Living in This World, Ministry

‘Tis the Season

Baby, it’s cold outside.

And the heating oil is expensive.

And people who through poor planning or life crisis or just plain bad luck don’t have enough money for an oil delivery are calling churches.

When I was a single mother of three, going to seminary, and spending my first winter in this house, heating oil cost 89 cents a gallon. If I could come up with $90, I could get 100 gallons delivered.

When I called the oil company last Friday, our discounted price was $2.95 per gallon. So to get 100 gallons is almost $300.

I don’t know what kind of emergency or discretionary funds your church has available, but giving away the funds for 100 gallons of oil is just not going to be within our powers at Main Street Church this winter. We’ve been talking about how to handle requests, knowing that the need will be great. Just putting gas in the car is a burden for working poor families, and for many of us in the middle, too!

Last week I got a sad phone call from a woman who told me a terrible story. She said she moved here 8 months ago with her husband and five small children. Then four months ago he walked out. They had an empty oil tank and no money. Could we help?

She lives in one of the little towns surrounding Old Mill Town, and I asked if she had talked to any of the churches closer to home. She told me they attended the Congregational Church in one of those towns, but the church could not help them because all available assistance had been given to a grandmother taking care of her grandchildren. I told her we could not swing 100 gallons, but if she could find an oil company that would deliver 50, we could help her.

A second call came from a man describing himself as her friend, telling me she had left town to take a sick child to her mother’s house, but he was still trying to find an oil company delivering in her area that might do 50 gallons.

While I was at a clergy retreat yesterday, bemoaning the price of oil and the 100 gallon minimum, the man was calling and leaving me messages, and when I returned to the office this morning, there was another call from the woman. She gave me the name of what I assumed was a local oil company, and I arranged for a check that she could pick up tomorrow morning.

Then tonight the man called me again, upset that he had heard nothing. I assured him that I had spoken to his friend and made arrangements for a check. He thanked me and said goodbye, but within minutes he called again, and then I heard a completely different story.

The children are his, he said. The woman is a fly-by-night girlfriend who walked out two days ago. The grandmother the church is helping? His mother, who has been caring for his children.

I guess he thought a church would be more sympathetic to a woman.

I’m not sure he isn’t right.

Come to find out the name his "girlfriend" gave me for the check was not an oil company but a feed store. I suspect she knows someone there who would have cashed a check.

Tonight I called the pastor of the small country church, and he confirmed that they have been generous in helping the grandmother care for the children, and that he has visited the father in jail. Country Pastor said the church is still helping the family, something the man had hedged on with me, but I guess I don’t blame him completely. He’s trying to get all the help he can.

I guess I’m glad we have a locked door to the church office building, one that no one can enter without being buzzed in. I sent an email to my admin and will call her first thing to be sure she does not give the check to the woman who will come looking for it in the morning.

I hate the thought of explaining this to the good-hearted Deacon who raced over to get it to us before we left today.

Tis the Season, right? When visions of dollar signs dance in our heads? How will we make it all happen for those we love? Or who can we get to do it for us? There is an air of desperation abroad that worries me. How can we go on this way, with gasoline and heating oil at such ridiculous prices? Will our churches need to become shelters for our own members, when they cannot afford to get another 100 gallons?

21 thoughts on “‘Tis the Season”

  1. Songbird, I do not envy the position you pastors are in in making decisions in who to help and how to help and when to help. And, as careful as you are, there are always situations where things don’t end up kosher. Makes the decision making even harder.
    And… I wonder how in the world people make it up north with oil and heating bills so expensive. It boggles the mind.

  2. Oh goodness – I don’t think there are the same expectations of the churches in any way here…Canon J,who works in a very deprived area, has “Elijah’s Cupboard” which is stocked by her congregation, and from which those in need can take whatever food supplies are in there…but she has never given cash or, as far as I know, paid a bill like this. I guess maybe the remnants of the Welfare State still do some good.
    Lots of prayers for those without any support, and for clergy called to make impossible decisions too.xx

  3. When I was a church admin in Minnesota, where most heat is natural gas provided by a publicly-regulated utility co., we didn’t have to deal with heat, at least. (Winter shut-off rules and a donation program through the company helped people stay reasonably warm). We gave out gift cards for the gas station (back to the Rez for a funeral was the usual reason, or getting to a new job) and supermarket. (Only 3.2 beer sold there in MN). Still, we had many of the same concerns. Did you see the article in the local paper recently (Sunday Insight section) with the opinion that our food shelves and soup kitchens are making the hunger problem worse, not better? Reading Kathryn’s comment I wondered about that. What if we just stopped? Would there finally be a change that would really end hunger? But I guess “THEY” who fear and hate any intimation of a “welfare state” know us too well. We can’t watch people go hungry, or cold, without trying to help.

  4. These things can be so tough. We helped one family numerous times in our community, but eventually we had to cut off assistance because they continued to make choices for themselves that were, well, harmful, both to themselves and their children. As Auntie Knickers said, there are laws protecting basic needs in MN this time of year, but still, making the decision to say “no” makes me feel ugly, even if there’s good precedent for it.

  5. Just to add a different UK perspective to Kathryn’s. In each of my churches, in over 20 years, I’ve always had regular requests for help with fuel bills. Mainly from people who are on a keyed meter which has run out (or claim to be)- so different system – but same dilemmas. There are always people who fall through the net, ‘welfare state’ or not. I have had to accept that sometimes I was taken for a ride and sometimes wasn’t – but didn’t have to face minimum charges as high as yours, so the drain on church funds wasn’t so great. This is tough stuff – can’t help being glad I’m not in a climate which is even more acute, such as with friends in Canada whose temperature hit -27C this week.

  6. What a hard place to be in. I tend to be pretty trusting of people who ask for help (and I don’t have access to a lot of funds, either–I generally can’t give any one person more than $50, and often it’s in the form of a food card) but it’s dificult when you run into a situation like this. And you’re right–there is a sense of desperation that drives some of this behavior. Real desperation for many.

  7. That is so sad. And hurts the chances of the next legit person that needs help.
    Songbird, call the police and report this please. This is a scam and it is fraud. You were smart and figured it out. The next person might not catch on.

  8. the only place i had to deal with heating fuel was when we lived in japan, and used kerosene space heaters. but the kerosene was sold at gas stations — you could pick up a gallon or 2 and be set for a few days or a week. [milder temps, it hardly froze where we were.] it is hard to wrap my mind around needing to buy 100 gallons at a shot.
    is there any chance community groups could come together for an emergency stash of a few hundred gallons, something that could be doled out to hold families over for a little bit? this may be a stupid idea. i can’t envision how heating fuel works where you live — most places i’ve lived have relied on natural gas for heat [one had an electrical unit], and most have had low-income rescue programs for winter.

  9. Songbird: one thing our church is doing (not on the moral dilemma side, just on the fuel FUND side) is having an ongoing bottle drive: a redemption center has agreed to keep an open acct for us and anyone who drops off bottles can just LEAVE them after telling them the bottles are for the church. The money gets put into an acct and every few months we go pick up a check which goes into our minister’s discretionary fund. We’ve done pretty well over the year–nothing close to keeping up, but it’s a relatively easy, painless, and low key way to keep some money moving towards those who need it most. Scary times indeed.

  10. Wow–what a situation. I don’t envy you and others who have to deal with these kinds of requests, most of which are legit but ones like these must make you question everyone. Wow.

  11. I have really never lived anywhere but the deep south and I am confused. Do you have a tank that is filled with different fuel for heating? Or, do you have bottles you take somewhere to fill?

  12. I appreciate all your comments.
    Sherry, most houses here have a huge oil tank in the basement, one that holds about 275 gallons. Oil companies, to keep their transportation costs down, usually insist on a minimum delivery of 100 gallons.
    I talked to both the father of the children and his estranged girlfriend again today and discovered that the children are not living with him (something they both asserted), but are in his mother’s legal custody. I had to tell them both that neither of them would get a check for oil or anything else. I recommended that they tell the truth the next time they asked for help.
    I found the whole thing pretty nauseating.
    At the same time, we were able to give some more help today to a couple who are leaving the ranks of the homeless (they have been living in their car) to move into an apartment on Saturday. I am relieved for them and happy that various church members have offered to give them furnishing they will need. They lost their apartment last winter when he was laid off, and because he was unemployed for several months, they also lost all the possessions they put into storage, since they could not afford the fees. I find this all pretty overwhelming. It certainly plays into my own existential fears.

  13. It is sad that people will think that churches will be a soft touch.
    It is sad that churches have to be wary and can’t always be soft touches.

  14. I’ve been away for a while and it is so nice to be back to reading your blog again. Just wanted to say that. I appreciate your voice.

  15. When I was in the parish I got duped more than once. And I also caught on to the scam before it was consummated- more than once. The whole thing is frustrating and sad, but I know that when we all get to heaven, God will not be ticked that every so often, we were saps for Jesus.
    SB- I admire your cleverness on this one. And I’m glad to know your church’s funds went to someone who was forthright and truly in need.

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