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One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty

An Essay About Roadside Ministry, a Title Inspired by Harlan Ellison

The first piece of furniture I ever saved I was in college. My roommate Sarah and I were moving out of the dorms and into our first apartment. We left the building for the last time, a few items in our hands, and lo-and-behold, in the college dumpster area sat a love seat. It wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but it was clean (mostly) and free. We couldn’t believe our luck! Someone had already paid the university the fee of dumping it there, but we weren’t about to leave it behind. We had virtually no furniture in our place.

The only trouble was, we had no vehicle that could transport it. So we did what any desperate college students would do: we put our items on the seat of the couch and each hoisted up an end. Our apartment was three blocks away. But it was really heavy, and my back was out. We would make it half a block and then have to rest. I remember thinking, where are all of the chauvinist male students who think women are pale, delicate flowers who can’t even open a door when you actually need them? We did have one fine young man who was driving past help us with the last block of the distance, he said his grandmother would never forgive him if he hadn’t stopped. And we met our neighbor, Mohamed, when he helped us haul it up to the fourth floor and he was really the only neighbor we ever befriended. That was a great little couch, ugly, but super comfy. It was sad when it didn’t fit in our moving truck and we had to leave it in Minneapolis.

A History of (Re)-Purpose

When Daniel and I were in our second year of marriage we moved to Lake Mills. I was working at this little cafe in the outlet mall, right next to a Pfaltzgraff store. That was when my dumpster-diving kicked up a notch, into occasionally literally diving into the dumpster to bring out treasures. I couldn’t get over the wastefulness of that store. If they had a display set of dishware out and something broke or was stolen, they would throw the whole set away! We furnished not only our kitchen, but also the kitchen of many friends through that dumpster. What did a bunch of broke twenty-year-olds care if they were one fork short or one glass shy of a set?

It was nicer stuff than we would ever afford ourselves.

In the seventeen years of our marriage, Daniel and I have never been financially well off. We have always lived on a very minimal income and there have been many times we haven’t known where the money would come from for the next round of bills. God has always provided everything we have needed, and a great deal of things we’ve just wanted. One of the ways He has provided has been by the discarding of furniture on the side of the roads. Whitewater has proven to be a town that goes through a lot of furniture. College students buy furniture for temporary homes and discard it when they move away.

Why get a moving truck if you are going back home to mom and dad and have nowhere to put it anyways?

As for the rest of the town, I can only assume they have vastly more money than I do if they are willing to throw away such nice furniture. A good percentage of our house has been furnished by treasures we have picked up from others' heaps. The rest of it has been built, often by wood discarded on the side of the road. The stand that holds my TV was made out of an old king-sized box spring that was in the dumpster of the SweetSpot. I saw the pine was in good shape and my husband loves to build things, but lumber is expensive and not often in our budget. My boss was happy that she didn’t have to pay to have it removed, Daniel was thrilled to build a stand with speakers crafted into it, and I was overjoyed to be able to make him happy at virtually no cost to us!
Over the last couple years, our rescue focus has shifted. We have ministered to a plethora of young college students over Daniel's years at UW, and we delight in finding treasures we know that they can use. One year I was contacted by a young woman online who was moving to the area with her fiance. She had nothing but a queen-sized mattress and a TV. She rented a U-Haul just to come to our house, for all the furniture we had stocked in our basement. We gave her our old couch, love seat, chair, and ottoman, an end table, a box spring, a coffee table, and a dresser. Her mother stood in my driveway and cried; she couldn’t understand why we would be so generous to strangers.

Talking with her was the first time it ever dawned on me that rescuing furniture wasn’t just about my abhorrence of waste and privileged mindsets.

It was a ministry. I know what it's like to have to choose between furniture or food.


Meeting the Needs

Why should a landfill get a perfectly good hardwood table when there is a family somewhere in this town that would love that luxury and just can’t afford it?

Anyone who has ever driven much with me has witnessed my love of stopping at random houses and grabbing something from their heap on the side of the road. If I don’t know someone who can use the item, I donate it to the Community Space here in town. This past month, I helped a friend move into a home here in town where the previous tenant had been sleeping on cardboard boxes pushed together as a bed with a blanket over the top. I had two bed frames in my basement: I just didn’t know where the need was! I could have helped them find a mattress. I don’t typically rescue soft items, but tonight driving around there were at least fifteen of them in decent shape out for pickup. A roadside mattress with a good cover on it is better than nothing at all.

There is no excuse for that kind of need going unmet in my town.
If you have given your life to Christ, then you know the importance of belonging to the Church. But often we become fixated on what we think ministry is. The Church has a lot of ministry opportunities. There are Women’s Ministries, Children’s Ministries, Men’s Ministries, Youth Groups, Discipleship Groups, Worship Ministries, Hospitality Ministries, Foster Care Ministries, AWANA, VBS, etc. It is easy to feel as if you have to belong to one of these areas to be doing ministry in your life, and if we are being honest, not enough of us serve in them. It is easy to shirk responsibility for ministering to your neighbor because you aren’t a pastor and you haven’t been “called” to ministry. It is easy to use the excuses of time and busyness to justify our lack of involvement. But ministry extends to every area of our life, not just within the walls of the church building.

I have a furniture rescuing ministry.

I don’t always get to see the family who is blessed by my finds, but I get to know that they didn’t get thrown away before they had a chance to appreciate them. Tonight I rescued a console table, a corner hutch, a kitchen table and one chair, a hanging shelf, a coffee table and two matching end tables, another end table, a small shelf, a desk, and a dresser with a mirror, and a like-new booster seat.

I came home frustrated because I had to leave behind two desks, a chest, several other booster seats and car seats, baby furniture, two hardwood kitchen tables, a hutch, and an armoire. It was after ten at night, and I didn’t have the ability to grab them alone. That didn't stop my husband, nor my eldest daughter, who cracked their knuckles and got to work, then and in the morning.

Final tally? I filled my Honda van to capacity a total of nine times over three days of big-trash pickup, and praise God that I have it because it fits so much more furniture than my Mazda did!


As Doug Wilson’s ministry states, “All of Christ for all of life.” Our homeschool program, Classical Conversations, has a mission statement: “To know God and to make Him known.” Every time I pause my schedule to cram a piece of furniture in the van with my kids, I am imitating Christ in that minuscule sacrifice. Every time I get to bless another person with a piece of furniture, I have the chance to make Him known, because He is the giver of all good gifts.

My challenge to you is for you to think long and hard about your ministry. What are you doing to make Him known? Is He in control of all of your life, or just the part on Sunday mornings? Do you participate in church ministries and then just check off the box as complete, or does ministry permeate your life in the moment to moment? Do you recognize the abundant blessings He has poured out upon you, or do you throw them away without a second thought? Is Christ in all of your life or is He just in the parts where it is convenient?

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