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Spent in Hopes of a Tomorrow

Spent in Hopes of a Tomorrow

For all the ills of social media, occasionally something worthwhile appears in my feed. A teacher I have known for many years posted about some training in which she’s engaged. As a part of the training, she was asked to play an online game called Spent. You can find it at www.playspent.org.

Spent is designed to help players get a sense of what it is like to be poor in America. The game was designed by McKinney, a prominent advertising firm with clients like Popeye’s and the NFL, in partnership with Urban Ministries of Durham.

The scenario is that you have lost your job, and you are down to your last $1,000. The object of the game is to provide for your family for 30 days without exhausting all your funds. The game provides opportunities to earn money, as well as options for shaving expenses, but players also must address realistic needs to remain in the game.

I played the game twice.

The first time I lasted for 23 days, but if it was my life, I would have starved. The small number of groceries I purchased would have allowed me to eat only once per day. The second time, I assumed wisdom gained in the first round would have given me an advantage, but the game ended for me after 17 days.

In both iterations, I had the choice to work as an admin with a temp agency, a warehouse worker packing and lifting boxes, or as wait staff in a casual restaurant. These are essentially the same low-paying, unreliable choices the poor in Memphis have.

Next, I needed a place to live.

The rent for a tiny apartment 50 miles away was $600 per month, but travel expenses were $160. To live in town, rent skyrocketed to $850 per month with travel expenses of only $5, but remember I only had a thousand to spend.

Not unlike the game, the average size for a two bedroom apartment in Orange Mound is 836 square feet and the rent is $703 per mo. Whether the location has standard appliances like a stove and refrigerator is a roll of the dice. In the game, I had to sell many of my belongings because they wouldn’t fit in my tiny apartment. I made $150.

With $360 to spend and only 5 days into the month, my pet became very ill. Medicine would have cured it, but I couldn’t afford it if I wanted to eat. I made the gut-wrenching choice to put my pet to sleep for only $50. Medicine would have cost $400.

The second time I played, my grandfather passed away – the loss of a family member is something we all experience and can’t usually anticipate. The difference in the game and my actual situation is that in the game, I had to choose between flying to the funeral for $350, driving for $75, or missing the funeral. I chose to drive, bringing my funds down to $286, and it was only the 6th day of the month.

 If you have followed the happenings at My Cup of Tea for any length of time, you know we have experienced more than our share of death. Many of the ladies have been in the even more difficult position of being responsible for funeral expenses but unable to pay them.

Each time I played I was met with a $250 bill with an immediate due date. My options? Pay it and leave myself with only $36 for the remainder of the month or ignore and hope to be able to catch it up later. This has been a common scenario among the women we serve and a primary reason we maintain an emergency fund. I chose to ignore the bill as poor women in our community often must do, which digs the debt hole deeper and destroys personal credit.

Things aren’t all bad, though. Someone gave me a hand-me-down coat to replace the tattered one I was wearing. I have also been invited to a free concert with friends. The problem is that I have a child and will need to pay a sitter at least $30. Since it is only the eighth day of the month, I decided to stay home. Opportunities for the poor in our community to socialize and enjoy activities - something we all need to lower stress and for stronger mental health - are cost prohibitive.

In both attempts at Spent, my car broke down. Low income people cite lack of reliable transportation as a primary impediment to improving their financial situation. At My Cup of Tea, it is an almost weekly occurrence for someone to be unable to make it to work because of a car problem or lack of any transportation to get there. Our emergency fund has paid for countless car parts, mechanic fees, and tires.

With less than $200, I had to buy groceries. There were 15 days left in the month and more bills to pay, so I made careful but not healthy choices. I bought fish sticks, peanut butter, and beans for protein, instead of chicken. Ramen noodles and powdered drink mix helped me stretch. I bought eggs, milk, and bread, too. My child ate breakfast and lunch at school, but I was only able to eat about once per day. Food insecurity is a legitimate threat to the low income and the main reason we provide lunch daily at My Cup of Tea with the generous support of volunteers.

We’ve written often in this blog and elsewhere about the plight of low income women in Orange Mound. What we have shared is not exclusive to Orange Mound. If you didn’t know we were writing about our neighborhood, the anecdotes could have occurred in South or North Memphis, Binghampton, Frayser, Springdale, and numerous other communities inside the City. Spent provides a miniscule taste of the chaos faced by those living in poverty and the poor list of “solutions” available to address the barrage of crises. Unlike the My Cup of Tea ladies and thousands in our community like them, if the Spent scenario becomes too difficult, we can ex out.

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Sermon on The Mound

Sermon on The Mound

The Beatitudes, recorded by the apostles Luke and Matthew, ignited the hopes of the crowd on the hill as Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God’s open door for the ones in His midst.  They were the unlikeliest. They were underexposed to the Laws of the Torah and overexposed to the vicissitudes of life.

“Blessed,” He said, “are the poor in Spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

My Cup of Tea boldly operates within that Kingdom and invites prospective employees, volunteers, and guests to join us. In 2013, when we began our mission in Orange Mound all but three of our ladies began their employment with little, if any, Biblical education. Daily exposure to the Word, and to our manager Debbie H.’s irresistible witness of Christ has enriched each lady. No longer is anyone poor of Spirit or shy of the truth of God’s love.

For all who have mourned, God is accessible, His presence is available, and guidance to get there has come.  It was life-changing when Jesus preached and remains the best news today.

The apostles and disciples of the Gospel for the last 2000 years have shared the way, and Orange Mound has a vast citizenship of members within it.
               
“Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on,” in the words of songwriter Paul Simon.

Blessed as well are the crushed ones, like one My Cup of Tea lady who recently slept in her car until we became aware of her situation. Her family has turned its back, but her friends and volunteers at the House have been helping her with support and offerings. Catherine T. taught her how to make jewelry to sell. She keeps her Bible open, and she calls herself blessed.

Blessed are the poor. All the ladies have struggled financially, which is what brought them to My Cup of Tea. One of the ladies, though, generously tithes her income every two weeks and has kept the payments for her bankruptcy intact and on time. She has Ginny N. to help her prepare her Bible lessons, which she has been honored to teach among her peers at her church.

“My heart is full, and though I can’t explain why my budget is working as never before, now it is. I have money at the end of the month now without fail.”

She is rich in the knowledge and experience of God’s economy.

Blessed are the former drug addicts and the abandoned, like another woman. 

“I have learned so much!” she opines. “I was in a very deep dark place, when I came here, but I am living in the light now, and I am getting my life back, the life I once had.”

She answers, “Blessed!” every time I ask her how she is. She is beautiful in spirit, drug free, and thriving.

Blessed is the underemployed, and the unemployable.  Two of our ladies are functionally illiterate. Before coming to us, they earned only minimum wage.  They hold an important and key role in our production process and are irreplaceable in our hearts and fellowship. They bless us and in their presence is an aura of joy. Their income is meeting rent and necessities.

Blessed are the emotionally starved, like our newest hire.  She came to us from foster care and unspeakable abuse from her childhood. Eight “mothers” here immediately adopted her, prayed for her, and lovingly coached her in caring for her new baby girl. She has tasted the blessing and remains in our prayers. Though she doesn’t know it quite yet, she is the apple of God’s eye.

The blessings rain down, and the floods of praise rise up.  Much of the flow of the Spirit within our walls is related to our volunteers - sisters whom we have collected and kept close. We don’t say enough about the ministry they bring to Orange Mound.  Twenty ladies bring a full lunch every weekday and have served us for 10 years. With the bounty, we have leftovers and food for the evening meal at home.

All our ladies have a close connection to at least one of the sisters who resources them with ideas and advice when asked.  Time and trust have afforded all of us authentic relationships.  There are many more sisters who donate furniture to L. Cool’s enterprise. She refurbishes and sells with the help of Shelley H. Cool has saved enough now to make an application for one of the new houses to be built soon down the block from The House.

There are experts in their fields, such as Robin B., Tracey S., and Sandy H. who give time and treasure to all.  Each has brought a professional offering that none of the ladies would be able to access or afford.

There are gardeners who coach and labor in our vegetable plantings such as Macon I., Marynell T., and Susan L. They help plant and harvest and water and weed on the hot days of summer, always encouraging, and now rejoicing in the skills the ladies have gained.

There are advisors in finance, like Paige P.  and many who shop with us and help market our tea. Some help with social media, some assist in social courtesy, and some lavish hospitality when we are out in the city in unfamiliar spaces.

The mount where this sermon was preached is not all that different from The Mound where our crowd of women is living today.  The message is the same. The sisters who help lead us resemble the apostles He chose.  All are giving their resources and genuinely loving their neighbor in Orange Mound.   I have said in this column more than once that we must know our neighbor to love her, and love always requires action.  The Gospel is advancing to the ends of the earth, as well as to the center of our City of Blues. The irony remains. The blessed poor are rich, and those giving away the riches are most blessed.

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A Mother's Hope

A Mother's Hope

Mother’s Day has come and gone again. The social media feeds are still filled with photos of mothers and accolades for all that mothers do – and rightly so.

We talk a lot about mothers when we discuss My Cup of Tea because the women working here are mothers. They represent children from eight months to over forty years old. Collectively their experiences encapsulate nearly every high and low a mother can experience. They know the joy of graduations, marriages, births, new jobs, sobriety, and healing. At the other end of the spectrum, they’ve lived through their children’s struggles with injury, addiction, arrest, imprisonment, and illness. Some have even survived the death of a child. For many, the well of despair has been dug so deep that it is hard to fathom that anything cleansing, refreshing, or revitalizing could come from it. And yet, they still hope.

My mother had the gift of hope too. Her life was a difficult one, but if she were living, she would say that her challenges paled in comparison to the ladies at My Cup of Tea. Mom was the middle child of five and grew up in our small town with limited opportunities. Money was tight in her home and throughout her entire life she labored just to make ends meet. She married young and became a mother at eighteen. Mom remarried when I was ten and became a survivor of physical and emotional abuse for the next twenty years. After finally escaping marriage to my stepfather, mom struggled with mental and physical illness for the rest of her life. She died at sixty-eight from complications of diabetes and heart disease.

Despite the hardships, what I remember most about my mother is that she was always hopeful. Mom had the innate ability to see a positive future for my sister and me, even when she couldn’t see one for herself. Mom was determined to encourage us with that hope, help us grasp the opportunities, and be around for as long as possible to see us thrive. It is that quality that I miss about my mother the most.

Perhaps the ability to instill hope is inherent in mothers. If it is naturally there inside all mothers, then it seems that the ability to tap into it and convincingly convey it is harder now. Many people are choosing recklessness and violence because they have lost hope. They can’t imagine a future where their lives are any better. Fundamental to the purpose of My Cup of Tea is providing tangible examples of the byproducts of hope – jobs, meals, safety, community, and knowledge about the Source of it all.

Christians believe that eternal hope comes from faith in Christ. We share and reinforce that message in daily, voluntary devotionals and Bible studies with the My Cup of Tea ladies. But even the most devout when confronted with tragedy and prolonged grief strain to see the Hope. So, we thank God for his mercy, for the everlasting hope in Christ, and for giving us mothers to help us see it.

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Necessity of Community

Necessity of Community

Poverty among us has a far-reaching and a long-lasting impact on the physical and mental health of the women we see in Orange Mound. Vast complications lead to social isolation that is often self-imposed and unfortunately leaves struggling women without a supportive community.

Recently three Orange Mound ladies began orientation classes with Diane, our Work Life Instructor. The several weeks of classes she teaches provide a glimpse of our philosophy, chemistry, and benefits.  Employment at My Cup of Tea comes with pay, delicious lunches, fellowship, guest speakers, garden plots, generous gifts, advocates, rides, and abundant freshly steeped world-class tea.  We also furnish tools without charge, business guidance, and encouragement to our ladies who want to attempt entrepreneurship within their personal interests and skill sets.

Last week one of the three ladies in training suffered an insulin reaction after class. Several of our employees rushed to her aid with fruit juice and prevented a potential life and death scenario. Diabetes, as well as other chronic health issues, is no stranger to us. Several have successfully lived in the disciplines of managing it for years.  We prayed for her, she stayed for lunch and fellowship, and returned the next day for class. While we ministered to her, we learned that diabetes was only part of her physical and mental health needs. The long list included a serious surgery for which she was preparing.

Two of our ladies explained to her with compassion and empathy that a job with us is secondary to her pursuit of healthful choices and a primary care physician’s care. We assured her we would pray and pointed her to the Orange Mound Christ Community Health Clinic. We told her to come back with her doctor’s permission and resume her place in our embrace. She is truly seen by us, and she knows hope and a brighter future with us is in view.

In attending class, she had benefitted from the emotional support, skills-building, and stimulation of genuine friendships that we cultivate daily.  She needed the community even more than the pay. 

The significance of community cannot be overstated. Single mothers without trusted neighbors and stable family members are missing the vital support to navigate life’s complexities and increase resilience.

When we began our mission, I mistakenly believed that there was a network of knowledge, available assistance, and many comraderies in Orange Mound. But most of the ladies who came to the House for assistance were human silos living in fear behind double-locked doors and boarded windows. We are created for social interaction. That simply is not happening among many women who live in Orange Mound.

However, that is not the case on our corner of Semmes and Carnes. Security and trusted friendship, optimism, and voices resound within. Our ladies share rides, advice, recipes, and burdens.  They make plans to be together on the weekends.  They celebrate milestones and new babies. They grieve with one another in the illnesses and losses that are common to all.  The Lord has designed our community and necessity fits our broken lives together into a body of courageous and valued women.  The sum of our caring parts far exceeds what we can do independently. We are walking in His light arm in arm.

We want more women to experience our loving atmosphere and have invited the one who is not able to be hired yet to return soon and be a contributor to the growing impact we have within and without the walls of the House in Orange Mound.  “We are changing lives, one cup at a time”, is often said. We are also changing a neighborhood one lovingly resourced woman at a time.

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Taming Tensions with Tea

Taming Tensions with Tea

Anna Maria Russell, the seventh Duchess of Bedford established the tradition of afternoon tea sometime around 1840, according to the British Museum. The Duchess ordered tea, bread and butter, and cake to be served in her room every afternoon to stave off that “sinking feeling” she experienced between lunch and dinner. Eventually, the Duchess began inviting friends for “tea and walking the fields” and before long afternoon tea was all the rage among the British elite.

One of the enduring characteristics of afternoon tea is the relational aspect of it. Afternoon tea included women and their closest friends enjoying intimate conversation away from public scrutiny. While no longer as frequent as in the Victorian Era, afternoon tea still evokes images of steaming, aromatic tea served in dainty floral cups, petite fours and cucumber sandwiches on silver trays, and copious amounts of casual conversation. There is an unspoken rule that everyone in attendance must be on their best behavior – something we need more of today.

At the House, we regularly host meetings. Sometimes the management staff gathers or our Board of Directors. Other times we meet with community partners, prospective donors, or vendors. Our meetings are important, but rarely ever high stakes. Unsurprisingly, before any meeting starts, we offer participants a cup of tea. At that moment, the mood in the room improves. The parties may be friendly and the subject matter of the meeting encouraging, but the offer of tea and eventually sipping it together, takes the camaraderie to new heights. Business is addressed, but there is a premium placed on knowing one another better, asking about family, or discussing the unseasonable weather. No one ever leaves unhappy after drinking a fine cup of tea.

But why? Perhaps, it’s like aroma therapy when the scent of warm spices or calming herbs waft through the air. Or could it be the sensation of a tasty, steamy beverage soothing the body and mind as it gently flows from the lips over the tongue saturating the empty places inside? Or maybe it really is the subconscious saying, “We’re having tea, so be especially pleasant.” Whatever “it” is, offering someone a cup of tea just hits different, as the kids say, than asking, “Can I get you some coffee or water?”

Who among us hasn’t lamented the fact that our world has become relationally disconnected, disrespectful, and divisive? We cancel those whose opinion differs from ours, or we offer opinions from an unbridled tongue and devoid of grace. One-upmanship is the objective of most discussions rather than discovering common ground. In fact, compromise is viewed as a weakness and a lack of moral fortitude. Perhaps most concerning is that for many of us the most significant, heartfelt “conversation” we’ve had in a while happened via text message.

What if the Constitution required Congress and the President to craft policy over freshly steeped Earl Grey, biscuits, jam, and clotted cream? Imagine if Twitter and Facebook were replaced by subject-driven tea parties where people sipped tea, ate shortbread, and discussed the issues of the day – Social TEA-dia.

What if we ventured outside of our neighborhoods to a place where the people look different than us and have far fewer material resources. And what if we invited them to learn about tea, enjoy tea together, make a living sharing tea with others, and commune together in a place free of judgement. Too farfetched, right?

There is a desperate need for person-to-person conversations, mutual understanding, and civility in our culture. April is National Afternoon Tea Month. What a perfect time to invite a friend, colleague, or that neighbor you haven’t met for tea.

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Passion and Pain

Passion and Pain

This is Holy Week in the Christian calendar, and we who are recipients of God’s salvation gift, which is grace by faith, reflect on Jesus’s Passion Week of physical, emotional, and spiritual pain. The sham of a trial, the mocking of His deity, flogging, humiliation, public stripping, and exposure that He endured to cancel our sin and connect us to God is the focus of our study and discussions. Though no one can imagine the degree of His suffering, some can come closer than others.

The ladies at My Cup of Tea are too familiar with both extreme physical and emotional pain. Chronic physical suffering is the ubiquitous menace among the ladies in Orange Mound.  All but two have never had a primary care physician until coming to The House and learning of Christ Community Health Services. Generations of using old remedies when pharmacies were beyond walking distance have kept few healthy and often have proved to be impediments to wellness.  Without physical health maintenance, the accrued damage to joints and organs is now irreversible.

Dental pain is often unbearable and sadly inevitable. With no consistent history of dental checkups and little knowledge of the importance of dental hygiene, abscesses are commonplace.  Several of the ladies have pulled their own teeth rather than face the dentist provided by the dental clinics to which we have taken them. Many are afraid of the Novocain needle. With their missing teeth, dentures are ill-fitted, uncomfortable, and of little help in chewing.

For the knees, elbows, and other joints, the tardy application of braces has brought temporary relief, but no cures without surgery. Medicaid and Medicare have been available to some, but most haven’t known how to access the benefits. The default when in need of care is to spend hours in the ER.

These ladies know real physical pain and are tough in its unrelenting presence. They know less about health maintenance and the functions of their organs, lymph systems, bones, and joints than one might expect. We don’t play doctor, but we treat minor wounds and allay fears of the unknown often preventing unnecessary late night ER visits.

Encouraging probiotics and healthful choices in diet is another new concept for many.  We grow many vegetables in our gardens, we juice donated fruits into healthy smoothies, and nutritious lunches are provided daily.

Recently a spring cleaning day of carrying wood branches to the curb, washing porch furniture, and harvesting from the winter garden was exhausting and required frequent breaks for rest. The ladies do not have the physical endurance to match women their age who have exercised regularly.  Poverty doesn’t condone aerobics, weightlifting, or Pilates.

Many of us will reverently focus during Holy Week on Christ’s torture on Calvary without a personal reference to His pain, for we have never had such anguish. Modern day pain is addressed with drugs and anesthesia. Recovery is quicker in this century as never before. Identifying with Jesus’s physical pain is impossible if emergency medical assistance is within call. Most of us cannot begin to conjure the pain He suffered on our behalf because we have had easy and affordable access to doctors and clinics and medicines to numb us in our suffering.

The women at My Cup of Tea, however, have a closer bond with Good Friday’s august torment of our Lord, for they have known annoying and acute pain with only minimal relief. Perhaps loving their Savior for sparing them the eternal pain of sin is theirs in more depth, appreciation, and respect than ours.

Easter celebrates the purpose, plan, and perfection of God’s goodness. Christ’s pain was deposited, His body given new life, and the redemption of the seeming injustice of His suffering bought my life to be resurrected with His. He knows well our pain today, and He lives walking in pace and place not only to intercede but to comfort us.  He experienced the abandonment and judgement lasting on the cross to the death. In His humanity He endured, but in His divinity, He conquered death and sin for those who find Him eternally relevant and irresistible.    

Pain is less today because of access to modern meds, but pain-free and eternal joy is assured because He lives.

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Seeking the Welfare of the City

Seeking the Welfare of the City

Jeremiah 29 4-7 is a message from God to the Jewish exiles in Babylon – a place where none of them expected to be. It was a place foreign to what most of them had ever known. Despite their circumstances, God told them to, 

“Seek the welfare of the city to which I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (v.7) 

 

He also said, 

“Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their produce. (v.5) 

 

Doing this work was probably not so easy for the Israelites in Babylon, and it’s not so easy today if your address is Orange Mound. 

 A woman below the poverty line who is a homeowner is a rarity in Orange Mound. We have three homeowners among our workforce at the tea company. They have pierced an invisible but all too well-known barrier. 

 Pride among our three who have bought their homes keeps me smiling and hopeful. One woman planted tulips this winter and is watching them lengthen and bloom. One is developing a workspace for her sewing enterprise. Another has redecorated her living room with window shades and upholstered furniture with the contributions of My Cup of Tea volunteers.   

I rejoice that these ladies have loyalty to Orange Mound and want to be a part of its renaissance. They are seeking the shalom of our community. Shalom is a word we commonly translate as “peace,” but in Hebrew it means so much more. The person wishing shalom to another is saying something similar to, “may you be filled with prosperity, good health, and peace of mind.” These are the ideals we desire for Orange Mound and the broader community. 

However, it is also apparent to us, but not often in print, that the population of Orange Mound abounds in single-mother families, which are most often lacking in financial support from the fathers of their children. With empathy and respect, we cover them with prayer and try to guide the majority of our ladies who are single moms as they move from rental to rental within and beyond Orange Mound.  They are searching for safety, affordability, and if possible functioning utilities. 

A mother with five children prays for a three-bedroom home within those parameters, but more likely can only afford a two-bedroom house.  Her daughters will sleep with her. Broken windows, holes in the floors, leaks in the roofs and pipes, and infestations of rats and insects are ubiquitous. Landlords are often out of state or purposely impossible to reach. 

For this reason and others, the shalom of our city is more elusive for the majority of our employees who are forced to rent their homes. If shalom is peace of mind, prosperity, and the like, the condition of housing in their community inhibits its attainment. Memphis pride abounds among us who don’t have to worry about such obstacles. We ignore the national critics and the sullied reputation of our city as a result of the high crime rate.  We brag about food, basketball, music, sunsets, and so much more. But these sources of our 901 affinities are not on the radars of our renters. 

Those of us living outside of Orange Mound choose our homes quite differently. Our neighborhoods are selected more for proximity to schools, work, grocery stores, and entertainment. The lack of a three-car garage and a swimming pool might be a deal breaker. Houses are bought within our communities for square footage, curb appeal, demographics, and modernity. 

However, the Lord says to all of us who call Him ours, that this is not our home. We are sojourners, exiles, and His.  He calls us to beautify and sanctify the footprint of our location.  I have said before, there is theology in geography. 

We want this mighty band of women to hammer down their tent pegs into the soil of the several blocks of this neighborhood.  We value these ladies who will model stability, neighborliness, and pride in a reformation of a neighborhood that for the time being is in need of hope. We are assured by the message in Jeremiah that “[seeking] the welfare of the city” is the work we all must do. 

We at My Cup of Tea are invested in an “orphan” community called Orange Mound which is the apple of God’s eye. 

 

 

 

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Women are History

Women are History

The Memphis weather is schizophrenic. A blanket of chartreuse pollen covers the cars left in the elements overnight. The Bradford Pears, Dogwoods, and Daffodils are robustly blooming, while teeny green buds are peeking out from the branches of hardwoods across the city. These are sure signs that spring is near, but something else important is happening too.

March is National Women’s History Month.

In 1987, Congress enacted a perpetual declaration that March would be National Women’s History Month. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter recognized a week in the month as National Women’s History Week. In announcing the designation, Carter said this:

From the first settlers who came to our shores, from the first American Indian families who befriended them, men and women have worked together to build this nation. Too often the women were unsung and sometimes their contributions went unnoticed. But the achievements, leadership, courage, strength and love of the women who built America was as vital as that of the men whose names we know so well.”

Carter was and is correct that women have made some of the most significant contributions to our nation with either delayed recognition or in some cases no recognition at all. But without minimizing the contributions of prominent women in our nation’s history, we should also remember that their achievements were built on a foundation laid by other women whose names, hard work, and dedication will never be known to the masses. These are “ordinary” women – mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, teachers, church leaders, nurses, and caretakers – who invested in girls, other women, and communities.

Orange Mound Women

We’ve often told you how extraordinary the My Cup of Tea women are. Each overcoming enormous personal tragedy and struggle to fight for a better future for themselves, their children, grandchildren, and neighborhood. One woman is presently caring for her life partner who is dying of cancer. Another is the primary caretaker for a special needs brother who is also diabetic. One of our grandmothers stepped-up to gain custody of her special needs granddaughter. Still others have overcome addiction and the streets believing there is a better way. Yet, despite the challenges, they are quick to reach into shallow pockets where they always find something to give a sister in need. They’re choosing to grow roots deeper in Orange Mound, rather than relocating to other parts of the city. They are invested in the success of My Cup of Tea, not only for what it can do for them, but for how it can help stabilize their beloved Orange Mound.

East Memphis Sisters

Serving beside the Orange Mound women are their East Memphis sisters. Most of these sisters have likely had an easier existence than their My Cup of Tea counterparts. They are better resourced and financially secure. They have a network of friends, acquaintances, and experiences that make navigating life simpler. Most have skills and education that have led them to succeed in homemaking, business, or community engagement. They could have remained in the relative safety and comfort of their East Memphis enclave, but instead they answered a call to serve people whose culture and experiences are vastly different than their own in a neighborhood they have most certainly been told is unsafe. Yet, they came anyway, and are still coming. They bring lunches, plant gardens, package tea, sew aprons, refinish furniture, and donate time and money. The most important things they do are listen, learn, and befriend their Orange Mound sisters without judgment.

The Backbone

If the Orange Mound women and their East Memphis sisters are the “hands and feet” of My Cup of Tea, then Debbie is the backbone. Debbie is the operations manager and resident tea expert. It is her knowledge, work ethic, and genuine love of the My Cup of Tea women that coalesce to make the operation successful. Debbie is accounting, human resources, supply chain and logistics, and sales and marketing combined in a single human. She is fiercely organized and committed to stellar customer service. However, Debbie’s most important roles are counselor, teacher, and friend. The My Cup of Tea women know that they can bring any problem or struggle to Debbie. She listens, guides, advises, and prays for and with them. Some even call her Momma D.

The Visionary

Many of the notable women in American History were visionaries. At My Cup of Tea, our visionary is our founder Carey Moore, though she never claims the vision as her own. Carey is quick to say that the idea for this social enterprise in Orange Mound came from the Lord. Through fervent prayer, biblical wisdom, and an indefatigable spirit, Carey leads and inspires all associated with My Cup of Tea. Carey is always reading, learning, and applying new information to the mission of the organization. When a problem presents itself, Carey in undeterred by its complexity or unsavoriness. Her goal is always to resolve it with the best interests of others in mind.

Women Making History

For all the sweat, toil, and prayer of the last eight years, it is all but certain that no woman in any role with My Cup of Tea will be lauded in the annals of American, Tennessee, or Memphis history. But it is almost equally certain that there will be women in the future who will rise to the level of historical figure because of the impact of My Cup of Tea and its women. Perhaps a granddaughter or great granddaughter will achieve scientific, business, or political success because their grandmother or great grandmother broke the cycle of generational poverty through her employment at My Cup of Tea. Or maybe a young woman, because her family moved into one of the new, affordable homes to be built on Semmes Street, will have her own room where she studies, excels in school, and becomes a great American author.  Whoever she is, whatever the accomplishment, or whenever it occurs, the My Cup of Tea women are helping to make history everyday and for that we are grateful.

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The Planting

The Planting

Orange Mound should be a priority for historians who study Black History. It is here that African American survivors of the “yellow fever” epidemic applied their cultural courage and built a community for themselves.  Within the boundaries of this all-Black neighborhood within the majority white city of Memphis during the turn of the 20th century, the injustices of the Jim Crow South had less traction.

It is here that Black Memphians built and owned homes, inspiring post-civil war African Americans to look toward one of their 1st Black Meccas. It became a community of inspiration for the progeny of freed slaves in the U.S. and an economic prototype for progress and pride.  Everything to prosper a family and a neighborhood was offered within its boundary. Civic pride was certifiable with good reason.

A tract of land from the Deaderick 5000-acre plantation was scored into affordable plots for purchase in 1889, and a neighborhood in what is now the center of Memphis became a haven. It became, “a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor and beauty from the ashes,”(Isaiah 61:3) … in the very place where 100 slaves that worked the Deaderick farm are buried.

Segregated from the larger city to the northwest, Orange Mound was populated with new homes, schools, churches, theaters, parks, fire departments, libraries, medical clinics, and businesses.  Future teachers, doctors, and lawyers graduated from Melrose High School and brought inspiration to those watching and thriving within its boundaries.  A new refrain was written in the underground music genres that were also thriving in the city.

So, what happened?  Orange Mound has lost its luster and has an unseemly reputation now.

 A complicated web of circumstances precipitated the decline of this once fabled community. Following a major civil rights victory in the late sixties that required the City of Memphis to desegregate parks, the City resisted by closing the swimming pool that had been a gathering place since 1928. The City eventually sold the property to a for-profit business and filled-in the pool. This, among other events, limited opportunities for Orange Mound neighbors to gather and strengthen the sense of community that had existed.

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a seminal event for the nation, the city, and Orange Mound. King was known to frequent barbershops and restaurants in the community, and a group known as the Orange Mound Mobilizers served as his body guards. Immediately following the killing of King, parts of Park Avenue burned, and the national guard occupied the neighborhood.

Only a few years later, the rising influence of the illicit drug trade and the expansion of gangs found its way to Orange Mound. Many middle income families chose to move east to more affluent neighborhoods presumed to be safer.

We are more than 50 years past the glory days, but Isaiah once again gives me hope that a renaissance is possible.

 

“They shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.”(Isaiah 61:4)

 

This past Saturday, another chapter is being added to the Orange Mound history book. United Housing is announcing the plans for 4 single-family homes that will be built on Semmes Street on property previously owned by My Cup of Tea and across the street from our original location. There will be more to come. A new vision is taking form, and prayers are being answered.  The roots of pride in this neighborhood are still embedded in the soil, and the first families of Orange Mound are in the great cloud of witnesses encouraging us onward.  The neighborhood’s legacy is intact.  More Black history is in the making in Orange Mound.

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Leaning In

Leaning In

Leaning In

Every woman currently employed at My Cup of Tea is a Black woman who is also a mother. Many are grandmothers. In many ways, they are like all mothers and grandmothers when it comes to concern for their children.

Mothers and grandmothers worry about whether their children have enough to eat. Do they have clean clothes to wear? Do they have good friends and are those friends positive influences? Are they getting a good education? How are they responding to the temptations to experiment with drugs, alcohol, or to engage in other risky behaviors? And there are so many others.

That’s where the paths diverge.

Black mothers and grandmothers have a unique and unenviable burden to bear. Each time one of their children leaves home, they must worry about whether that child will die a violent death. The fear is palpable, and it’s rational.

The Centers for Disease Control names homicide as the leading cause of death among young Black boys and men ages 1 to 44. A more recent study from the University of Michigan is more specific and ranks use of force by law enforcement as the sixth leading cause of death for young, Black men. What is clear is that a young, Black man is 2.5 to 3 times more likely to be murdered than young men of other racial groups.

In the wake of the Tyre Nichols killing, the My Cup of Tea women grieve with RowVaughn Wells, Tyre’s mother. But there is no shock or hint of surprise. The violent death of young, Black men, and with increasing frequency, young, Black women, is all too common.

“Everyone’s already decided that we [African Americans] weren’t brought up right, can’t read and write, don’t want an education or a job, and just want to be out here doing the wrong things,” one My Cup of Tea woman recently said. “It’s not true. Some of us…a lot of us are trying to better ourselves.”

It’s because of this perception that the same woman says she had “the talk” with her children. “The talk” she refers to is one mostly exclusive to the parents and guardians of Black boys and girls. It is about racial bias from authority figures like law enforcement and how to protect themselves when approached. Children are given instructions like: don’t make any sudden moves; always keep your hands where they can be seen; never argue or disagree, even if you are right; don’t wear your hood; and keep your hands out of your pockets. And “the talk” is not a one-time occurrence. Most African American children are regularly reminded about this special set of rules exclusive to young people with black and brown skin.

My Cup of Tea began in 2015. It was less than a year after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. That means the African American women of Orange Mound who work here and the Caucasian women of East Memphis and Shelby County who volunteer here have served side-by-side through the tragedies of George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, and so many others over the last eight years.

In the days immediately following one of these high-profile killings, sometimes there have been frank conversations about race and prejudice. At other times, a simple squeeze of a hand or pat on the shoulder acknowledges that the situation is harder than one can express. What we have come to realize is that we have an answer for many of the problems My Cup of Tea women face like an unpaid bill, a case of the flu, a ride to and from work, or an empty refrigerator. But this, the reality that we are losing so many black and brown men and boys to violence, some at the hands of those sworn to protect, is something for which we have no answers.

Our volunteer sisters have been shocked, unaware of the reality of their black and brown sisters. They had never heard the term "driving while Black" and found it hard to believe, but are committed to praying for justice and reform.

All of us empathize as best we can but lack the heart-rending experience to truly understand. So, together we lean into what we know and who we know: our belief that God understands the things we don’t (Psalm 147:5); He hears and answers prayer (John 15:7); God heals the brokenhearted (Psalm 147:3); and we are all made in His image (Genesis 1:27).

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Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning

Verses from Isaiah 58 and 61 have been motivational for many of us who are engaged in relationship resourcing in Orange Mound. Examples that confirm and convict us include:

“Loose the chains of injustice, spend yourselves for the hungry; satisfy the needs of the oppressed; bind up the broken hearted; bestow the oil of gladness instead of mourning; provide for those who grieve”, and there are many more.

None of us can perfectly fulfill these directives, but there is a slow and welcoming determination in the right direction among us all.

Last week was engulfed by sadness for our little community of Orange Mound women.  Roz’s brother died suddenly in a rehabilitation facility. Though she has been Robert’s caregiver for his entire life, Roz was not with him when he passed. The circumstances of his death are filled with questions and no answers.

Danyelle’s daughter was shot and wounded by someone she had trusted. The perpetrator has so far escaped arrest while Danyelle’s daughter has been cared for by several physicians contemplating what the best options are for her care. 

Bretta’s beloved pet and companion dog, Walter, was stolen by a neighbor, who refuses to admit her theft and has threatened Bretta.

Our newest and youngest employee has discovered she must move with her mother and several siblings back to the city she fled.  

Deborah’s pipes burst 2 weeks ago, and she has had no running water while patiently waiting for the plumber who has postponed several times.

Patricia’s boyfriend, Chris, has discovered terminal cancer and is too weak for a procedure that might give him more time with her and their daughter.

With each of our ladies, we have prayed, advised, resourced, and wept.  We have offered a pause in the work schedule for each as they recalibrate and tend to their sorrows. 

Last Friday would have been the logical day for them to skip and begin their rest, but because it was Debbie’s birthday, all of them showed up. We are devoted to Debbie, and consider her our mom, the glue for our employees, and our tea expert.   In surprising her, all participated in the birthday song, a little dancing, lots of pictures, singing, gifts, laughter, and cake.

These dear women of immeasurable love and strength are always quick to lift another up amid a spiral downward in their own personal struggles.  Each pinned dollars to her “corsage” and each brought a card of appreciation and celebration.   Like children, we watched her open her gifts, and blushed as she raved over each of us.

These courageous women can trace the rainbow through the rain.   The resilience of each of our ladies in their days of grief bears witness to what God is doing through the many volunteers we call Sisters. Sisters have fashioned crowns of beauty instead of ashes for them and anointed them with the oil of gladness instead of mourning. (Isaiah 61:3).

All with fresh wounds are grieving but with hope anchored in the promises of God’s grace and intimate presence in times of stress and sorrow. In the meantime, a birthday bash is in order and selfless generosity is second nature to them all.

God says over 400 times in the Bible for Believers to go to the poor.  One mistakenly might think that resourcing and rectifying debts and injustices is the reason for the call and our Lord’s intention. I am convinced that it is that and so much more. It is for us, the resourced, to see their capacity to wait and trust and for us to learn from them how to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep. 

Weeping lasts for a season, but joy comes in the morning, always at the House in Orange Mound.

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Water, Water Everywhere

Water, Water Everywhere

“Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” is a phrase familiar to most of us, though we may not remember that it comes from the Samuel Taylor Coleridge epic poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In the poem and in modern-day vernacular, the quote references a situation where one is surrounded by an abundance of something, but unable to benefit from it. Quite literally, the phrase describes what nearly all Memphians experienced just prior to and following Christmas Day. Despite sitting atop a sand aquifer spanning nearly 7,500 square miles, residents of the city were ordered to boil water because it was no longer potable because of broken mains caused by sub-zero temperatures.

When the things we take for granted-like water-are snatched from us, we are rattled, frustrated, and even panicked. But every upheaval in our lives produces varying degrees of suffering that depend in large measure on where we live and the resources immediately available to us. For certain areas and neighborhoods in Memphis, the water crisis was a step above an inconvenience. For others, the crisis was nearly a life-and-death situation. Those hardest-hit zip codes tended to be in low-income, minority neighborhoods – a fact that is consistent with other water crises throughout the country in places like Jackson, Mississippi and Flint, Michigan to name two.

Compared to North Memphis and parts of Southeast Shelby County, the impact on Orange Mound was not as severe. However, we have often written about the poor housing situations of some of the women at My Cup of Tea and the lack of insulation and basic amenities in the places where they live. We have also communicated how some lack reliable transportation and how all live in a “food desert.” Combine these factors with an almost week-long water crisis and the living situation of many becomes perilous.

In the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner impulsively decides to slay an albatross that since its appearance has ushered in warm winds and calm seas. That selfish, impetuous decision leads to a voyage of tragedy and suffering and dooms the Mariner to tell his tale to anyone who will listen. The actions and consequences of the Mariner are not all that different than those who have decided over decades across our nation’s cities to neglect the infrastructure that brings drinking water to the homes of our poorest citizens. The difference is that those making the selfish decisions weren’t affected by them. Thankfully, City of Memphis leaders have recently made a multi-million-dollar commitment to upgrading this infrastructure, though it will take many years.

Decisions have consequences. For the women at My Cup of Tea, most will tell you that decisions they made in their lives resulted in the often dire circumstances in which they have found themselves. Yet, even with a good job, steady income, the support of co-workers, access to food and water, reliable transportation, and medical care, the goal of escaping poverty remains elusive because of the decisions of others. Water and electric infrastructure, redlining, poor housing stock, and environmental hazards are just some of the obstacles not created by poor people that prevent them from becoming economically self-sufficient.

Over almost 8 years, we’ve learned that these barriers slow the wheels of progress to a wearisome grind. But we are still moving forward. At first it may seem ironic that the perseverance required for the My Cup of Tea women to continue striving when a new challenge is lurking around every corner to bash any semblance of success comes from water. It’s not the water we survived without through the holidays, but the water we share with each other from Scripture daily – Living Water.

In John 4, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well,

“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4: 13-14

It is our hope in that spring of water that satisfies our thirst even when the pipes are broken and water is everywhere, but without a drop to drink.

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