannot guarantee a specific item of furniture will be in stock. I wonder why I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work as a volunteer for a year, while the clients on the other side of the clipboard are struggling to make a living and provide for their families. At times God seems to cast blessings with an air of capriciousness.

Despite difficult interactions with clients, there have been many uplifting moments. The Furniture Bank serves forty families a week, too many clients for me to write about all of them, so I’ll tell you about my most gratifying experience shopping with a client thus far:

To get to work, I ride the MARTA and then walk from the West End train station to the Furniture Bank, crossing a pair of railroad tracks along the way. One Friday there was a freight train stalled on the tracks, preventing pedestrians from crossing to the other side of the street. Several people had clotted together by the train, muttering to one another about how they would find a way across, some even daring to climb over the couplers linking the train cars. I watched a woman in a wheelchair hop out of her seat to follow suit, then hoist the wheelchair back over onto the other side (I later learned people have been killed this way, by the train jolting to life while they are mid-mount). There was a man shuffling his feet in the gravel by the tracks with his head hung, looking like he might break into tears. When I asked him where he was trying to go he told me he had been up since 4:30am he was so excited to get furniture from the Furniture Bank, and now the train was going to make him miss his appointment. He was in his seventies, walked with a limp and a cane, said he had been trying to get himself over to the other side of the train but no longer had the leg strength to do so. I told him I was a volunteer at the Furniture Bank and that he had no reason to worry; we could cross the intersection at the far end of the street and, though he would be a little late, there had been a cancellation that morning so he would still be able to pick out his furniture.

“Oh, please let them know I’m on my way,” he said. Though I had called to let the front office manager know we would both be late and assured the client repeatedly that we did not need to rush, he was intent on arriving as close to his appointment time as possible. As we walked he feverishly stamped his cane through the ragwort weeds along the side of the road, every so often drawing in enough breath to tell me how eager he was to get some furniture. He wore a red baseball cap with the words, “Jesus is my Boss” in cartoonish lettering across the front. At one point during his appointment the chorus of Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus Take the Wheel,” his cell phone’s ringtone, began to blast from his jeans pocket, but he was too excited about choosing a sofa to answer. He seemed to be over the moon, grinning wide as he strode through the warehouse and tagged pieces of furniture, claiming them as his own.

This was only one out of many instances in which I’ve realized how much the Furniture Bank means to clients, and I can’t wait to share more about this non-profit organization’s amazing  work with you all. Love,


The Basement Kingdom

Hello, family and friends!

A month ago I moved to Atlanta, Georgia and began working as a Young Adult Volunteer at the Furniture Bank of Metro Atlanta, helping individuals and families fleeing domestic violence, transitioning out of homelessness, or living with HIV/AIDS furnish their homes. Before I share my thoughts on my experiences thus far via this blog, I want to thank the Young Adult Volunteer program for the opportunity to live and work in Atlanta for a year, as well as the Atlanta Mennonite Fellowship, a congregation that finances our housing, a purple house with a front porch where we gather to eat supper and a winsome garden of orange cosmos flowers and cherry tomatoes. I’m also grateful for the lovely members of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia and Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington, Virginia for helping me raise the funds necessary to participate in the program. Your financial support made this year of service possible, and, though you are many miles away, your love continues to buoy my spirits as I face my own failings and naiveté, seek divinity through shades of doubt, and bear witness to heartbreaking hardship.

First off, a little about my three housemates and their work:

My housemate Cat is working at the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center where she helps people experiencing homelessness attain documentation and identification so they can apply for food stamps and other critical social services.

When I visited her work site I spotted a portrait one of the clients had sketched in colored pencil of a woman with a poofy black mane, the shading of her face intersecting at odd angles, so it appeared as though there were scratches across her cheeks and forehead. She had a smile packed with teeth, little blank squares neatly lined along her top and bottom lip, and irises that matched the hue of her red lipstick. With those meteor-like red eyes inflaming her stare, I could not help but imagine some crossness within her, despite the smile. After hearing stories from Cat about the line of desperate clients spilling through the OAC front doors everyday and the burdensome bureaucracy and systematic injustices clients have to navigate to meet their basic needs, I wonder if the artist’s unique choice in eye color was meant to reflect righteous anger.

My other two housemates, Jeremy and Wesley, work at Mercy Church, a radically welcoming nook of faith and grace tucked away in the basement of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church. At Mercy Church a small community of people, many of whom are struggling with homelessness, convene during the week for coffee, prayer, worship, bible study, group discussions on overcoming addiction, lunch, and other resources, including a foot clinic and clothes closet.

Cat and I attend worship services at Mercy Church most Sundays. The sanctuary is little more than a circle of chairs around a candlelit table, with a crucifix propped up against the kitchen counter beyond and a plastic punch bowl for a baptismal font. One Sunday there was a man sleeping on the floor with a bandaged foot and vomit sopping the backside of his jeans, his head resting on a pillow patterned with blue monkeys that looked like it belonged in a baby’s crib. Another Sunday a man told me if I did not permit the government to insert a microchip into my mind, I would be tortured for ten days and beheaded, pulling a folded up magazine article out of his wallet to substantiate the delusion.

This past Sunday at Mercy Church, my housemate Wesley led the singing at the beginning of the service, strumming his ukulele for accompaniment while a man behind him tapped drumsticks on a pair of bongos made out of empty Maxwell House coffee containers and duct tape. We sang, “I saw the light I saw the light, No more darkness no more night, Now I’m so happy, No sorrow in sight, Praise the Lord! I saw the light. “ One of the men who is notorious for his tone deafness was singing, as he often does, with gusto and louder than anyone else in the room, knocking us all off-key. At one point the man beside him started laughing and said, “Hey, the Bible says make a joyful noise. Didn’t say it had to be good.” The tone-deaf man smiled wide, belting the wrong notes even louder.

After we sang, we read through the parable in Matthew Chapter 20 comparing the kingdom of God to workers in a vineyard each receiving a denarius as payment for their labor, regardless of whether they had begun working in the morning or at dusk. When the workers who had been toiling all day in the hot sun griped to the landowner about how unfair it was that they had received the same pay as those who had only been working for an hour, he reprimanded them, asking, “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?” We had a long discussion about the bountifulness of God’s grace, unfathomable in a world in which we are constantly competing for limited resources and comparing our wealth. In this cutthroat reality, it’s much easier to believe those who have little deserve little, a belief that breeds resentment when we see unearned gestures of kindness uplifting people who are struggling. One woman talked about how God’s grace ruptures through these confines of supposed deserving, spilling infinitely. And in the span of infinity, the difference between going to work in the vineyard at sunrise versus sunset is barely a wink of time.

Because many of the people who come to Mercy Church are living on the streets, suffering from a lack of adequate sleep and nutrition and, as a result, compromised mental health, the space is often roiling with extreme emotions; Jeremy and Wesley have more than once been caught in the crossfires of vicious cursing, trying their best to defuse a fight. They told us about one woman in particular who had been asked to leave the community for throwing chairs at people, and who, on a Sunday morning not long after her return, began splashing everyone with water from the baptismal font.

I don’t think it’s in spite of the fraught atmosphere that people find solace at Mercy Church, a place where they can be cantankerous or eccentric or tangled up in the throes of addiction and know that, even if they are asked to leave for throwing chairs, their community will not desert them. The first day I visited Mercy Church one of the pastors, Pastor Chad, was leading a group discussion on recovery from addiction, making notes on an easel about how we all rely on unhealthy coping mechanisms to confront life’s stressors, and how a low point with addiction can be a blessing, an opportunity to admit we need help and offer ourselves up to the grace of God. At the bottom of the easel he wrote the words, “You are beloved,” and then circled it over and over. I’ve often thought of people as beloved children of God, though the passivity of the sentiment has recently begun to bother me; sometimes I wonder if it’s a way for me to foist the responsibility of loving marginalized people who are difficult to love on God, so that I can stay blind to their suffering, content in my own bubble of privilege.

At Mercy Church, the words Pastor Chad had circled over and over were more than a platitude, more than a nice thought to brighten a tough day. When Pastor Chad told people they were beloved, they did not need to depend on faith in a higher being to know it was true, because he would embrace them, or call out, “Be safe. I love you,” or “te amo” before they went through the church doors and back onto the streets.

All of this is to say, there is a basement of a church in downtown Atlanta where the kingdom of God thrives, and I’m so blessed to be able to learn from the Mercy Church community this year. I haven’t even begun to talk about the Furniture bank yet; I’ll tell you about it in my next post! Thank you for reading. More soon! Love,

Martha Fulp-Eickstaedt