“But the Lord lives on forever; he sits upon his throne to judge justly the nations of the world. All those who are oppressed may come to him, He is a refuge for them in their times of trouble. All those who know your mercy Lord, will count on you for help. For you have never yet forsaken those who trust in you.” Psalm 9:7-10
My grandparents lost their farm during America’s Great Depression because they were late on a single payment– “a single payment” that was to change their world forever. I was told that their farm was almost paid off, but it had been purchased under a “Contract for Deed” that gave the bank the right to seize their property if a single mortgage payment was late. The bank did just that; it foreclosed on their farm and would not accept Grandpa’s late payment to prevent the seizure. What that meant to my grandparents and their two daughters (including my mother) was that in the midst of the Great Depression their little family lost their worldly possessions overnight because of a single late payment. They lost their home, their equity, their savings, their livestock, and their ability to practice Grandpa’s livelihood.
I don’t know whether their late payment was caused by the tornado that destroyed their barn and half their livestock, by family illness, failing crops, or by cash flow issues resulting from “loans” they made to their neighbors who had not enough food to feed their families.
I know only that they joined the ranks of about 25% of Americans who lost their jobs between 1929 and 1939 in the worst economic crisis in modern U.S. history, along with the remaining employed Americans who often struggled with wage cuts up to 40% and increasing job insecurity. I know only that my mother’s family joined the ranks of a generation of formerly-prosperous rural Americans whose circumstances changed overnight and whose motto became “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without.”
But their Great Depression, foreclosure story as told by my mother never focused on her family’s loss, but on her parents’ Christian faith, love of God, love for each other, their children and others; and on her parents’ service to others in need – even when their own circumstances were desperate and most dire.
By the grace of God, my grandfather moved his small family to a nearby village along the railroad tracks that connect the Hiawatha Valley with the rest of the country. He became the Village Constable and moved his little family into a small wooden house next to the mighty Mississippi River and the railroad lines of a wealthy railroad baron, across the street from the small village church where my parents eventually would marry. I remember that little house as a small child. You could sit on the back porch, watch the great river barges on the muddy water and the great trains lumbering down the hill below, less than a single block away. I loved it there, sitting in Grandpa’s lap with the smell of rice pudding coming from Grandma’s kitchen. I loved basking in the love that permeated the air there.
Then, like now, the great freight trains would occasionally have to stop when passing through the village to wait for the track to be cleared downstream. Then, like now, homeless, anonymous people riding the rails would jump off the stopped trains and use the time to stretch their legs, refresh themselves in the river alongside, and approach the villagers living along the tracks to work for meals. The only difference back then was that there were so many, many more people riding the box cars then, including families desperate for food and rest, and they were treated kindly by the village community that identified with their hardship and saw in their faces God’s creation. There was an awareness during the Great Depression that, but for the grace of God, at any moment the homeless face they observed could be their own.
Word quickly spread that there was always a “hot meal” to be had at the Constable’s house – the tiny wooden home of my grandparents. Grandma would always have a pot of warm soup on the stove, and sometimes a loaf of Swedish rye, ready to share with anyone riding the rails who came to their back door asking for food. On special occasions she might serve up “mock apple pie,” made of Ritz™ crackers and cream of tartar. Neighbors and church groups contributed what food they could spare to share with the homeless who sought meals at their home. Broth mostly, because it was often all they had, but it was warm and filled the empty cups strangers would hold out with hope. What I remember most was Mom’s stories about how Grandma would put out table cloths on the grass to create a picnic feeling for their “guests” during the summer months with vases of wild flowers – to remind them of better times; her parents would invite strangers inside to warm up in front of the stove in their small kitchen during the brutal winter months, giving them extra newspaper when available for insulation in their shoes and clothing.
Before eating, Mom said either Grandpa or Grandma would say a prayer aloud, thanking God for His blessings: A warm meal to feed the body and The Gospel to feed the soul. There was a faded picture of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane hanging over the kitchen table and a worn Bible that my grandparents would read from while people ate. Not everyone could read then, like now, and sometimes Mom’s parents would recite Bible verses from memory. Not everyone spoke English then, like now, and sometimes my grandma would pray for them in Swedish. Not everyone knew the Gospel, as now, and sometimes those who hungered heard the Gospel there for the very first time. As Grandma recalled it to me decades later, people were usually so very tired, appreciative, and respectful. She described a sense of peace that would descend over the people as they prayed and ate — a quiet that was in distinct contrast to the thundering noises coming from the great Burlington Northern train engines idling on the track below — reminding the weary travelers that this was not their final destination and that they were, as we are now, only passing through.
No, this was not the Third World. This was the heart of the American Bible-Belt. No, this was not the distant past. This was less than 100 years ago; not enough time for the stories to have been forgotten by those of us who are older. No, these mercies were not attributable to a government in action. This was our Shepherd working through His flock to care for the scattered and lost. No, this is not a story of doom and gloom. This is a story of hope — a reflection of God’s love unfolding through His believers reacting to circumstances, world events, and worldly trials, as Christ had taught them. These were strangers, neighbors, family, friends, and a little village pulling together to help one another in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit – demonstrating the power and healing effects of God’s love for us. A light shining in the darkness, shining then as it does now.
A light that with God’s grace, continues to defy the spiritual darkness that exists in this world.
“Feed the hungry! Help those in trouble! Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you shall be as bright as day. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy you with all good things, and keep you healthy too; and you will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” Isaiah 58:10-12
My grandparents never regained the farm they lost. They never really recovered financially at all. But they were blessed by God and they knew it. Their daughters and grandchildren knew it too, as did everyone whose lives they touched. They remained rich in faith and rich in love, and they did what they could to spread His light during their lifetime. Their faith was part of who they were and their devotion to Christ was what I remember most about them. And, as He always does for His flock, God kept my grandparents healthy spiritually and satisfied them with “the good things” He offers everyone through Christ — including forgiveness and eternal life. Purchased with “a single payment” — the life of His Son — that He made to save us from our sins and forever change our world.
Image: Postcard of Burlington Northern railroad route between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul, 1928, by Burlington Route, May Be Subject to Copyright