“I didn’t have books when I was young,” a guest said. An African American man, in his fifties, held a children’s book in his hands, “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin.” I recognized the author’s name, “Beatrix Potter.” She is the one responsible for the many times I have been called “Peter Rabbit.”
“I never had stories at home,” the guest continued. “I only had text books when I got to school. Nothing held my interest. I didn’t last long there. But I still enjoy a good story.”
My heart sank when I heard he had no stories read to him as a child. My favorite time of day is reading to my daughter at bedtime. She has a bookshelf full of stories. Each night she chooses three. She has taken to memorizing especially favorite parts of books.
“Not having stories makes life hard,” I said to the guest. He shook his head in agreement. And I thought of his hard life. He has many physical ailments. He struggles with a rage that consumes him from time to time. He’s been asked to leave Manna House on a number of different occasions. Most recently he had been asked to be gone for a month after making some verbal threats to a volunteer. He came back ready to try again, and we welcomed him back.
“You want to read it?” he asked me holding out this children’s book.
“Sure, let me have a look.” I was curious. I did not know this story. I started reading “a tale about a tail” that includes a number of characters, including the main protagonists Nutkin the squirrel, his brother Twinkleberry, and Old Brown the owl. Nutkin is mischievous and crosses Old Brown several times. Eventually Old Brown’s ire is raised, and Nuktin almost loses his life, barely escaping.
“That Nutkin is lucky he didn’t lose more than he did,” the guest said. I nodded in agreement.
“I’m keeping this book. I’m gonna read it again. I like this story.” The guest put this children’s book in his worn backpack.
I wondered what this guest was like when he was a child. What is it like to be a child with no stories?
I know the statistics that most people deprived of housing and living on the streets begin their lives in poverty, or near poverty. This guest, like most of our guests from the streets, grew up in Memphis.
I know from Dr. Elena Delavega’s “The Poverty Report: Memphis Since MLK” that childhood poverty rates for both African American and whites are higher in our city now than in 1980. The childhood poverty rate for African American children is more than four times greater than that for whites. This guest came from poverty. He was a child of poverty.
But this man’s love for stories reveals he is also more than a child of poverty. He has an unquenched desire for stories, for life not bound by the streets, or poverty, or racism, or harshness and suffering.
So many of our guests have this desire, and they take to books, novels, biographies, histories, stories. Books go out from our free shelf almost as fast as they come in. Deep in our God given humanity is a need for stories, for sharing stories, for having a story.
This might start to explain why a particular book with quite a collection of stories is so popular with many Manna House guests. The Bible addresses our divinely built in need for stories and invites us into a story we need to hear and share.
In light of the Bible, I thought about this guest today, who held “Squirrel Nutkin,” and whose desire for story not only survived a childhood without stories, but also an adulthood where he is often told his story is not important. The Bible tells a story that confirms his dignity. “’And I will be your Parent, and you shall be sons and daughters to Me,’ Says the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:18). Children of God, we all need that story.