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When forgiveness involves dollars

By Alma Barkman

06/17/2015

“Suburban bungalow for rent. Three bedrooms, large yard, close to school . . .”

I finished giving the particulars of the ad to the local newspaper and hung up the phone.

“I wonder what kind of neighbours we’ll get?” I wondered aloud to my husband Leo. We owned the house next door and every time tenants vacated I was the one who screened the calls from would-be renters

Within hours after the ad appeared in the paper, I had a list of people who wanted to see the house. Among them was a quiet, congenial couple somewhat older than ourselves whom I will call Margaret and Ken. They had two teenagers still at home. Ken was, in his own words, a self-employed “jack of all trades and master of none.” Margaret was a homemaker.

I took a liking to them and within a few days they moved in next door.

Margaret soon started popping in to swap recipes and sewing tips with me, and as the summer went by, we became friends. When the neighbourhood Bible study for women started up in fall, Margaret agreed to go with me.

It soon became apparent that Margaret had been raised in a dysfunctional home where a hypocritical father had embittered her toward people of faith who didn’t “walk the talk.” Margaret’s overreaction was to hold unrealistic expectations of all of them. Her attitude kept my husband and me on our spiritual toes as landlords.

When Ken and Margaret began to default on their rent, however, I found myself in a particularly awkward situation. Can’t they see that we have bills to pay as well?

A month went by, and then another, and still no rent. The situation was further aggravated by Ken and Margaret’s obvious lack of priorities when it came to finances. On many occasions, I found myself seething inwardly. They can’t pay the rent, but they can afford a second TV. We’re living on hamburger while they’re out in the back yard barbecuing steaks. They expect us to keep our promises, but what about them? They’ve promised us the rent money over and over.

Communication became more and more awkward, and then stopped altogether. We debated about evicting them, but decided against it in November. Margaret was sick. Not in December. It was Christmas. Not in January. It was too cold.

Without the rent money, we found it increasingly difficult to keep up with our own financial obligations. Rather than compounding the dilemma further, in February we reluctantly asked them to vacate.

As I cleaned the empty house in preparation for renting it out again, I struggled with mixed feelings. I would miss Margaret’s friendship, but why did they take advantage of us like that? Did she understand our predicament, or did she condemn us for having no compassion? They owed us rent, but had we done the right thing in evicting them?

Such thoughts troubled me off and on for three long years.

And then one day I unexpectedly met Margaret while out shopping.

“Have you time for coffee?” Margaret asked.

I didn’t know quite what to say. If I say no, she’ll think I’m bearing a grudge, but if I agree, will I have to face her condemnation? I had never forgotten how sharp Margaret’s tongue could be toward “hypocrites.” Nevertheless I decided to take the chance. “Sure, let’s have coffee.”

When the waitress put the steaming mugs on the table, I offered to pay.

“No,” said Margaret. “Please let me.” She put her hand on my arm and looked pleadingly into my face with her dark brown eyes. I set my handbag aside.

As we began to chat, I could tell by Margaret’s attitude that any resentment she may have harboured had long since disappeared. As she told of her present circumstances, it also became clear why she had wanted to treat me to a cup of coffee. It was a token of the restitution they would never be able to make.

I drove home that day relishing the sense of peace that mutual forgiveness brings. In the economy of God, it cost three months rent, but it was also the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted.

Barkman is a freelance writer who lives in Winnipeg (almabarkman.com)