Ep. 7 -- 1971 - Part 2: HOME AND FAMILY – The Homeless Have Nothing Over Us
Listen to the podcast here.
In 1968, the Beatles came out with the song, “Yellow Submarine”, and the only part of the lyrics I remember is the phrase, “We all live in a yellow submarine”, whatever they meant by that. In 1971, we had our own version, “We all live in a yellow VW bus.” We were a close family…physically, for sure, and by the grace of God we were still together at the end of our year of Home Sweet Home on the Road.
I’ll be frank. Our lifestyle in 1971 would qualify us for inclusion in the great mass of the homeless today. We had no permanent residence, our living quarters a vehicle, and we depended on the kindness of others, oftentimes strangers, to provide us with a bed. But this was back in the days when the most likely description of us would have been we were a model hippy family. After all, what could be more hippy-ish than living in a yellow VW bus? All we lacked was to paint flowers all over our VW. That would have clenched the deal. We even had clothes rods installed and a chest of drawers in it to hold our clothes. When we left Arkansas in January, Abbie’s mother gave us a chest of drawers. We took out the middle seat of the VW, and we set the furniture against the side of the van behind the driver and bolted it down to the floor. When we started out on our travels the next day, it only took us one or two curves to realize that our first stop had to be a hardware store to buy hooks to keep the four drawers closed. Either that or we could have strapped the kids to the front of the chest of drawers. After all, this was before the days of mandated seat belts for passengers or special children’s seats, so the kids roamed the van, or laid down to nap as we travelled. It wasn’t a traffic violation back then not to have seat belts in the back or not have children buckled into special seats at all times. Even if it was, hopefully the statute of limitations has elapsed by now, 52 years later.
The bus contained the sum total of our personal belongings, except for household items for the kitchen, for example, that were stored at Rockford, Illinois, to be crated when we were ready to actually leave for Brazil. We visited the French Market in New Orleans in mid-April, and when we returned to the car, we noticed that the cassette recorder had been moved, but it was only at the motel that night that we realized all 10 of Abbie’s dresses hanging on the clothes rod near the side window had been stolen. Thieves had forced open the side window and extracted almost her entire wardrobe. At all the subsequent stops at churches, the ladies pitched in, bought material for Abbie, who used their sewing machines to make dresses, and others went out and bought dresses for her. Hadn’t Jesus warned us? “Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth, where thieves break through and steal.” He also said, “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on.” (Matthew 6.25 – KJV) I think Abbie could be excused for having some thoughts about what she would put on in this case. But as the Father clothes the lilies of the field, through dear Christian sisters, He also provided Abbie with plenty to wear.
Although we had shelter, either in the car as we travelled, or spending the nights in homes of strangers, the fact was, we were homeless. Rick, 2, seemed to be the most affected by the situation. For 10 weeks, from mid-June to the end of August, while I was taking the Summer Institute of Linguistics course offered by Wycliff Translators at the University of Washington, members of a church in Tacoma offered us one of their tourist cabins to live in. My entry for June 16 read: “Moved into tourist cabin. Bought food, which came to $10, leaving me three. It’s hard to believe that once we had a house and a life to ourselves; you don’t really miss it until you have it again.”
It was a 40-mile drive each way to Seattle every day. The free lodging compensated for the expense of the travel and wear and tear on the car, but this also meant I was not preaching at churches. You know the saying “No preachy sermon, no getty offering”. The offerings in those months were $181.50 for June, $205.67 for July, $134.75 for August and $90 for September. God, who used crows to feed Elijah, raised up a few faithful brothers and sisters who gave us $20 when we had nothing, or who took us to the supermarket to buy $20 of groceries, or who simply brought a sack of groceries to our door. If a cup of water given in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward, so much more will God reward those who gave far more than a cup of water. We have not seen these kind people since then, but I wrote down their names and if any of you are listening to or reading this and you gave us bread or a bed, or even just a buck or two to send us on our way in 1971, know that even more importantly, God has recorded your names and if He has blessed you in this life, He will do far more so in the age to come. We may not remember everyone, or be able to recall faces, but God will not forget your kindnesses.
It was a month or so after we had left Tacoma, and we were somewhere in California, when Rick asked, “When are we going back home?” In 10 weeks in a tiny tourist cabin, he had settled into a home that wasn’t bouncing down the highway. He wasn’t sleeping in a different bed every few nights as we stayed in church members’ homes. He needed stability. On Sunday morning, Dec. 5, 1971, Rick said something that led me to enter the following note in the margin of that day’s entry: “Rick needs a ‘home’. I’m praying that the Lord will care for him.”
That phrase flags a key issue we battled during our years on the mission field: our children. Years later, when Rick and Rachel were teenagers on the island of Madeira, the uncertainty of their education caused me more distress than any other problem I ever faced. I often woke up in a cold sweat, crying out to God for an answer. All I could do was tell the Lord, “I can do nothing. They are in Your hands. I trust You.” And I would go to sleep again.
This is part of the larger issue of FAMILY. As important as the children were to Abbie and me as parents, they were never our first priority. We did not put our children first; we put each other first (after the Lord, of course). The foundation of our family was the relationship between Abbie and me. Even in the first five years of our marriage before we went abroad, we never lived close to either of our parents. Raising the children was always on us. It was training for living abroad, where we were foreigners, culturally and linguistically, at least until we melded into the surroundings. In Brazil, we had the Montgomery family next door for almost two years before they returned to the US. Then we were on our own for a year and a half. There were church members there, of course, but when we went to Madeira in 1976, there was no church, there were no Christians we could fellowship with. Mission agencies usually make a point of not sending just one missionary or family to work unaccompanied, but we were not normal missionaries. All our lives, Abbie and I have always been our own best friends. We were always each other’s spiritual and emotional support. One time, a lady said to Abbie, “You and Ed are inseparable. You’re always together.” Because of the way she said it, almost as a complaint that she couldn’t get me off to myself, Abbie took that remark as a compliment. When we visited the English Church library on the island as a family, when Joy was around 2 and Rachel, the oldest about 15, some of our British friends were overheard saying, “They don’t act like parents and children. They act like friends.”
I don’t have statistics to justify what I’m going to say next. I base it on almost 45 years on the mission field observing the careers of missionaries of various denominational groups. The lack of financial support and resources did not appear to be the main cause for missionaries leaving the field. Compared to the support other missionaries received, our support was scarcely above poverty level. It is the Lord who will judge each of His servants, but we knew of families who lasted one term, 3 or 4 years, or 1 year, or in one case, only 2 weeks on the field, and based on what we knew, the problems were interpersonal in the family and not due to the lack of financial resources. I’m sure many times concerns for the children were a driving force in the decision to leave the field. Whatever the details of each case, I am certain that family relationships overrode financial considerations, either positively or negatively.
Only in the last few years on the field did we have a more stable income. We never had a lot of money, but we had the Lord and we had each other. In 1971, we didn’t have a home, but we were a family. The kids were a source of comfort. Usually. Here’s one entry in July 1971, when we were living in the tourist cabin. I wrote:
"Abbie was cleaning the house and fell on the sweeper and hurt her knee. Rick (2) came to tell me that Mama was crying, but when I didn't do anything, he went back. Rachel (3) then added her words of comfort and encouragement, 'Well, she'll live.'"
As a family, Abbie and I always sought to present a united front in dealing with the children. There was no chance of their playing one of us against the other. And that united front extended to our mission work. She and I have always been a team, and we still are. God put us together because we each have certain gifts. I am smart enough to know that Abbie is smarter than I am in certain areas. Not only smarter, but spiritually in tune in ways I may not be. This was true before we went to Brazil. It was true in Brazil. It was true in Portugal. It is still true.
The 24,000 miles of very close contact in the front seat of a VW bus, and always staying in someone else’s home was a real test for our relationship. By late April, and after only 8,000 miles, I wrote, “Abbie says I haven’t always been sweet lately.” Living every day on other people’s schedules undermined our relationship. In early June, I noted simply, “No togetherness again today.” These are glimpses into what would be a fundamental aspect of our future missionary service.
And as fundamental as family was, we still had to pay the bills and meet expenses. 1971 was a training period we needed for making financial decisions in the years ahead. In January crocodiles were interjected into the discussion regarding a key financial decision; in September our finances were dependent on cucumbers. Over the years the pendulum of our financial situation swung from one extreme to the other, differences as great as those between crocodiles and cucumbers.