That Time Our Small Town Built a Poor Couple a Brand-New Home They Wouldn’t Move Into
I have lived in the same small town for almost 40 years. Our population count is 421, including cats, dogs and my chickens: Rick’s Chicks.
I began to pastor the Potwin Christian Church in 1984 and, with an aging congregation living on limited incomes, their homes were falling into disrepair. With my construction background and a fundamental desire that works gave evidence of faith, we did a lot of housing rehab such as new roofs, painting an old house, replacing hot water heaters and the like.
One of the couples in our church, Donnie and Frances Dent, lived in such a ramshackle old house that I didn’t even know where to start on fixing it up. We loved Donnie and Frances.
Well, I should say, we loved Frances; Donnie was an acquired taste. He was an extremely large man with a speech impediment and a short fuse that made conversation with him difficult at times.
His wife, Frances, was the sweetest person you would ever meet. She, too, had a speech impediment but was easier to understand. She was almost bald because of a childhood illness and usually wore a wig. Sometimes, it was on straight.
I was walking by their little house one day in 1990 when Donnie hollered at me.
“Hey Peecher! Come here!”
I made my way to his front porch as he explained that his toilet needed fixed.
He took me inside and led me to their tiny little bathroom and to a toilet that was, well, use your imagination. The floor was so rotted I could see the dirt on the ground below it.
Now, if you’ve ever worked on a toilet, you know you must hug the silly things to work on them. There is no easy way to unbolt it without getting down on your hands and knees and getting romantic with it. I went home, got my tools, a long sleeve shirt and Vick’s Vapor Rub to put in my nose to stifle the stench.
As I walked into the house with my toolbox, Donnie blurted, “You don’t love me, do you?!”
Naturally, being a pastor, I lied. I tried to reassure him that yes, I loved him because Jesus wants us to love everyone so I loved him, too. However, deep inside, I just didn’t feel particularly affectionate towards him and never had. He was hard to understand, and I confess I didn’t put the effort into learning how to communicate with him.
I fixed the toilet, replaced the flooring, went home, and took a shower and washed my clothes, and cleaned the Vapor Rub out of my nose. I mentioned to God that maybe he could see fit to give me a golden pipe wrench in my crown. I often deal with conflicting altruism.
A few weeks later I received an early morning phone call; their house was on fire. Donnie had gone to work and Frances was in the front yard having a heart attack.
They lost everything but, after a few days in the hospital for Frances, they were both okay. We found them a temporary place to live, and the community, with the Red Cross and Salvation Army’s help, took care of them with new clothes and meals.
In one of my visits to Frances in the hospital, they told me they had $12,000 in insurance for both the contents and structure, not nearly enough to find them a different home and replace their belongings. They were planning on moving into a house someone in the family owned that was in worse shape than their old one. It had a hole in the living room where you could see the dirt below.
The idea hit me that we in the community should build them a new house, kind of like those old fashion barn raising days. The stem wall foundation of the old home was still in good shape, and I figured it would take about $30,000 in material and new appliances to set them up. Now, remember this was in the days before the internet and social media.
I shared my idea with them, asked if we could use their $12,000 to help build a new house and they agreed.
I’m still not sure where I learned it, but one of the leadership principles I developed in my journey was this: Commit, then figure it out.
The money poured from places and people none of us had ever heard of. Then, one hot Saturday in June of 1990, 125 people arrived at 310 North Ellis read to work, most of them not knowing which end of the hammer to use but their hearts were in the right place.
My brothers, Mike and Kelly, from whom I learned carpentry, ran a couple of crews and, by the time the day was over, we had built Donnie and Frances a brand-spanking new, two-bedroom bungalow. The house was sided, painted, roofed, rough plumbed and wired, and sheet rocked. We went through a whole house of materials and one band-aid.
As the summer sun set over their home about 9 that evening, I stood in the middle of the street looking at a beautiful little home that, 15 hours earlier, was a pile of building materials.
Donnie joined me and we both stood there, silent, then Donnie began to sob. I put my arm around him and we both sobbed.
“You do love me, don’t you peecher?”
At that moment, standing there with my arm around this huge blubbering man and both of us sweating profusely, I realized that love is not just something you feel, it is something you do. Love is an action.
It took a few more weeks to put the final touches on so Donni and Frances could move into their brand-new home. I was so excited for them!
But I was going to miss move-in day because I was at church camp in Ponca, Arkansas, but since they had a fully equipped new home with appliances and all new clothes, there wasn’t much to move except Donnie and Frances.
I came home from camp, anxious to see them in her now home, only to be told upon my arrival back home that they refused to move in.
Someone had lied to them and told them that I had snuck into the Register of Deeds and now the deed was in my name. If you know anything about real estate law, you know that just can’t happen, but Donnie and Frances were vulnerable and believed the person who told them.
After a trip to the Register of Deeds and proving to them that, no, I had not done what someone had lied to them about, they finally moved in.
Then I went looking for the person who lied to them. That’s the next story.