Lessons Learned from a Hoarder

Lydia Griffith tells us what a hoarder has taught her about life and beauty.

This semester I became a stalker. To tell the story, I’ll use the pseudonym “Beverly.”

At Wheaton College, I am part of an organization that works to bring clean water (through the installation of a gravity-fed water system) to a different Honduran community each year. To raise the money necessary for this project, we devote seven Saturdays in the fall to full 8-hour workdays in Wheaton and Glen Ellyn. Our team, made up of about 25 students, is divided every Saturday into groups of 2-4 and then sent to homes to do any tasks given to us.

For the first project of the year, accompanied by two friends, I showed up at a house within walking distance from campus at 7:45 AM. Before I had the chance to introduce myself to the woman who opened the door to us, she said, “I’m a hoarder and I have OCD.”

Her admission was confirmed as soon as we stepped into the house. We could not walk anywhere without moving boxes and bags. The kitchen sink held an ice tray, a child’s Hot Wheel car, clothing, and standing water.

After giving us a few minutes to acclimate, Beverly told us that her husband of 43 years had left ten years ago because he couldn’t handle the clutter and chaos. We were there to get her out of the house and prepare her to move  to Idaho to build a new home and a new life with her husband.

“I’ve made a deal with God to get  out of this house by September 30,” she told us. I checked the date: September 29. And September 30 was a Sunday, “a day of rest” she told us.

Though I thought I might be lying, I told her we could get the job done.

I cancelled my plans for the rest of the day, called any people I could think of, and did my best to organize what ended up being an 8-hour cleaning day with a total of 15 students. By the end of the day we had cleaned two rooms almost completely, dividing her possessions into piles for donating, disposing, and saving. Before we left, I wrote my number on a piece of paper and told Beverly to contact me any time.

I didn’t wait for her to call; instead I called her several times that Sunday and again on Monday, but she didn’t answer.

Finally, I decided to show up unannounced. She came to the door, said, “It’s Lydia, right?” and invited me in. I immediately saw that the two rooms we had cleaned had returned to their original state —boxes, clothes, decorations, and books, were scattered around.

It was now October 1, but I still had hope that we could get Beverly out of the house. We agreed to attribute all of the progress to-date to the faithfulness of God and to continue the work…Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. This went on for weeks. Some nights we worked late into the evening. Other nights Beverly said she was too tired to work so I worked quietly and sorted while she slept. When neither of us had the energy to work, we read Scripture and prayed, as was her custom.

One night, I found a torn-up Bible on a hard-to-reach shelf.

 “That belonged to my father,” Beverly said. “You can have it.”

“You should keep it,” I said, and then told her that she was one of the most generous, self-forgetful people I knew.  I asked her how she came to be like that.

She paused. “That’s how a lot of this started. I used to go to garage sales each week to shop for Christmas gifts.”

I thought of the many evenings we sifted through items she saw as treasure. A few items she wanted to keep. When I suggested she throw away an item, Beverly resisted.

“But couldn’t someone use it? Like a poor person? Or do you want it?”

I began to see what had always been true: Beverly was beautiful, not just abstractly, or in an “Imago Dei” sense. She was concretely beautiful too. Her generosity was her beauty, even as it had also brought about her disorder. She hoarded things because she wanted to give them away.

Beautiful things can become ugly. A beautiful face can mask an ugly soul. But I began to understand that the opposite can also be true. Behind the ugly and unsightly piles was the beauty of Beverly’s generous heart, her giving spirit. I just had to pay attention to see it. May I never be guilty of betraying beauty!

In mid-November, we finally got the last of Beverly’s belongings out of the house. Our relationship has since changed. We now spend evenings at the Seven Dwarves or go to Alfie’s for burgers. I ask her for advice, she offers encouragement, and we share stories. When I’m away from school, we talk on the phone.

As I reflect on this story, I am a little bit embarrassed that I have become a stalker. I don’t leave Beverly alone. I keep track of her children, her schedule, and her husband. I go to her house that is now being remodeled, and I know the names of each construction worker. I know Beverly’s garage code and I use it.

What does it mean to be a Christian? Beyond the stock answers, “a believer in Christianity”, “a follower of Jesus”, I have no idea. But I believe that being a Christian is manifest in a lot of small choices. Sometimes it means doing the dishes; sometimes it means ignoring the dishes to stay at the table. Sometimes it means attending your kid’s soccer game; sometimes it means letting your kid play away from your watchful eye.

When I stood on Beverly’s doorstep a few months ago, uninvited yet knocking still, I was reminded of the Lord’s words in Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.” Sometimes being a Christian means turning the doorknob to let God in. Sometimes it means standing at the door and knocking until someone lets you in. It depends on what side of the door you’re on.