Merciful Debt

The implications of generosity, aid, and what we owe

An outstretched hand reaches for a fan of bills, held by a large, looming hand

Collage by Rob Lewis

Pilgrim’s Pride came to town my last semester of high school. Our hometown poultry processor, Wampler-Longacre, had invented factory-farmed turkey and put our county on the map as the poultry capital of the world. A few years before, they’d outmaneuvered a hostile takeover from Tyson, but now genial Mr. Wampler was relinquishing his poultry empire to Pilgrim’s Pride, and someone had mistakenly invited Mr. Pilgrim to give a talk in our high school’s daily chapel.

This was a Mennonite school, and although I grew up Mennonite, I wasn’t really supposed to be there: tuition was five thousand dollars a year. But starting in seventh grade, anonymous donors had filled the gap between financial aid and my family’s reality. Who were my benefactors? I looked around at my community—a friend’s mother, a man from church, the brother of an uncle—and wondered if they had helped, and why they thought I deserved bailing out. I already knew I didn’t deserve it. My faith had eroded before I turned twelve, but I kept silent—my queer faithlessness was an indulgence I couldn’t afford.


In kindergarten, I had once asked my mother how much money we had. There were four thousand dollars in our bank account, she said, and I was delighted to learn we were rich. When my brother and I raised pumpkins all summer and sold them at the end of the lane, we had to pretend it wasn’t satanic that people were going to carve them into jack-o’-lanterns. The deception was worth it for the forty-odd dollars we pocketed. Four thousand was beyond dreams. But then my mother explained that being in our bank account didn’t make the money ours. Some of it was for taxes and a lot of it was the doctor’s, and really we had negative money. Sometimes there was too little to tax, depending on which side of the poverty line we landed each year.

And this negative money wasn’t even respectable middle-class debt with tax-deductible interest. Sometimes it was soft, merciful debt—the landlord looking away and saying Forget about the rent this month, or Grandma and Grandpa writing a loan for the car repairs. Most of our debt was Mennonite debt, the kind you owe to a community that watches over you, the kind that draws sighs and whispered attention, the kind you can never repay.

I still didn’t believe we were poor. Poor was my friend’s house with the kitchen full of trash, or the Romanian woman who told our church about drinking her jailers’ dirty dishwater for supper. The government knew we were poor—Medicaid, CHIP, free lunches—and churches in the city knew we were poor; they sent us stuffed animals and charity undies every year. But I didn’t know it, because we were Mennonite poor. In church we held replica tongue screws and read aloud the letters our martyred ancestors wrote to the children they would never see again. Neither our suffering nor our virtue could ever compare to that ancestral debt, and so we were the poor who tithed and strained to overwhelm our poverty with virtuous frugality.

We didn’t drink or buy junk food or drive fancy cars or go on vacation. We grew food and hauled firewood and stopped for people with car trouble and gave hitchhikers beds for the night. We rescued chickens that fell off the Wampler-Longacre trucks, let them grow big and tough in our yard, then stewed them. We stewed the snapping turtles too, and venison, and my mother filled the freezer and root cellar. As feisty and bootstrappy as a capitalist’s fantasy, still we struggled, soaked up our community’s generosity just to stay afloat. The green always out of reach.

All that generosity wasn’t enough to rescue my faith, which year by year trickled away. Why didn’t faith healers ever cure my father’s seizures? Why did the girls who tearfully pledged their souls at altar calls turn around and pick on me? Where was all the evidence of God—where was any evidence? When I looked beyond my community, mostly there was evidence of people using God to excuse their fear and greed. But I couldn’t bear to say anything, not to my own community, which had worked so hard to keep me safe, which had shown me so much evidence of their faith in a God I saw only as a comforting illusion.

One Sunday I watched the pastor’s wife testify again to God’s victory over Satan’s migraines. She broke into song; I squirmed against my shameful cynicism. I had no faith, but that itself was no great loss when I had math, biology, orchards, mountains (even migraines of my own!). What hurt was my dread of being known, of anyone seeing through my pretense as I held myself rigid and closed my eyes when hands were laid on me in prayer. I questioned my community’s credulous judgment, and yet was terrified of that judgment ever being turned against me.


In those years, I worked all summer in the orchard to pay for classes at the local college. If I could only be twice the student everyone else was, maybe I could get ahead enough to catch my breath, get steady, be virtuous enough to make up for the double failings of faithlessness and poverty.

Our landlord was a particularly conservative Mennonite, so in the summer we pulled on sweaters to cover our bare shoulders when we heard his truck coming up the lane. In a decade, he’d never raised the rent. So what if he kept track of our comings and goings and visitors? We couldn’t afford to expose our family’s wavering faith. My mother was quietly losing patience with Mennonite patriarchy, which both demanded and lauded the uncomplaining suffering of Mennonite women, while my brother abandoned it entirely and without shame, staying out late to get high and skateboard in church parking lots. Later he had a child out of wedlock. My father hurried the baby upstairs during the landlord’s visits—as if we could hide a human being for virtue.

By spring of senior year, my parents had split and my father moved to town. The landlord asked my father if he should kick my mother and us kids out—now that she was a single woman, living in sin, it piqued his conscience to harbor us in his rental.

My father persuaded him that that wasn’t necessary, which in turn left us in my father’s debt. When his uncontrolled seizures dried up his construction income, my mother relented and let him move back onto the living room couch for a month. The whole church showed up to help him move, hoping it would lead to the reconciliation God wanted for my parents. He stayed for a year, and, like my mother, I began to see how the church picked its causes. Nobody showed up to help him move out.


By the time Pilgrim’s Pride came to town, my bank account was in the single digits. I’d splurged on a semester of abstract algebra at the urging of my calculus professor and discovered that my favorite math avoided numbers entirely. Proofs and theorems were so much cleaner—a logic unsullied by venal calculations, a path to some kind of future where I wasn’t in arrears, was just myself.

On the morning of Mr. Pilgrim’s talk, I slipped into my high school’s chapel, congratulating myself on dodging the ushers handing out tracts at the door. But as I found my seat, papers rustled, kids gasped and giggled, and money floated into their laps. Mr. Pilgrim had tucked a twenty-dollar bill inside each tract. Three hundred kids, six thousand dollars in their pockets. He went on to speak for half an hour about how faith in Jesus had made him rich, and here in our hands was the evidence. Then the lights dimmed, and he closed with a patriotic music video. This was living in the green, green as bright as salvation, green enough to shower us in his cash.


Poor Mr. Pilgrim had no idea about Mennonites. When Mennonites give, their right hands don’t know what their left hands are doing. (I should know—I have held so many Mennonite hands.) Mennonites don’t stand on stages passing out twenties. They don’t thank Jesus for their greed. They make a few quiet phone calls, then get to work hauling out the trash, building a new barn, whatever needs doing. So a few students organized a collection for those who felt uneasy with the Pilgrim’s Pride money and announced at lunch that they’d send it to an overseas disaster relief project. Most of my friends did that, except for one—someone thought I needed the money more than the disaster.


In college, I thought I had finally cleared my debt. I had good scholarships and my mother’s thrifty instincts, a double major and perfect grades. Enough virtue to lose my faith in good conscience and start smoking cloves, to stumble home with beautiful people and write cynical poems about them. To be just myself, messy in love, happy, known.

But coming home for Christmas one year, I found our gravel road lined with fire trucks. The house stood and so did all its people—it was an ancient brick thing—but among the flashing lights and smoke and firefighters dragging hoses over the soaked carpeting, the landlord stood shaking his head. He hadn’t raised the rent on us sinners in thirteen years, and what had it gotten him? Higher premiums.

My mother didn’t have renter’s insurance, but in an act of baffling generosity, the Mennonite insurance company helped us anyway. So did my friends, church people, old crushes—everyone came to pack up the wet burnt trash that used to be my books and dresses, to drag the garbage bags out through the cold, smoke-stained house, heaping up yet more of the debt I could never repay. Debt on debt: like when an acquaintance offered their apartment, or when my professor wrote my mother a check for a whole month’s rent, or when the neighbors up the road sent us a Walmart gift card to replace our burnt clothing. I spent their gift card on the first bra I’d ever owned that didn’t come from Salvation Army or Mercy House. That bra felt like my faithlessness—a debt of guilt I could never discharge, worn right next to my skin.


Over time, the runoff from Mr. Pilgrim’s poultry plants flooded our creeks and ponds, staining the whole county chartreuse with duckweed and algae before he sold out to a Brazilian multinational. He didn’t see debt at all, only the wealth that meant God’s favor.

The day he visited my high school, I had returned to school late after abstract algebra. The lockers at the Mennonite school didn’t lock, and that’s how my benefactor had been able to prop Mr. Pilgrim’s twenty on the shelf. One more anonymous gift to add to my debt.

I was delighted, grateful. I looked around like I might still find my friend, but the halls were empty. I picked up the bill, crisp, one smooth curve in the middle. Should I be embarrassed? I was hardly a cause on par with disaster relief. And yet it was my two-week grocery budget. It was three hours in the orchard. It was the show all my friends were going to. If I were virtuous I would have donated it to the disaster fund, but the giver’s tender generosity hit too near the mark.

Some gifts came with strings, and sometimes I attached those strings myself. Eventually, perhaps, I could learn to accept generosity in good faith—to be honest not only about what mercy I’ve received, but also who I am.

In the end, that twenty-dollar bill was half a college application fee, and I took it as silently as it was given.  


Belonging, Religion, Money


5 comments have been posted.

What a moving piece, and what memories it evokes! I/we owe you and your family far more than you will ever know.

Harvey Yoder | January 2024 |

This was a lovely poignant read. I hope your mother is doing ok. A lifetime in debt is an invisible burden.

Alison | December 2023 | Sutherland VA

You showed the complexity of it all so beautifully, in such a real fashion. I love your words!

Sylvia Weaver | December 2023 |

Wow, what an amazing read! Thank you so much.❤️ Patricia

Patricia Riggles-Gervais | December 2023 | Oregon

Wow. Appreciate your thoughtful perspective on what, if anything, is "owed" for gifts/supports that have been provided. Gifts should be of generosity & not expectation of return.

AN | December 2023 |

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Editor's Note: Green

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Tonalidades de la Vida / Shades of Life

Buying In

Portrait of My Mother in Mint Green

Losing the Forest for the Trees

Memoria Ancestral

Merciful Debt


People, Places, Things: The Dalles, Oregon, 1988

Discussion Questions and Further Reading for "Green"