A homeless family discovers its own Christmas miracle

'The Christmas I shall always remember'

December 18, 2015

Judy Ann Eichstedt

Judy Ann Eichstedt

LOUISVILLE

The following article was originally printed in the November/December 2015 issue, "Hope in a child," of Presbyterians Today.

We came to Oklahoma from Portland, Oregon, in the winter of 1983. We had been living in our car for some time after having been evicted from our apartment. We couldn’t pay our rent, so now there were eight of us living in a car that barely ran. My six children piled up in the back seat, with my husband and me in the front. We had heard about work in Tulsa, and so we headed out hoping and praying we could find work and a place to live. Truth be told, we did not know what else to do. We had been eating out of garbage cans in the back of supermarkets and collecting cans and bottles to return for the deposit. We had to try to turn it all around.

It took the best part of a week to get to Oklahoma because of car trouble and running out of money for gas and food. We worked for churches along the way, cleaning up and doing yard work to get the cash to go on. To say this was a dark time in our lives is an understatement. Honestly, I thought about giving up. Hope for us seemed to die somewhere in the fog of homelessness. We came to a place where we just couldn’t see how it could ever get better.

At night, while parked in a rest area to sleep, I grabbed our Bible and flashlight and read to my family. It was without a doubt the only thing that kept us going. God’s words gave us courage when we were ready to call it quits.

When we arrived in Tulsa we found a homeless shelter. Slowly we walked into the building with our heads held low. I guess it made us realize we had no home and no place to belong.

Seeing the other homeless people, families just like ours, I wanted to run away. I felt as if we all had been thrown away like garbage no one wanted.

At least we were out of the car and in a bed. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to see a bathroom with hot and cold running water. It’s funny; most people take having a bathroom for granted, yet for us it was a luxury we could not afford. It took three days but eventually we were able to find help getting into a small apartment and out of the shelter. We were so thrilled. Yes, it was only a four-room apartment, but we felt thankful to have a place to call home. We had no furniture, not even a bed. All we had left were some blankets, pans, and clothes. It did not matter to us. Things, we thought, were getting better.

My husband went out every day looking for work, and I took the children to school. Our car stopped running so we had to walk everywhere. Life in some ways seemed to be getting back to normal. Then the days turned into weeks, and my husband had not found a job yet. Occasionally, he’d find work for a few days, and we were grateful.

It was not until my children came home from school talking about Christmas that it hit me that this year we had no money to purchase Christmas gifts, let alone a tree, special meal, or anything else.

A family photo of the Eichstedt children

A family photo of the Eichstedt children

I thought about it for days and decided my children, between the ages of two and 12, would just have to be told Christmas was not going to happen this year. I felt horrible about it, but food, rent, and utilities had to come first. Even as I kept telling myself they would understand, I put off telling them. I wanted to sit down and cry, as I listened to my children make their Christmas lists.

One day, close to Christmas, as we walked to school, I saw a fire station and remembered a toy-and-joy drive organized by firemen in Portland to get gifts for children. So I hurried home and wrote a note with all our information on it and walked back to drop it off. Maybe they would help with a gift for my children.

I prayed and asked God to place this note with the right person who would help us. I did not want to tell my children that there’d be no Christmas for us. They had lost so much in homelessness, and I just could not hit them with yet another disappointment.

My faith was shaky, and I prayed. Hope escaped a time or two, and I rushed to read my Bible. What if nobody came? Christmas Eve showed up, and I thought it wasn’t going to work out for us and I would have to tell my children.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door, and two women who were strangers changed everything that night. They asked if they could talk to my husband and me outside. We walked into the hallway of the apartment, and they introduced themselves as Betty and Effie. What they said next floored me. “The fire station you left a note on was closed some time ago,” one of them said. “However, a woman from across the street saw you that day and went to get the note you left. She then handed it over to a friend who then gave it to her friend who gave the note to us.”

They left, saying they would be back in a few hours with Christmas for our family. I did not even try to fight back the tears. This act of love and kindness melted away homelessness and all the rejection. I knew in my heart that we had just received a great gift we would never forget.

God sent us love that night wrapped up in two women who did not even know us. God reminded us not to forget how much God loves us. What gift could ever top that?

That night Effie and Betty returned with a tree that we all decorated together. They brought food for Christmas dinner the next day. We made hot chocolate and put the gifts under the tree. It was like a dream come true. I could not thank them enough.

However, the gifts I will remember most were not wrapped in pretty paper or red bows. It was not the small Christmas tree that sat near the window. It wasn’t even the bounty of food that we were all looking forward to eating. The greatest gift was God’s love that covered us completely and renewed each one of us.

Strangers welcomed us as family. Together we gathered on Christmas Eve to share the birth of Jesus. We talked and laughed, and both women were not afraid to reach out to us with hugs. It had been a very long time that anyone had come close to us because we were homeless.

I had held some bitterness within me because of how we had been treated while living in a car—and yes, some anger too. We had all forgotten what it felt like to be a part of a community where people care what happens to us. This act of kindness turned our lives around and forever changed us. Never again in all my life have I doubted God’s love or that when we pray God hears us.

This is the Christmas I will always remember.

Read the companion PNS article "Big hearts, tiny houses combine to advance mission at Seattle church"