Inner City Diary
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We could all learn something from Mona
November 25, 2001
Hazel said it with a straight face - and seemed surprised when we all busted up laughing.

"If Mona hadn't helped when my cat had her baby, I would have had a cow."

Last week Hazel came to the door of the church and asked for Mona. When I told her Mona wasn’t here, the look of disappointment was evident. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, and she replied, “Not really.” It wasn’t until later that Mona took me to Hazel’s apartment to see her new “baby.”

I’ve come to understand that there are times when I’m not the best helper. At first, that was a blow to the ego of a person that wanted to be everybody’s favorite helper. After all, I have training - with degrees, ordination and a large library to prove it. I’ve worked hard and have certificates and awards to show for it.

But in my neighbourhood, I’ve discovered there’s more to helping than degrees and certificates.

Virginia and I first met Mona in the neighbourhood about eighteen years ago. We hosted a discussion group in our home. When she finally gathered the courage to visit, she explained that she wouldn’t read the books the group was reading. She said she couldn’t really read. The last grade she attended was grade seven, and the highest grade level she completed was fifth grade. But that’s just the beginning…

Statistics militate against people like Mona. Poor education. Victimized by physical and sexual abuse. Married young. Carried, birthed and nurtured her husband’s five children. Stayed at home. Never got a license to drive, or learn, or live a life of her own. Soon after the birth of her 5th child, her husband drifted. She fought for him, but lost, and he left her with the kids. She applied for welfare. Worked to navigate the maze of poverty workers, bureaucrats and experts. She and her kids wrestled with the medical and dental issues. She struggled to understand bills and banks and schools.

She told us how awkward she felt in stores, at banks, in schools and government offices. “I know how people look at me. I can tell by their expressions when they figure they’re better than me.” You don’t have to be able to pronounce “condescension” to be able to feel it hit you in the face.

But Mona fought back. Explanations didn’t become excuses. Statistics be damned. She decided to be a good mom anyway. Nobody could take that from her. Single parent doing double duty. She started volunteering. Some said she lacked polished social graces, but everyone acknowledged her gracious and generous deeds. When she did a job, she took it personally. Her tasks became her turf, to defend as well as cultivate.

She started volunteering at New Life. She cared for kids and cleaned the building. She then got a part-time position as crossing guard and lunch program worker at a local elementary school. Volunteering on renovation projects turned into a full-time position as relational caretaker in our church-run shelter program. Besides taking care of the buildings, she gives care to the residents.

She’s finished welfare with a work ethic that’s second to none. Her kids are finishing school and getting jobs. Life isn’t perfect, but they’ve got a mom they’ll never forget, an example of which they’ll never be ashamed.

She still doesn’t have a resume, certificates or degrees, but last week she recommended a book to a friend. She started reading another. Three weeks ago she started driving a used van with her new drivers license.  One of her first trips was to drive a friend to the hospital. Maybe someday she’ll be able to buy her own home.

There are still days she wonders. If people with resumes and RRSP’s are somehow better than her. If she’ll ever be good enough never to be looked down on.

Twenty years ago I left seminary with a Masters degree. I graduated from the ivory tower to post-graduate learning in the streets and backlanes of Winnipeg. My education hasn’t stopped. I have new teachers, instructing and inspiring me by the way they live in our neighbourhood.

More people should learn from folks like Mona.
Copyright 2001
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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Contact info:
New Life Ministries
514 Maryland Street
Winnipeg, Mb R3G 1M5
(204) 775-4929
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