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One Neighborhood At A Time

One Neighborhood At A Time

Last Thursday the citizens of Memphis elected a young energetic mayor named Paul Young.  His acceptance to lead in our city’s recovery, redemption, and restoration was motivating and inspiring, and he challenged us constituents without notes. 

“I want to make sure that together we go through a transformation, a transformation that’s going to take us from hopelessness to hopeful; from poverty to prosperity, from hurt to healing, from stalled to thriving, and from good to truly great,” he said.

 

There is much ahead for the transformation of our city, and many will be enlisted to join the many already engaged. Orange Mound is only one of over 100 neighborhoods in Memphis. My Cup of Tea is among several other organizations here and committed to do our part. We join with our common love for our community and a desire to see it flourish. Mayor Young’s eloquent words, in a rhythmic cadence, are similar to the call we share with the neighbors on our block.  At least weekly as we work, pray, and plan at the House in Orange Mound, we beckon our employees to work for the neighborhood’s healing.

 When we began our mission 10 years ago, the emphasis was therapeutic and self-improvement discipleship.  Extending resources to move single moms to stability above the poverty line was our goal, and we selected Orange Mound because of its proximity to the middle of the city and its reported needs. We discovered the rich history and the neighborhood pride after we bought properties here.

A decade has found us faithful to our initial vision. Now we have contextualized our discipleship beyond personal growth and piety and   have expanded our assignment beyond our fences. There is a refreshed sense of public engagement and interest in the neighborhood. The perceived stability at our address is attributed in part to friendship evangelism, devoted volunteers, and the trust and dependability of our work staff.  The safety we experience and feel here is palpable and gives us oxygen within our walls. 

Psychiatrist, Dr. Curt Thompson, in his latest book, The Deepest Place, informs that mental health is contingent on and supported when a person is seen, soothed, secure, and safe. The 4 “Ss” are foundational before one can seek and participate in the prosperity of his home, neighborhood, or much more, his city. Our ladies are SEEN, SOOTHED, SECURE and SAFE. 

Mayor Paul Young has over 100 neighborhoods to encourage and catalyze. He would do well to meet and showcase three of our ladies who are role models in the effort of improving Orange Mound.

Cool cuts yards and trims hedges for many in our neighborhood, beyond the picture-perfect state she maintains for our property. She selects a yard of the month in our zone and stakes a sign in the front yard of the winner. She also brings discarded furniture left on curbs and repurposes, refinishes, and resells it. Her mother, Ms. Pearl, delivers food from the local food banks to many of the house bound as well as for some of our employees who have no transportation.

Deborah delivers food left over from our lunches to many of the men and women she encounters on the streets on her way home.  She prays for them and checks on them again. She visits our friends in the hospital, gives many employees rides to the doctor, and stays with them.  Daily she intercedes in prayer and often with tears of compassion for our staff and employees.

Cheryl is “all in” and a model Orange Mound citizen.  She beautifies her space, walks the neighborhood as she prays for it, drives neighborhood children to school when the weather is unpleasant, and she writes letters to pastors advocating for our unchurched neighbors.  She attends all community meetings and is always informed on positive movements.  She is the first to offer hope and compassion to all who enter our front door.

Our enthusiastic Mayor needs city-wide public engagement for the more than 100 neighborhoods to realize his vision of a Memphis renaissance. In the meantime, Orange Mound’s civic-minded women and men are already active in that endeavor and doing our part in Orange Mound.

Change begins in the hearts of those who love this city. Here is a list of most, if not all, of the City’s neighborhoods.  The task is daunting for a city of roughly 620,000 but quite possible one neighborhood at a time, just like changing lives one teacup at a time.

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Maple leaves on asphalt changing from green to red

A Change is Gonna Come

Benjamin Franklin was wrong.

Commenting on his hopes for the durability of the newly drafted U.S. Constitution, Franklin famously said,

…in this world, nothing is certain, but death and taxes.

But Franklin, an undisputed genius, left at least one thing out – change.

Change is inevitable. From the cosmetic to the life-altering, micro to macro, we experience change daily. And if we’re honest, most of us don’t like it very much. Entrepreneur and popular podcaster, Tim Ferriss has been quoted as saying,

People would rather be unhappy than uncertain.

Underscoring this notion is a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. Researchers used five different tests for five different, diverse groups of students. In the first test, students were asked to evaluate requirements for graduation along with a possible change to those requirements.

In the second test, students considered the practice of acupuncture. Researchers used 4 different descriptions of acupuncture with the primary difference being the length of time the procedure had been in use. Some students received the descriptions with more recent origin stories and others received the descriptions with earlier origin dates.

The third test involved a painting for which students were asked to rate its aesthetic qualities. Some students were told the artwork was created in 1905, while others were advised the artist painted it in 2005.

In study 4, students were given a photograph and description of a tree and asked to rate its aesthetic qualities. Some descriptions were manipulated to say the tree was older than the same tree in other students’ descriptions.

Finally, students were approached on campus and asked to participate in a product expansion taste test for a chocolate producer. Students were told one chocolate was first produced and sold first in 1937, while the other chocolate was first produced and sold in 2003.

By now you may have guessed the “punchline.” In every test, the older, more established item was rated significantly better than the more recent item. We are conditioned to place a higher value on those things in life that seem more certain and to fear those which are less tested despite their other merits. Sometimes, we would rather stay in our uncomfortable and difficult situations because it is what we know and change is scary.

At My Cup of Tea, the core of our mission is to help change lives for the better. There are some ways in which we can affect change. We can provide a job with fair wages, so women in Orange Mound can pay their bills. We can offer a good meal daily and provide emergency funds for a sister with an unexpected expense. We can plant and cultivate gardens, so the ladies have fresh produce and stave off food insecurity. We can educate about finances, tea, and, of course, Scripture. These are the changes in their lives where we can exercise at least some control. But even these “good” changes can be unnerving when they are new, different from what you know, and don’t guarantee success.

Then there are the changes weighing us down lately - the ones we cannot control. Within the last month, three of the ladies have lost loved ones. One lost a father on the heels of losing her mother to COVID two years ago. Another said goodbye to her sister suffering from multiple illnesses, and she had to make the gut-wrenching decision to remove her from life support. The third lost her daughter, a wife and mother of three, in what most of us would consider an unimaginable way. She was murdered by a stray bullet.

Of course, there is nothing we can do to change these outcomes. All we can do is what we have so many times in the past. We can pray with and for them. We can exercise patience and understanding. We can assist with funeral expenses, which can break the back of one already struggling to make the ends meet.

Most importantly, we can remind each other that amid the tumult that is change, we don’t have to be afraid because of the one thing that will never change – God.

“Jesus is the same, yesterday and today and forever.” – Hebrews 13:8

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Reading the Writing on the Wall

Reading the Writing on the Wall

Jeremiah 29:7” Seek the peace and prosperity of the city (neighborhood) to which I have carried you into exile”.

Orange Mound isn’t exactly exilic, but many who live here feel they are in exile compared to the prosperous and gated neighborhoods they drive past.

We are not gated here; we are boarded up.  Windows are nailed shut, doors are bolted, and crime is ubiquitous looking and finding foot holds where we let our defenses slack.

Memphis has received yet another unwanted distinction. We are THE most dangerous city in America according to FBI statistics. We are a proud city despising that nomenclature.  We who are loyal and committed are determined to bring peace. I imagine most in our city who still want to initiate law, order, peace, and safety would consider Orange Mound as a logical place to start remediation.

Last week I invited 5 of our employees into a conversation and asked what might be contributing to our community’s high crime rate. One said,

“Babies are having babies, and don’t know how to raise a child in the way he should go”, as she quoted Proverbs 22:6.  

Another added, “

Young kids are walking around with guns in their hip pocket, skipping school and joining gangs”. 

“No decent jobs,” answered a third.

What can a dozen women working in a tea company in a crime-ridden neighborhood do to further peace and safety? Could we find courage to step in where there is a need we can help meet? 

“The teens don’t listen to us” said the fourth, and mother of yet another teen who is pregnant and expecting a baby boy this winter.

“What is our responsibility as citizens to the young women who are birthing children in their teens?  What is our role for reaching their babies?” I asked.

One answer to a complicated problem with many needed interventions can be found in improving literacy. Members of three churches have stepped up to address struggling literacy rates in our public schools.  Arise 2 Read, a successful, faith-based literacy intervention nonprofit has agreed to guide us.

The statistics are heavy-laden as of May 24, 2023, 84% of third graders in Shelby County did not meet proficiency requirements on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP). Professionals who administer and evaluate the results attribute this to the tragic truth that 76% of these third graders in Shelby County cannot read at grade level.

Experts universally agree that reading proficiency by the end of the third grade is one of the crucial markers in a child’s educational development. Failure to read proficiently by then is linked to high rates of school dropout, which impacts their confidence, productivity, and contributions to the community.  My pastor has said that prisons expand as students drop out of school.

Sixty-five percent of students who are not reading on grade level by 4th grade will eventually be incarcerated or on welfare. By contrast, 89% of students who are proficient by 4th grade will graduate from high school drastically improving the chances they will thrive as adults.

If a child is not reading in the third grade, he or she will most likely eventually drop out of school and look for something to do with lots of time and no diploma to leverage for a job.  The statistics continue to predict that unsupervised youth find each day full of dangerous options, and their choices include drugs, car theft, reckless driving, and gun violence. High school dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than their peers who complete high school, for example.

I asked all five ladies if they would be willing to help second graders learn to read at our neighborhood elementary school, and they said “yes”.

Two who said “yes”, became proactive and attended training by Arise 2 Read last Thursday night. Now, within a week’s time they have joined 500 more women and men who want to be part of the solution for our stressed public schools. Low literacy rates in our elementary schools are a burdensome and sobering fact, and though we can’t enforce criminal laws ourselves, we can coach a 7-year-old how to read at grade level.

 The investment of time, which is one hour a week, and prayer will be faith-wrapped. 

But when the righteous prosper the city rejoices and there is dancing in the streets”, Proverbs 11:10. 

 The righteous are those citizens who are seeking peace for our city.

 Prov.11:11 encourages us,

 “Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted.”

 “A kind-hearted woman gains honor.” Prov 11:16.

 In a few weeks, our ladies will join other coaches commencing fresh relationships with second graders, the graduating class of  2032.

This Spring 8000 Memphis kids will drop out of high school, if conservative estimates prevail.

 We must try.

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Two mature Black women exchange Christmas gifts

No Breaks with Tradition

“People thrive when they have a mix of new and novel experiences combined with steadfast foundations like a home, family, routines, and traditions.”

This is the opening sentence in an article from Psychology Today by Dr. Kimberly Key. It could almost serve as a reimagined mission statement for My Cup of Tea. At its core, our mission is to help women in Orange Mound “thrive” vocationally and spiritually.  We introduce them to “novel experiences” like gardening, food preparation, and properly steeping and drinking hot tea. We want The House to feel like a “home” and the employees and volunteers to feel like “family.” Every day is filled with “routines,” like prayer and lunch together. After years of working together in the Orange Mound community, we have our traditions, too.

Birthdays

A slender Black woman holds a blue birthday cake and wear a brooch of cash on her lapel

Celebrating a co-worker’s birthday is a common workplace occurrence, but at The House we do it special. It starts as soon as the doors open in the morning. All sorts of breakfast fare provided by the honoree’s co-workers are spread across our kitchen table. The “birthday lady” enjoys fruit, pastries, juice, and most of the usual delectables that comprise a Continental Breakfast.

A clothespin is attached to the uniform of the honoree and throughout the day co-workers and guests fill it with various denominations of cash. The celebrant wears the money-filled clip the entire day like a large brooch and typically goes home with a handsome sum.

After lunch, there is the customary birthday cake, but not the traditional, tired rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. The version the My Cup of Tea ladies sing is boisterous, enthusiastic and involves clapping, dancing, and laughing. It is impossible not to feel loved and celebrated when the ladies sing “Happy Birthday.”

Garden Days

From the early spring to late fall, Wednesdays are “garden days.” We have written often about the vegetable gardens at The House. Every woman who wants a garden has a garden and “hump days” are generally reserved for that activity. When they weed, plant, or harvest, the ladies are not alone. They are usually joined by volunteers with gardening expertise who help them maintain the gardens and suggest what will grow well. If the work in the vegetable garden is light, there is always the large herb garden in the back that needs tending or flower in the various beds surrounding The House. The vegetables and herbs are important for staving off food insecurity, but the conversations and camaraderie are just as nutritious. From discussions about various ways to prepare squash to deep spiritual truths, time together in the gardens is about sharing and learning.

Christmas

Many families take their Christmas traditions for granted, but many of the women we have served over the years didn’t have holiday traditions until they arrived at My Cup of Tea. The My Cup of Tea ladies enjoy a hearty holiday lunch with volunteers, but the climax of the celebration is when their “Secret Santas” are revealed. Weeks prior to the event, each lady draws the name of a co-worker and keeps it to herself. She purchases a gift using the money she has earned working at My Cup of Tea and the knowledge she’s learned about the recipient. One at time, the ladies open their gifts for everyone to see and learn who is their “Secret Santa.” The “Santas” explain why they chose the gift for their recipient, and there are usually tears, laughter, and excessive Christmas joy.

Prayer Sessions

Maybe the most important traditions we have at My Cup of Tea are our impromptu prayer sessions. It is understood that anyone at The House, the volunteers, friends or relatives, or our Orange Mound neighbors can ask for prayer at any time. Just show up and ask and everything stops. We gather around the person and pray as specifically or generically as they have requested, trusting that our Heavenly Father hears and answers in His perfect way and time.

When My Cup of Tea was founded, it was not explicitly part of our plan to establish traditions. Traditions come about because of our need for belonging, continuity, and the ability to trust in something or someone. These traditions sprung up organically, in part because most of the women we have served lacked a place or purpose to which they could belong. Most had little to no continuity in their lives from having a place to go and work daily, a place to live for an extended period, or people on whom they could rely. Specific details of the traditions may change over time, but the women of My Cup of Tea know that they can count on them to happen, and they can trust the people who are a part of them.

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Won't You Be My Neighbor

Won't You Be My Neighbor

Last month many Memphians experienced power insecurity as rarely seen before when the power grid was down for days.  The delays in restoring the power frustrated all who were waiting, as well as those who were feverishly at work in record heat indexes to recover it.

Hot heads committed felonious acts, and a sense of desperation dogged the “dog days of summer.” When an entire block is down, there is no impetus to be neighborly.

Two ladies on a custom motorcycle

Most of us don’t know our neighbors anyway. A recent poll states only 26% of Americans have said they really know their neighbors. Professor of Sociology, Rebecca Adams has noted “There are a few key conditions necessary for developing neighborly friendship. Included are: proximity, repeated unplanned interactions, and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down.”

Perhaps the lack of sidewalks and front porches and commercial businesses within their neighborhood have kept most Memphians merely waving and rarely talking to a bystander. We drive by unsociable.

Sidewalks, commerce, and front porches abound in Orange Mound.  Nevertheless, doors stay locked to a knock, and no one is rocking on the veranda. Creditors and predators make house calls here and hospitality is a lost art to caution and defense.

The NIV translation of the Bible says “Love your neighbor” 508 times. Obeying that charge is our mission at The House, and we are gaining on it.

At My Cup of Tea our employees are beloved neighbors, though none live on our block. Many were without power in July’s extended heat advisory. Normally hot

Two women assembling tea boxes

days lead to hot and angry reactions, but not so with our ladies.  The patience in inconvenient times is unmistakable and the creativity they show is uncommon.  Deborah instructed all to use wet towels as a light cover when trying to sleep.  Many volunteers brought food and beverages. We who had power offered extra sleeping arrangements for those who had nailed shut windows and intentionally bolted doors.  The House stayed open, and most were able to come and refresh as our utilities never stopped.

Vulnerable, yet never overcome, the ladies could have taught techniques and lessons to many Memphians who were stuck in the unlucky parts of town. There is always an exchange of tricks and tips among our women who work at the tea company.

In the 10 years we have been working with women in Orange Mound, our mission has always been to be present and trustworthy. The Kingdom advances only through relationships of love and availability.  Befriending takes time and emotional energy.  God calls us to entangle our lives in thick and thin, cold and hot, clean and dirty, darkness and light, easy and hard, and we do this very well.

A older white woman and older black woman hugging

Recently, each of the ladies selected a Volunteer/Sister from one of the dozens who come here to be her personal mentor.  Authentic friendships have superseded the initial awkward attempts to be more than an acquaintance.   Our volunteers have been unwavering in their commitment to know the ladies without judgement or patronym.

All the coupled ladies are meeting once a week to share the common threads that occupy our prayers and needs and hopes.  I am convinced there is no obligation among any, for there is an air of excitement.  Several have gone out to dinner together, and two had a date to the movies.

Some are sharing Bible study, and some are working shoulder to shoulder in the tasks for the day. Neighborly love is swarming around us, and our rocking chairs are slapping in rhythm on the porch.

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Two Black girls ages 4 and 18 months

Comfort in the Arms of a Sister

Americans are obsessed with “national days.”

These are the days of the year when we’re called to commemorate and celebrate the interests of various segments of society. There are so many of these national days that every day of the year includes multiple, unrelated topics of recognition. These topics and interests range from the profound to the downright wacky.

In the month of July, we will have highlighted 174 causes in just 31 days of the month. We’ve recognized National Chronic Disease Day, National Hire a Veteran Day, and National Disability Independence Day. We also “celebrated” National Tape Measure Day, National Dive Bar Day, and National Dimples Day.

The month of August won’t be much different in terms of volume and quirkiness, but there is at least one day of significance to My Cup of Tea. The first Sunday of August - August 6th - is National Sisters Day.

Coincidentally, National Sisters Day was founded in 1996 by sisters and Memphians, Tricia Eleogram and Stacey Lowery. The biological sisters concocted the idea on a trip to Florida and later co-authored a book about sisterhood. The purpose of the day, according to the founders, is to celebrate the “spirit of sisterhood.”

By now, you know that we acclaim the sisterhood at My Cup of Tea. Among the employees, none are biological sisters. To our knowledge, there is no biological relationship between any of our volunteers and the My Cup of Tea ladies. And yet, there is a palpable connection between these individuals who frequent The House.

President Obama famously said,

“Any fool can have a child. It’s the courage to raise a child that makes you a father.”

This sentiment that being a father is about more than DNA holds true when we think about sisters. Sisters may be born into the same family and genetically connected, but being a sister is about the lasting bonds between two women or a group of women. It is about both being present for all of life’s twists and turns and putting in the “work” to nurture and grow the relationship into something irreplaceable.

Sisters are the women in your life with the ability to feel what you feel, even if they’ve never experienced it. They laugh when you laugh and cry when you cry. They say the things you need to hear, but don’t want to hear. Sisters defend you in public, then set you straight when no one’s watching. Sisters accept you for who you are and tell you that you’re enough. From disappointments to life’s tragedies, sisters grieve with you and help you recover. Author Alice Walker may have said it best,

“Is solace anywhere more comforting than that in the arms of a sister?”

Over the last 10 years, the My Cup of Tea sisters have shed a lot of tears together – some the profoundly sad kind and others from laughing too hard. We’ve had “Come to Jesus” conversations, literally and figuratively to keep us on the narrow path. We have accepted each other as we are and always try to affirm that each of us is enough. We have been present and put in the work and have lasting bonds between us.

But the unbreakable bond we share, now and forever, is that we are sisters in Christ. Despite hard times, disagreements, being apart, or even death, nothing can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:39)

Happy National Sisters Day! Tell her you love her. Pray for her, and continue to pray for our sisters  at The House in Orange Mound.

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Here It Is, Lord

Here It Is, Lord

The weight, anxiety, and fear of living in poverty can lead to poor decisions made in desperation. One of the temptations of living below the poverty line is available, fast, and ever-ready shortcuts. We frequently encourage the My Cup of Tea ladies to pray when there is “too much week at the end of the month” and too little money to make it through.

One of the ladies, who works two jobs and has been with us for 8 years, balances her budget most months and is proud to have raised her credit score. Attending and applying classes on money management, she has kept the lights on in her apartment and gas in her own car. She is “winning” and respected in the neighborhood and rightfully proud of it.  She pays on time and avoids penalties. Last Wednesday on her way to work at My Cup of Tea, she cashed her paycheck for rent. The rent due was over $650.00. The small pocket in her fashionable, skinny jeans didn’t hold fast the bank envelope and the money fell out in our parking lot.

Another one of the ladies has been with us only a year and a half and admittedly only recently found her trust in the Lord’s provisions.  She came to us recovering from drugs and alcohol and deep in debt. Unbelieving, suspicious, and hopeless, she often said she didn’t want any of our ladies in her business and preferred her privacy. She needed the job we offered, but not the generous nonmaterial perks of which we are most proud. Trusting God for her needs might take too long and letting Him shepherd her choices was out of the question.             

That same Wednesday, she went through the parking lot to her garden to check on her bell peppers and discovered the bank envelope.  “Finders Keepers” ran through her thoughts. “I am out of money, and God just dropped this down,” the devil said. She wisely rejected the claim and brought the money to me. 

“I would have kept it in my former days”, she confessed, “but I know now that I must be honest and give it up”.

Only a few short minutes later, the sister who had lost the bank roll appeared, and anxious for nothing but in peace and faith said, “I lost my rent money somewhere close”. 

“Here it is”!  The employee shouted.

The two ladies hugged, thanked the Lord, and rejoiced that the trial had revealed their faith and maturity in a profound test.

Here it is, Lord.  Here is a testimony that many of us, like our employees, are valuing honesty and faith over quick and dishonest gain.

Here it is, Lord.  Here is a testimony that the time, talent, and treasures of wisdom have registered in the hearts of our employees, whom we call our neighbors.

Here it is, Lord. Here is proof that anxieties can be cast on You, and You prove us able to have victory in the test.

Here it is, Lord.  Here is the assurance that You are changing lives in Orange Mound, a neighborhood known for crime and decay, and building a new community through women who call you their husband, provider, and redeemer.

Here we are, Lord.  Would you continue to shepherd us at My Cup of Tea and deepen our dependence on You as You broaden Your reach and strengthen Your grip on the ladies and this neighborhood.

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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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