An Issue of Trust
“What happened to you?” Will she tell me? I wondered as I looked into those soft brown eyes. “How’d you get that?” We were standing in the kitchen while I was working on fixing dinner. She had entered the house with my daughter and had stopped for just a moment. A quiet gentle child, she was rarely clean or groomed very well. The large back-and-blue shiner on her cheek drew my attention to her face. It looked pretty nasty. She hesitated. Her cautious reaction seemed to confirm my suspicions. She was just a little girl, six or seven, but a regular street urchin who often played in our yard and visited inside our home. I had never been to her home just around the corner nor met any of her family. But I knew there were babies and a live-in boyfriend, and the children screamed of neglect, discarded toys and trash cluttered the front lawn.
My home was the “safe house” in the neighborhood in that mountain village, it had been a mill town in its glory days. Children liked playing at our home and in our yard. Rules for behavior had been established early on by me, and the kids knew and followed them most of the time. If they were mean to each other, talking bad or hitting, they would be sent home. It was that simple. One large family with several children was at our home every single day after school. They lived in a two room shack down the corner from us. None of them, including the parents, could read. I would work with one of the boys as a volunteer at the school. Their ways were backward, strange and even gross at times. My children would tell me about some of the things they said and did. Even they were surprised. Often I would have to send one of the children home when he or she became bossy and mean. But they would always be back the next day, this time behaving appropriately. A large bowl of popcorn was offered almost daily, a cheap way to satisfy hungry kids and all that we could afford. At times though, I grew weary of the constant overseeing of other people’s kids, and irritated when toys would come up missing, especially since we did not have that much ourselves. Now this.
She spoke softly in a whisper so no one would over-hear. “My mom’s boyfriend hit me. He knocked me off of the counter.” He must have hit hard I thought, judging by the look of it. There was pleading in her eyes as she told me. “That's not good! I’m sorry he did that,” I said with concern in my voice. I gave her a gentle hug. C___ was one of the nicer children on the block. I enjoyed her visits. After answering my question, she ran off to play with my daughter. I cared about her. I cared for all the children that seemed to have so little nurturing, so little good going on in their lives. I thought back to the many times she had come to the little afternoon club I conducted once a week. My Joy Club, where I shared Jesus with the neighborhood children. We would sing, make things, and I would tell Bible stories. Sometimes, their parents would chat with me when it was over, but we had little in common. Theirs was a rough life, something I did not understand. I didn’t fit in.
Everyone seemed to like our family. We were living in a neighborhood that could be called, the other side of the tracks, where odd things happen and I often felt unsafe during the evening hours when my husband was at work. My children did not mind though. We did not have much but neither did most of the kids, and I was there with them, so it was okay. I kept my children close, not letting them stray very far from our place, and visiting only in families' homes that I trusted. In time, there were quite a few families in the community that became our friends. Some of their children would join in with the neighbor kids and also come to my little bible club. It seemed that even though I was different from the neighbors, I could still show them love and treat them right. With four of my own and a husband that worked late hours or over-nights, it was not easy . . . and I was fairly shy and quiet. After talking with the girls, I wondered if I could help in some way to prevent more of the same mistreatment for this sweet young girl. My mind was assessing what I had just learned. After she left to go home, my daughter stepped into the kitchen where I was preparing dinner. I could tell she was concerned, something was on her mind.
“Mom,” C___ doesn’t want you to tell anyone what happened. She’s afraid they’ll take her from her mom. She wanted me to talk to you and get you to not do anything.” I realized then that C___had trusted me enough to tell me about the abusive treatment, but she also knew I might inform the authorities. She must have been through this before. As a volunteer at the school, I was a mandatory reporter, requiring me to notify Child Protective Services if I had any suspicions of abuse. Although not on duty when she told me, I knew my responsibility in the matter was not just during working hours. There is a responsibility to protect children even without the legalities, it’s part of being a caring human. We must keep children safe. I was caught in a Catch-22, trust from a child is a wonderful thing, I didn’t want to destroy C___’s simple faith in me, yet I could not ignore this. However, my greatest fear was that of retaliation if I was seen as a narc. Would I be safe if I reported it? There would be no one to protect me or my children if I was to be seen as a snitch in the neighborhood and people started viewing me and us differently. I felt fear creeping in and courage taking leave. But, I knew I would have to do something. That, I must do, there really was no choice!
I went to my Heavenly Father first. He knew my burden for C___ and my anxieties for my own protection. What should I do? I asked Him. It wasn’t long before I had my answer. I acted immediately. I called a woman that I knew who worked at the school. She was a Christian lady who in her job worked with families and children where there are on-going conflict issues. She was a liaison at the grade school. I called her up and explained the situation and my concerns. Her answer was immediate. Yes, she would join me in reporting the incident. I would be able to remain anonymous. It would be handled delicately but not ignored either. I hoped for the best and trusted God with the rest. Days went by and C___ came to my house several times. The report had been made but I did not know its aftermath. It seemed as if nothing had changed in her situation.
That incident happened in the early 1990’s. As long as we lived in that small mountain village, C___ and the other children continued to play in our yard. I learned some lessons about life by living at a place where there is such great human need. There were drugs, drinking, a family of four children who went to school with my children were beaten black-and-blue during a drinking episode just around the corner from us, later they were put in foster care with a nice single lady friend of ours, anxious and happy when they could go visit their mother. Down the street from us there were large families living in two-room shacks—coming and going like a revolving door. Across the street from our house, sometimes a woman screamed while her partner beat on her. When that happened, my husband would knock on the door and say something like, "Is everything okay?" and then it would stop. Once in a while at night I would receive vulgar phone calls that made me feel vulnerable and insecure. Nothing ever came of it, fortunately.
There was the good too. In the community, a loving church group hosted many dinners for anyone who wanted to come, they offered clothing and money to those in need. The first time we visited, after the service the minister’s wife asked me, “”Do you need anything?” I was amazed and blessed by this attitude, enough so, that it has stayed with me as a good thing for a church to do. In this same church I made a close friend who home-schooled her three children and gave me the gift of true friendship, a friendship that has endured to this day. The mountain town had a wonderful park with lots for the children to enjoy and tennis courts for my husband and me to bat the tennis ball around. There were some good neighbors next to us in a two-story house—a retired couple, he with colorful language and a big heart that said kids need to have candy, and she with a gentle laugh and home-baked cookies for the kids. Huge long apartment buildings from the mill town’s prosperous days, were across the street. I suppose they are still there. It was quite a place!
One thing my children and I learned in those days was to share and give with no expectation to receive. We’d even give one loaf of homemade bread to a neighbor or friend every time I baked, which was almost weekly. But we did receive. We received something almost imperceptible. We learned to accept people for who they are even though they may be different than us. We now know what acceptance of others really looks like, and that even one family can make a difference. No, it wasn’t where I would have picked to live, not that street anyway. Yet, I know we as a family were changed for the better by living there. Doing things God’s way is not always clear. It is in these situations that we draw near to Him and ask Him to guide our thinking or give us peace and to help us with the things we fear. True seeking of God takes restraint on our part, to ask, to wait, then to act. I didn’t always know what to do with my fear. I learned greater trust by living there.
Some of my oldest children’s fondest memories are from our five years living in that mountain village. They loved it. They remember their friends, climbing trees, clearing air with their bikes at the bike hill, playing with their neighborhood friends. They did not live with my fears. It was good to them. And, it was good to me.
N. L. Brumbaugh