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A penny. A mite.
Jesus was sitting in the temple people-watching with his disciples. I imagine him in contemplation as he watched a frail, elderly woman hobble up the steps and drop two coins into the temple offering. He recognized the opportunity for a moment of teaching as he turned toward his disciples. This woman has given more than any other person here. Even though she is poor and has very little, she has sacrificed all she has. Others here today may have given larger gifts, and have been praised by many, but their offerings were given from a place of abundance. Their gift was not as great a sacrifice as hers.
This story always reminds me of my grandma. She passed from this life nine years ago. My grandma, Juanita Davidson Holden, had a hard life of poverty, yet she found abundant joy in each day, and deeply loved her God and her family. My grandma and grandpa both grew up poor, lived poor, and were from families with deep generational roots in these mountains. My Papaw Tom was a laborer who worked for Sam Powell in the old furniture store on the square, was a groundskeeper at Roller Cemetery for years, and worked on the construction of both Norfork and Bull Shoals dams. While working on the Bull Shoals project, he helped move his first wife’s grave, along with many others, to Fairview Cemetery, before Bull Shoals lake filled up. My grandma worked some local factory jobs for a few years, but she spent much of her life as a homemaker working a homestead. They had no retirement plan, and very little savings.
My grandparents were never in the social or political “spotlight” of Mountain Home. They had no money, power, or influence, but they were life-long members of this community. They were under-educated and under-represented. No one gave them a voice. No one advocated for them. But at least they were not alone. Most people living here back then were just like them – simple country folk carving out a living to barely survive, with no time to engage in much of anything else.
My grandparents witnessed the immigration of folks from up north and the growth of the retiree population. I never heard them make one negative comment about that; they were humble, hospitable, welcoming, and kind to all. They appreciated that others saw the beauty of the land and desired the simplicity of rural living and a slower pace in the waning years of their life.
My grandmother lived long enough to also see the beginnings of another significant culture change in Mountain Home. A new demographic of immigrants started to show up; it was no longer primarily retirees looking for a safe, quiet place to live. Mountain Home had been discovered by wealthy, aggressive property buyers and other high-income entrepreneurs. They saw the beauty of the land, lakes, rivers, and the low property prices, and recognized a prime opportunity for making more money. Buying and investing when prices were low, then using “economic development” initiatives to market Mountain Home nationwide as a destination location for young medical professionals and entrepreneurs. The target audience for their marketing is people who have the money for the recently inflated prices of property, and together these sellers and buyers are fueling a growing crisis of homelessness and economic insecurity within the poor and working classes.
I recently read somewhere that 86% of MH residents have lived here less than 20 years. The economic development initiatives seem to be focused on entertainment and aesthetics to attract a specific professional demographic, rather than creating good paying jobs for the working class. Life-long, generational natives and other working-class families are being driven out of the area because of an effort to mold an ideal, elite, community worthy of consideration by people with money.
Coupled with this questionable economic development effort, which disproportionately benefits a select group, we’ve had record inflation and increased taxes, some pushed onto the public using questionable means. The price of food, housing, gas, utilities, and other essentials has created an unbearable burden on poor working families, single parents, and retirees. The price of that gallon of milk is the same for someone making $24,000 a year as it is for the person making $700,000 a year. That gallon of gas is the same for someone driving a beater 2001 Chevy as it is for someone driving a brand-new Range Rover. Just like the story of the widow’s mite, the price is relative to an individual’s personal financial situation.
When my grandpa died in 1996, my grandma was left with their home and a few acres of land out on what was once known as Conley Road. They had bought their place sometime late in the 1950’s for about $4,000. When he passed, she was in her sixties and her only income was a $660 monthly social security check. She continued to keep a big garden and spent her summers canning up food for the future. Since she owned her house, she didn’t qualify for enough assistance to make a difference. She still had an old car to maintain. She had to pay for electricity, propane, groceries, medical bills, insurance, property taxes, and of course, her church tithe.
Mamaw Juanita attended the old Nazarene Church on Market Street for most of her adult life. In her later years, she started attending the Flippin Church of God. Whichever church she attended, she always, always put her money in the offering plate. That was the first money she set aside every month when she got her check. Everything else, no matter how necessary it was, came secondary.
I think about her every day. Lately, I’ve wondered how my sweet grandma would feel about what has happened to our community. I’ve wondered what she would think if she saw the campaign of the wealthy, with doctors, financial advisors, and high-level educators, proudly posting their videos urging people to vote for a tax that will hit the poorest the hardest. I’ve seen posts from long-time resident doctors, from individuals and families that I’ve known and respected for years, saying we need this tax to improve infrastructure to help entice doctors and their wives to our area, because they need nicer things, and collectively we must give it to them.
I think about Dr. Dunbar, the physician to the poor, and I wonder what he would think. I had many trips to his small clinic in the back of the drugstore on the square. His mission was to provide medical care to anyone needing it, regardless of their ability to pay. You could get a penicillin shot for just a few bucks and be on your way. No insurance boondoggles. No hassles. Just see the doc and get a shot. Folks back then joked about his “square needles” because he didn’t spend the money on having the latest and greatest medical supplies; he was all about focusing on the people and giving the care they needed at an affordable price. Dr. Dunbar left a legacy in the memories of those of us who knew and respected him and those who benefited from his compassionate service. He also left another legacy in our community that still stands today. Through his generous donation to the school, he funded the construction of Dunbar Auditorium, which stands on the campus of Mountain Home High School.
We now have a campaign that appears to be the “haves” versus the “have nots.” The “haves” want something, but they want to force everyone, including the “have nots” to foot the bill. Either these folks are not grasping how hard it is for the average person or family, or they simply do not care. They have missed such a great opportunity – instead of a campaign for a forced tax on everyone, without regard for their individual means, this group of high-profile people could have spent their time, money, influence, respect, and video productions on a capital campaign for donations to raise the money for what they want. They could have worked to supplement the school’s fund and the state’s funds, with individual contributions to meet and then exceed the needs at the high school. I promise you, if the Mountain Home community would have taken that route, and my Mamaw Juanita was still with us, she would be giving, graciously, of what she could afford. You wouldn’t have to force it from her against her will and drive her deeper into a hole of despair. She would have found a way to make her sacrifice for the cause and would have given from a place of love.
I’ve lived here for a lifetime. I’m saddened, disappointed, and frankly, stunned, by what’s happening here, and by how quickly a small, rural town has turned from one of hospitality, graciousness and giving, to one of vitriol, greed, and indifference for the plight of the suffering. I am imploring this community, which is now its own melting pot of socio-economic statuses and political ideologies, to please consider what type of community we want going forward. I hope we find a way to retain compassion, understanding, respect, and empathy for all who live here, and that we find a way to move forward as one, without leaving anyone behind. Please remember the widows and the orphans, and please, don’t tax the widow’s mite.