At six-years old, I overheard someone say my father was dead. I did not yet fully understand the finality of dead, but I sort of understood that after that day, we would never see him in the green, converted firehouse where we lived in Brooklyn. He and my Uncle Johnny, the two youngest of a six-sibling family, had been found unresponsive–their bodies overwhelmed by the devastating effects of I.V. drugs. To say they died in a house on Madison or near Broadway sounds like they passed into eternity in luxury and style, but they did not. These were streets in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section where disenfranchised and disenchanted men died with needles in their arms and Pabst Blue Ribbon at their sides all the time.
On this occasion, however, it was different. They weren’t just any men; they were two of four sons raised by my grandparents for whom fifth grade marked the end of formal education and for whom Brooklyn was only a secondary home during The Great Migration. What would they think now of this surrogate habitat which, like a hungry lion, devoured its prey before anyone even knew it was time for dinner? What would they think of this place where they had hoped to find the warmth of other suns?*
My grandparents would eventually find a degree of solace by burying their sons in their other home–Colleton County, South Carolina. Unfriendly as it was, it was where they were born and raised and so the how and why of trauma were a bit more predictable. They chose a double grave with a single headstone in the only cemetery at that time where you could bury “colored boys.”
But what about my mother? What was a 26-year-old who married right out of high school, now widowed with two young children going to do? What were we going to do?
Today, my father would have turned 83 years old, a sobering thought considering all that has happened since that day I heard his name and the word “dead” in the same sentence. As with many losses, the death of my father magnified what God could do in the absence of what we thought actually sustained us. He summoned angels at His command to provide for us and to work out the complicated logistics of single-parenting Black children in the seventies.
My mother, a woman good with numbers and good with order and administration, went to college in the evenings and worked third-shift by getting help with childcare from our grandparents and our landlady. Mom eventually graduated and became an accountant. Even as a novice, she sold a reputable accounting firm on her ability to do what they needed and they hired her. She would do that same thing again on at least three other occasions in her accounting career. In time, she remarried and long after the average age for spiritual rebirth, both she and her husband accepted Christ as Savior.
There is a timeless similarity between what happens in this story about a Black woman in Brooklyn and what happens in the story of a Jewish widow in 2 Kings 4:1-7. When we find ourselves in situations difficult to navigate, the answer to “What next?” is often found in a biblical narrative where that same dynamic is displayed.
In 2 Kings 4, a woman is impoverished when her husband dies and she and her two young sons are left in debt. And as if that isn’t enough, the creditors are threatening to take the two sons away to make them work off the debt as slaves.
When the woman asks the prophet Elisha for help, he asks, “What can I do for you? What do you have in your house?”
At first, the widow replies, “Your servant has nothing there at all,” but then, as if a light comes on, she continues, saying, “. . . except a small jar of olive oil.”
Without explanation, the prophet directs the woman to borrow “not just a few” empty jars from her neighbors, to fill them all with olive oil from the small jar she already has, to sell the oil to pay her husband’s debts, and to live off the rest.
The widow must have had great faith to obey the man of God’s direction to do what must have seemed ridiculous. How would one small jar of olive oil be sufficient to fill the many empty jars she would borrow from her neighbors?
I wonder if the widow thought about what her neighbors might think. Would they ask her what she was doing and why? Would she actually tell them? Would she feel embarrassed?
Nevertheless, the widow goes into obedience mode. She goes to her neighbors, borrows jars, takes them home, and pours oil from her small flask into each of them. Every empty jar is miraculously filled with olive oil from the widow’s original flask. And just as the man of God directed, the widow sells the oil, pays her husband’s debt, and lives off the rest–supporting herself and her sons.
As far as how much constitutes “the rest,” is concerned, it depends on how many jars the widow borrowed. Once the last jar was filled, the oil stopped flowing–and so if by faith she had collected more jars, they, too, would have been filled.
When the widow does what the man of God says, her financial need is met. The direction he gives her reveals a template of sorts that still works today for anyone in financial need–whether a Jewish woman in Antiquity or a Black woman in Brooklyn:
start with what you already have and trust God to grow and multiply it – (Is there something physical in your possesion that has value? What talent, gift, or know-how do you already have that could benefit others? What are you already doing that might be an area of service others would need?)
involve your community in what you do – (Does your community know about the valuable thing you have or do? Which ones might be willing to help you get started? Do they have or know of any contacts that might help you?)
sell with confidence – (offer that which you have knowing that God is with you in your endeavor)
pay what is required of you – (get rid of the debt before it gets rid of you)
live – (take care of yourself and your family)
* “the warmth of other suns” is a bow to Isabel Wilkerson’s book by that name and to the poem by Richard Wright (which appears in his novel, Black Boy), to which Wilkerson refers.
Watch the video inspired by this post here: