The Smell of Poverty

I remember roaches dropping off the ceiling then scampering on my paperwork. I hate roaches and when I see them, chills run up my spine and I become paralyzed. But here I was, sitting with this family, in government housing, trying to conduct a therapy session with roaches falling from the ceiling.

I remember testifying in court, telling the judge that the mother was unfit to keep her three children, while watching her cry in the seat in front of me. I had no children of my own, but I had to guess that when you cook meth in the shed out back you aren’t fit to parent.

I remember standing in the single-wide with a little guy when his mom walked out the door. She had left me with her son because she just couldn’t do it anymore. I had shown up for a family session and was left with a little boy. The authorities and child protective services showed up and I left crying.

I remember sitting with a family at their kitchen table discussing all the safety measures in place, the alarms on the sibling’sdoors, the behavior plans, the therapy sessions, and my nausea from my unprepared heart. How was I supposed to help this family whose elementary age son was a sex offender?

I remember curling up in a ball on my family room floor, having a panic attack, telling my husband “I can’t do this anymore.” I was too young, too inexperienced, too afraid to do this too hard job I had been given. A “family therapist” for those at risk and I was only 24 and barely married.

There are so many more stories I could tell, stories of incredible heartache and heartbreak, of poverty and prison walls, of death and destruction. Nine years of watching the hurting and the broken try to survive. I worked for a non-profit that provided free therapy services to at risk families. I’ve seen things I can never un-see, things I wish I never saw.

I walked away from this job to raise my own family with a fingerprint on my heart that changed me. Sometimes that fingerprint is a little too dull. Like when I’m trying to figure out which pair of shoes I will wear because there are so many to choose from. Or what vacation we will go on because there is money that allows me to make a choice. Or what summer camp to send my boys to, maybe I’ll send them to more than one. When the fingerprint is too dull, I forget all I saw and smelled.

Poverty has a smell. Did you know that?

I smelled it the other day in the gas station. I was buying my son a snack and two gentlemen were buying lottery tickets. They looked like they were day laborers with ripped clothes and work boots. It was a really cold day and they smelled of really strong propane. Poor families have to use propane heaters to warm their homes because they can’t pay their heating bill.  They smell because they don’t always wash their clothes because detergent and water costs money. I forget that sometimes. They smell because life is hard and things aren’t guaranteed.

I was thankful to smell them and continued to breathe them in. I know that sounds weird, but I wanted to remember the smell of poverty. I had forgotten and my soul needed to remember. The fingerprint had gotten too dull. It’s been dulled by big houses, and beautiful clothes, and vacations and good food. I had to remember the smell of poverty so I could remember all I had learned and how I had changed those 9 years. I never want to forget.

I’ll never forget sitting in that DFCS waiting room to drop off paperwork. I was surrounded by mothers who had to convince a caseworker that they were working the plan and could see their daughter this weekend. Mothers who needed to get approved for food stamps so they could fill bellies and then go buy cigarettes. Mothers who wished they were me in my nice clothes and my nice car, just dropping off paperwork.

I’ll never forget sitting with school counselors and social workers and probation officers and judges and caseworkers trying to decide the fate of a family. I’ll never forget sitting on a back porch with a grandmother, deciding to cut her granddaughter’s hair because the lice were just too much. I’ll never forget securing a mattress for a family because that was all they had left to get in order for the kids to come home.

I was thankful to cross paths with those men in the gas station, thankful to smell them, to remember poverty and what it means. I came across a prayer today by Billy Graham: “Might I always remember the poverty of my soul before Your love invaded my life, Lord Jesus, and I knew You as Savior.”

I read a little today on the poverty of the soul. Some feel it is the condition we are in before we know Christ as Savior, some believe it is our inability to see the good in life. However you define it, soul poverty is hard. Billy Graham asked that he would always remember it. Why would we want to remember this poverty? This soul poverty where we are broken and tired and wandering, just looking for a home to rest our mind and bones. Soul poverty has felt like a wandering for me. A constant looking for approval, acceptance, purpose, a place to rest my mind and my bones.

I was walking around with treasure inside, yet had no idea it was there. How frustrating that must have been to God. He had given me his everything and I was walking around like I had nothing, soul poor looking for a home. I was striving to find meaning, and it was inside me all along. Buried deep by doubt, but there all along.

So, again, why would we want to remember the poverty of our souls? A friend once told me, you can’t know the light until you’ve been in the darkness. It’s so true. Spending time every day with the poor allowed me to appreciate the good things in my life, things taken for granted. Like name brand ice cream and hair products. Like wrinkle cream and air conditioning. Like new tennis shoes for my boys and trips to the beach. Because of those days with the poor, I usually don’t take for granted the richness in my life. The same is true for the poverty of my soul. Those days of dark wandering make me appreciate the light I’m living in now. The blessed assurance I have now, finally knowing all that I am because of my Savior. Please let me remember the dark poverty of my soul so I can appreciate the light, whole and healed soul that I have now.

Poverty has a smell, but so does our life in Christ. 2 Corinthians 2: 15-16 states, “For we are to God the sweet aroma of Christ among those who are being saved…a fragrance that brings life.”Look around, are you being the sweet aroma of Christ to others? A fragrance that brings life? Or are you walking around soul poor and kind of stinky? Doubt stinks, you know. I bet the enemy stinks pretty bad too. He loves keeping us poor and broken and just smelly.

I have come out of a season of doubting and entered a season of declaring. Declaring who God is and who I am because of him. I am smelling sweet these days! I believe I am sweet aroma to him. No more stinky, stale soul poverty for me.

So come out friends and be a sweet aroma to those around you but let us never forget the poverty of our souls before we met Christ!



3 thoughts on “The Smell of Poverty

    1. Oh wow! I do miss those days. I miss you as well. I learned so very much from those kids and still think about them often. Now I’m their school counselor and feel better equipped to be the helper God created me to be. I am forever thankful for you allowing me to serve along side you.


  1. Thank you! Great way to start the day!! God bless you Cathleen

    On Thu, May 31, 2018 at 11:38 PM, What a Good Word! wrote:

    > journal429 posted: “I remember roaches dropping off the ceiling then > scampering on my paperwork. I hate roaches and when I see them, chills run > up my spine and I become paralyzed. But here I was, sitting with this > family, in government housing, trying to conduct a therapy se” >


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