On the first of every month, my husband and I depend on the reassuring sound of an email notification telling us our tenant Erin’s $800 rent payment has been deposited into our bank account. But now, as the calendar flips closer to April 1, we find ourselves anxious about what to do. Would it be heartless of us to expect payment during a pandemic? Is it our moral responsibility to tell her she doesn’t have to pay if she can’t afford it this month?
My husband and I and our four young children live in a small college town in upstate New York, on a street where almost every one of the historical homes is set up to house students. Erin is a junior, living in the apartment attached to the back of our house. The repercussions of COVID-19 sent her home weeks ago, her windows dark since early March when the school switched to online classes. And who could blame her? Her parents live only a half-hour away. Surely she’d rather stay isolated with her own family than listen to the muffled sounds of my husband and I breaking up fights between our restless children.
I don’t know if she has lost her job or what to expect when her rent is due. But as I try to imagine myself in her shoes, I realize I am unable to. When I was her age, I was not in college ― it wasn’t an option. The religion I was raised in, Jehovah’s Witnesses, forbade it.
I spent my young adult years riding around in the back seat of an old Buick LeSabre, going house to house, attempting to recruit new members knowing Armageddon would soon destroy anyone not of my faith. If such a thing as COVID-19 had come along, I would have felt excited, taking it as a sign that the end of the world was near. No, I could not sympathize with Erin’s situation. At her age, I was already married.
Over a decade after our wedding, and while pregnant with my fourth child, years of doubt finally led my husband and I to leave the church. What followed was nothing short of a nightmare. We were excommunicated as “apostates,” and every part of the safe, inclusive world we were raised in disappeared overnight.
Following a public announcement at the church, our friends and family were instructed to shun us. Since my husband’s family owned the farm he worked on, he lost his job. There we were ― four kids, no money, no immediate family, and no friends. And no college education. We had to sell our house. We stayed up all night with babies, cried, drank whiskey, and fought. We were miserable.
Losing that money for one month won’t kill us, but it would be hard. And what if the pandemic goes on for two months or three months or more? Are we obligated to waive Erin’s rent for those months too? Still, my rationalizations feel like self-justifications and my feelings of bitterness quickly turn to shame.
A few months ago, I walked out my back door into the hallway we share with Erin, and noticed a plate of cookies on her bench that sits outside her apartment. Attached was a note that read, “Have a good day! Love, Mom.” My throat tightened, and I choked back tears. I felt anguish over my orphaned state, my empty house on holidays, my grandparent-less kids.
Remembering that moment now, I can’t help but wonder if it really is my duty to help Erin. After all, she has the support of a loving family ― the kind that leaves cookies for no reason. If we run into financial trouble, there is no one to bail us out. We would never have been able to buy our house if not for the income of a tenant. Losing that money for one month won’t kill us, but it would be hard. And what if the pandemic goes on for two months or three months or more? Are we obligated to waive Erin’s rent for those months too? Still, my rationalizations feel like self-justifications and my feelings of bitterness quickly turn to shame.
After many years putting one foot in front of the other, my husband and I wiped our eyes and emerged on the other side of our struggles. We had our own home again, we made new friends, we could take vacations. All of this was possible because of the immeasurable compassion of others ― people who treated us like valuable human beings who were going through a rough time. When news of our situation spread in the community, countless people gave us “breaks.” Farmers let my husband’s grain payments slide. People offered us discounts, free services, jobs. My husband’s cousin started a GoFundMe for us. One day we came home to an envelope with $1,000 inside from someone we had never met.
As I reflexively refresh the news on my browser, the hardships the virus is creating remind me of our darkest days, when the very foundations we stood on vanished. I consider the people who gave us money years ago. I wonder if it was easy, for any of them. Probably not, but it made a world of a difference to us. Even now, remembering their kindness stirs up my desire to pay it forward.
At this point, neither my husband nor I are sick, and we haven’t lost our jobs. It seems only fair to consider offering Erin a discount on her rent or to set up a payment plan, and at the very least, not avoiding the discussion. Depending on her situation, we could probably be swayed to do even more, like waive her rent.
Something about a crisis feels like a gauge measuring our character. A pandemic is a unique emergency. It unfolds slowly. We can not offer up the excuse that we panicked when we have the luxury of time to figure out what the ethical thing to do is. When we found ourselves in a crisis, our situation was made measurably better through the kindness of others. Perhaps, through the acts of each of us now, the world can be made a little better, too.
Sarah Morgan is a writer, mother, and cult survivor. She lives in Upstate New York, and can be found on Instagram @Sarah.morgan.82 .
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