Poor or rich? (cont.)

Whatever Happened to the Rich Little Poor Girl?

Catching up with Eddie Ogan, author of “The Rich Family in Church
by Kimberly Claassen

“All my life, I’ve been able to find something funny in anything that happened.” So says Eddie Ogan.

And most things were. But her story of a childhood Easter was a slight miscalculation. The story she wrote to make people laugh, made them cry. As she copied the letter with that story in it, folded and stamped it, sending it around the world to missionaries who could use a laugh in their day, she never guessed its bittersweetness would give pause to millions of readers worldwide for years to come.

The Rich Little Poor Girl

“We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our Mom and Dad for parents [Dad died several years before the Easter story] and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly,” Eddie wrote. “We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or the fork that night. We had two knives that we passed around to whoever needed them. I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had, but I’d never thought we were poor.”

This slice of Eddie’s childhood, set in 1946, has become known as “The Rich Family in Church.” Written in a letter to missionaries in 1990, it took on a life of its own and still circulates in magazines, books (Chicken Soup for the Golden Soul), and Web sites ( pulls up 100 links to her story—including translations in German and Indonesian). Other than some versions mistaking Eddie for a boy (her name is pronounced like the male name, “Eddy”), the story has remained intact.

Eddie (Smith) Ogan, the sixth of seven children, who found out at age 14 that she was “poor” is now 72. She and her husband, Phil, live on Social Security. They clean the grounds and bathrooms at the Northeast Washington Fair; the Colville, Washington, Father’s Day Rodeo; and Town and Country Days at the next town over.

Are you thinking that poor girl became even more poor? Then you don’t know the end of that Easter story, and you don’t know Eddie Ogan.

Growing Up “Poor”

“We didn’t have much, but everything we had was shared with everybody else,” Eddie says. “If any kid needed a place to stay, we took him in. If anybody didn’t have clothing, Mom would do everything she could to come up with something for them.”

With bounty to share, it never occurred to Eddie that they didn’t have enough. Perhaps that explains why she and her husband have 13 children—12 of them adopted—and have fostered 77 children.

For Eddie, the dozen-plus-one children are an unexpected fulfillment of childhood determination.

“When I grow up, I’m going to have 12 children,” she’d tell her mom repeatedly. “And they’re going to be red and yellow, black and white.” That was Eddie’s favorite song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white….” It made sense to her that all would be in one family. Her family.

“So my mother spent years and years telling me I would grow up to marry a white man, we would have white children, and I wouldn’t want a dozen of them.”

By the time Eddie and Phil had 12 children, they indeed had red and yellow, black and white: six Korean (two of them half-black), three American Indian, three Caucasian. And Eddie’s mother wondered why she’d wasted so many years trying to convince Eddie differently.

In truth, neither the fostering nor the adoptions were exactly in Eddie and Phil’s long-range plans. When on their eighth adoption, their caseworker asked how many children they planned to adopt.

“We never planned to adopt,” Phil told her. “But I was raised without anyone telling me I was loved. So, if it’s a matter of another child not having anyone to tell them that they’re loved, well, I do love them.”

In particular, Phil wanted to love Korean children.

A highly decorated serviceman during the Korean War, Phil served in Korea six years, including three years during occupation and 20 months during peace talks.

“He had a lot of nightmares about babies that were lying alongside the road that they couldn’t do anything about,” Eddie says. “It bothered him that so many children were fathered by American servicemen and weren’t socially acceptable in Korea. So when the first Korean children came over, we wrote to see if there was any way we could adopt Korean children.”

They didn’t care if the child was male or female, handicapped or not. “We got our daughter Suzie when she was two and a half. Our doctors here told us we should send her back to the orphanage because she was so emotionally upset that she would never be normal. Every time you made a move by her she would throw her hands over her head and lean forward, trying to protect herself.” Though it took a year before anyone could move near Suzie without her dropping to the floor, by the time she entered kindergarten, she was as eager as any other child.

Suzie was their third adopted child. When she and her two sisters begged for a baby brother, Eddie told them they didn’t have enough money to adopt a baby brother. “They prayed that God would give them a baby brother,” Eddie says. “I should not have been able to have children, but I had Timothy.”

With three children in the house and one on the way, they got word of another child. Tom was crippled by polio, paralyzed from the waist down.

“I felt that we couldn’t afford him at that time,” Eddie says. “I talked to everybody. I went to everybody I could think of who might possibly be interested in adopting him. I couldn’t believe that nobody was interested. Finally, we decided that we would adopt him because nobody else would.”

While in the process of adopting Tom, Tim was born. Then the roof started leaking. They had to take the money they’d borrowed for the adoption to put a new roof on the house. They couldn’t afford Tom, after all.

“For six months, my husband said he didn’t even want me to say anything about Tom because it bothered him so much,” Eddie says. “Then on Christmas Eve, the Lord spoke to him and told him that if he adopted Tom, He would always take care of us—we would never go without.”

They had just paid off Suzie’s airplane ticket, so they could again borrow money from the bank—this time, for Tom’s ticket. “He was four-and-a-half years old,” Eddie says. “He was the same size as our 8-month-old son. He weighed the same amount. He came to us in a box. They had him in a cardboard box with a pillow in front of him so he wouldn’t fall over in the box.”

They were told Tom would never walk, but “after a great deal of prayer, he got feeling in his legs,” Eddie says. “One leg, that was so terribly short, grew longer. He stood alone for the first time on Mother’s Day. Thinking back, that, to me, is one of the biggest high points in my life—when Tom stood alone for two seconds on Mothers Day.”

The only remnant of those early days for Tom, now a successful businessman in his late 40s, is a limp.

Worldwide Correspondent

In 1961, Eddie had those first five children at home—seven years and younger—when she took three days off for a church conference. She was unsuspecting when she picked up a booklet listing the 40 or so missionaries within their church district. The divine nudging took her by surprise.

“I felt that the Lord spoke to me and said He wanted me to write to all these missionaries,” Eddie says. “Immediately, I told the Lord, ‘I couldn’t do that. I haven’t even been to Bible school.’ These were missionaries. They’re just two steps under God. The Lord then said, ‘They don’t need your theology. They need your sense of humor.’”

With five children, Eddie had plenty of material. Her first letter brought a response from a family in India.

“They wrote back and said that when they’d gone to India, there was this elderly missionary in his seventies,” Eddie explains. “He was retiring and going home. They asked him, as new missionaries on the field, what to do. They were so disappointed because the only thing he said to them was, ‘Find something to laugh about every day, and you’ll be successful. If you don’t, India will kill you.’

“They thought this was stupid advice. He’d been there 40-plus years, and they thought he would have some great words of wisdom. They said then that the longer they were there, they realized it was actually the best advice anyone had ever given them: to find something to laugh about every day. That’s what my letters are supposed to be for. To make people laugh.”

Reaching back into her childhood—or grabbing material from her present-day mothering—Eddie wrote at the beginning of each month. One missionary told her, “The only thing that has kept me going all these years is your false teeth letter.”

Missionary children around the world came to know her as Aunt Eddie, though they’d never met her. The 40 missionaries on Eddie’s original list sent her letters on to other missionaries. The list grew. Missionaries retired, and children grew up but asked to remain on her list. New missionaries replaced the retiring missionaries. The list grew.

The first year, Eddie hand-wrote each letter. The next year, 1962, she moved to a duplicating process using heavy ink carbon paper. It was slow but—since it was faster than handwriting—an improvement.

In 1963, Eddie was ready to take up her church’s offer of using its memeograph machine. They loaned her the stencils. She cut out the letter at home, then took it to the church office to print.

With each letter, Eddie enclosed a small surprise: stamps, Kool-Aid, or gum; whatever she found that month that fit inside the envelope. They’re “like a box of Cracker Jack,” one missionary said. “There’s a prize in every envelope.”

No More Letters

Those letters ended in 1979, when a new secretary and a new pastor entered the church office, and the office equipment was restricted to church use.

“We [took the letter] to the print shop,” Eddie says. “It was just plain more money than we could squeeze out of our budget. There was no way we could pay. I bawled for a couple days and then thought, ‘Well, maybe that time is through.’”

In the meantime, Eddie and Phil had adopted several more children and begun foster parenting.

“I was raised with so much love and affection that I felt sorry for the ones that didn’t have it,” Eddie says. When the youngest of their seven children entered kindergarten, “I was home all alone,” she says. “I knew we couldn’t afford to adopt more kids. The house was empty, and I thought I had a lot of love to give.”

Children from age 17 down to infancy stayed under their roof; four foster children were ultimately adopted into the Ogan family. By the time Phil and Eddie let their foster parent license expire in 2002, 77 children had stayed with them.

Busy with her children and foster children, Eddie had one more reason to think her letter-writing days were over. In 1979 she found out she had cancer. For the second time. The first time, in 1965, resulted in a hysterectomy. This time Eddie had an inoperable brain tumor.

“I’ll go home, and take care of my kids,” she told the doctor. “If it’s the Lord’s time for me to die, I’ll die. If not, I’ll live.” Two months later, the tumor was gone.

In 1984 the battle broke out in new territory. A malignant growth in her kidney ruptured the organ; cancer spread through her system. This kind of cancer had to be surgically removed—and that was impossible.

“The doctor told us, ‘If there are any dreams, you need to do it now,’” Eddie says. “We had always dreamed that when my husband retired, we’d move to eastern Washington and build a log cabin in the mountains on a creek.”

Phil quit his job, and the family, including several foster children, moved to a spot on Clugston Creek in the Gillette Mountains of eastern Washington. They built their log cabin.

Eddie’s new pastor was worried about her as she became thinner and thinner. “He didn’t know I had cancer,” Eddie says. “When people know you have cancer, they don’t act normal. They think you’re dying, so they hardly talk to you normally. So I didn’t tell anyone. We knew that when it got a little further along, we would call the welfare office and say they’d need to find another home for our current foster children.”

They moved into their cabin on a Sunday in September 1985 and went to church that evening. “The pastor preached a sermon explaining that no one knows how long they have to live,” Eddie says. “The doctor may say you have only a year to live—you may still be around in 20 years. The pastor wanted people who were willing to dedicate the rest of their lives to God, no matter how long they had to live.

“I rushed up to the altar where I told the Lord I might have three months left. ‘I’ll do whatever You want me to do, whatever time I have left of life is yours. I want to give it totally to You.’ “

Now at age 72, Eddie Ogan has no problem telling people her age nor the fact that, at her height of 6 feet, she weighs 238 pounds. She’s healthy and thankful for it. “The Lord has given me the strength I need for whatever I do,” she says. “Every day I have is a gift from Him.”

Back in the Saddle Again

In 1988, Eddie headed out on her second missionary trip—a month-long circuit to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and China. She kept running into missionaries who knew only her signature. “They’d gasp and say, ‘I thought you’d died 10 years ago!’ Eddie says. They begged her to start writing again.

Then Dave Ellis, the child of missionaries and now a missionary himself, came to Eddie’s town for a conference. Upon meeting Eddie, he added his plea.

“I was just telling my wife how we always waited for Aunt Eddie’s letters to come,” he told her. “When you sent gum, we’d chew it until it was out of flavor, then keep the wrapper to sniff.” If only their daughters had an Aunt Eddie, as well, he pined.

“Aunt Eddie made us feel special and wanted, and we felt we knew her although we had never met her,” he said.

He urged her to begin writing again. “After all, receiving letters from home is part of what being a missionary is.”

Eddie wrote a letter the following month and hasn’t quit since. Her letters carry the addresses of 200 missionaries and missionary kids.

Sharing the Wealth

In 1946, as a widow and three young daughters stared at the money they had earned for the poor family scattered across their own floor, silence entered the usually chatty home.

What redeemed this story for Eddie and her sisters in 1946 continues to redeem readers today. The young family, newly poor while holding the most money they’d ever seen, trudged to church the next week. A missionary visiting from Africa told of poor people who needed the church’s help. When the pastor decided to take a special offering, this family smiled for the first time in a week and promptly deposited the envelope with $87 into the offering plate.

The missionary was delighted. The offering of a little more than $100 was much more than he expected from this small church. His words, “You must have a rich family in this church!” may have brought a pleased—or perhaps confused—smile to the faces of the congregation that day. But for one small family, they were words of life.

“Though the minister had said we were poor, the missionary said that we were rich,” Eddie tells. “We believed the missionary.”

So now Eddie and Phil live as the rich family they are: Social Security meets their needs. Any other money they bring in, they turn around and send out again. The $1,000 for cleaning the grounds and bathrooms at fairs and rodeos buys copies of The Book of Hope, distributed to children and youth worldwide. Eddie’s job of agricultural surveys contributes to projects such as shoes for orphans in Siberia, material to make rag dolls for orphans in Japan, and postage for her monthly letter.

Because that letter will continue to go out.

“Unless the Lord tells me to quit writing, I’m not going to quit writing now,” Eddie says. “I quit for the wrong reason to begin with. I didn’t pray about it. I just quit. I expect to write every month until I’m dead or have Alzheimer’s. I firmly believe with all my heart that the Lord will provide whatever I need.”

(found at Mikey’s Funnies, go there to read several responses to the original story and an interesting discussion about the difference between poor and broke, and how to help her present ministry)

Poor or rich?

The Rich Family In Church

(by Eddie Ogan)

I’ll never forget Easter 1946. I was 14, my little sister Ocy was 12, and my older sister Darlene 16. We lived at home with our mother, and the four of us knew what it was to do without many things. My dad had died five years before, leaving Mom with seven school kids to raise and no money.

By 1946 my older sisters were married and my brothers had left home. A month before Easter the pastor of our church announced that a special Easter offering would be taken to help a poor family. He asked everyone to save and give sacrificially.

When we got home, we talked about what we could do. We decided to buy 50 pounds of potatoes and live on them for a month. This would allow us to save $20 of our grocery money for the offering. When we thought that if we kept our electric lights turned out as much as possible and didn’t listen to the radio, we’d save money on that month’s electric bill. Darlene got as many house and yard cleaning jobs as possible, and both of us babysat for everyone we could. For 15 cents we could buy enough cotton loops to make three pot holders to sell for $1.

We made $20 on pot holders. That month was one of the best of our lives.

Every day we counted the money to see how much we had saved. At night we’d sit in the dark and talk about how the poor family was going to enjoy having the money the church would give them. We had about 80 people in church, so figured that whatever amount of money we had to give, the offering would surely be 20 times that much. After all, every Sunday the pastor had reminded everyone to save for the sacrificial offering.

The day before Easter, Ocy and I walked to the grocery store and got the manager to give us three crisp $20 bills and one $10 bill for all our change.

We ran all the way home to show Mom and Darlene. We had never had so much money before.

That night we were so excited we could hardly sleep. We didn’t care that we wouldn’t have new clothes for Easter; we had $70 for the sacrificial offering.

We could hardly wait to get to church! On Sunday morning, rain was pouring. We didn’t own an umbrella, and the church was over a mile from our home, but it didn’t seem to matter how wet we got. Darlene had cardboard in her shoes to fill the holes. The cardboard came apart, and her feet got wet.

But we sat in church proudly. I heard some teenagers talking about the Smith girls having on their old dresses. I looked at them in their new clothes, and I felt rich.

When the sacrificial offering was taken, we were sitting on the second row from the front. Mom put in the $10 bill, and each of us kids put in a $20.

As we walked home after church, we sang all the way. At lunch Mom had a surprise for us. She had bought a dozen eggs, and we had boiled Easter eggs with our fried potatoes! Late that afternoon the minister drove up in his car. Mom went to the door, talked with him for a moment, and then came back with an envelope in her hand. We asked what it was, but she didn’t say a word. She opened the envelope and out fell a bunch of money. There were three crisp $20 bills, one $10 and seventeen $1 bills.

Mom put the money back in the envelope. We didn’t talk, just sat and stared at the floor. We had gone from feeling like millionaires to feeling like poor white trash. We kids had such a happy life that we felt sorry for anyone who didn’t have our Mom and Dad for parents and a house full of brothers and sisters and other kids visiting constantly. We thought it was fun to share silverware and see whether we got the spoon or the fork that night.

We had two knifes that we passed around to whoever needed them. I knew we didn’t have a lot of things that other people had, but I’d never thought we were poor.

That Easter day I found out we were. The minister had brought us the money for the poor family, so we must be poor. I didn’t like being poor. I looked at my dress and worn-out shoes and felt so ashamed—I didn’t even want to go back to church. Everyone there probably already knew we were poor!

I thought about school. I was in the ninth grade and at the top of my class of over 100 students. I wondered if the kids at school knew that we were poor. I decided that I could quit school since I had finished the eighth grade. That was all the law required at that time. We sat in silence for a long time. Then it got dark, and we went to bed. All that week, we girls went to school and came home, and no one talked much. Finally on Saturday, Mom asked us what we wanted to do with the money. What did poor people do with money? We didn’t know. We’d never known we were poor. We didn’t want to go to church on Sunday, but Mom said we had to. Although it was a sunny day, we didn’t talk on the way.

Mom started to sing, but no one joined in and she only sang one verse. At church we had a missionary speaker. He talked about how churches in Africa made buildings out of sun dried bricks, but they needed money to buy roofs. He said $100 would put a roof on a church. The minister said, “Can’t we all sacrifice to help these poor people?” We looked at each other and smiled for the first time in a week.

Mom reached into her purse and pulled out the envelope. She passed it to Darlene. Darlene gave it to me, and I handed it to Ocy. Ocy put it in the offering.

When the offering was counted, the minister announced that it was a little over $100. The missionary was excited. He hadn’t expected such a large offering from our small church. He said, “You must have some rich people in this church.”

Suddenly it struck us! We had given $87 of that “little over $100.”

We were the rich family in the church! Hadn’t the missionary said so? From that day on I’ve never been poor again. I’ve always remembered how rich I am because I have Jesus!

(received from Mikey’s Funnies, go there to read several responses to the story and an interesting discussion about the difference between poor and broke)


This week I read “Foolishness to the Greeks” by Lesslie Newbigin for the upcoming class. It gave me lots to think. Here are a few remarkable quotes:

Islam denies the Christian doctrine of original sin and therefore believes that it is possible to achieve a total identification of the laws of a state with the law of God. Church and state in Islamic thought are one, without distinction of function. That way we cannot go. The sacralizing of politics, the total identification of a political goal with the will of God, always unleashes demonic powers.

I am aware of this teaching in Islam and found it a very interesting analysis. He goes on to say:

We are witnessing the same thing, but under Christian auspices, in the emergence of what is called “the Religious Right” in the United States. The leaders of this movement, while accepting the biblical doctrine regarding the radical corruption of human nature by sin, in effect exempt themselves as “born-again Christians” from its operation. They identify their own cause unconditionally with the cause of God, ….

Wow! This seemed so unbelievable. Newbigin wrote this in 1986 !!! – more than 20 years ago. This left me nearly speechless. It reminded me so much of what I had heard and seen over the last few years and what had seemed to me a recent development. I was not aware that this “Religious Right” had started much earlier. I know very little of what it looked like twenty years ago. The remainder of the paragraph is much more dated, but I can still see certain parallels:

… regard their critics as agents of Satan, and are apparently prepared to see the human race obliterated in an apocalyptic catastrophe in which the nuclear arsenal of the United States is the instrument of Jesus Christ for the fulfillment of his purpose against the Soviet Union as the citadel of evil. This confusion of a particular and fallible set of political and moral judgments with the cause of Jesus Christ is more dangerous than the open rejection of the claim of Christ in Islam, just as the shrine of Jereboam at Bethel was more dangerous to the faith of Israel than was the open paganism of her neighbors, for the worship of Ba’al was being carried on under the name of Yahweh. The “Religious Right” uses the name of Jesus to cover the absolute claims of one national tradition. (See 1 Kings 13; and see Karl Barth’s extended commentary thereon in Church Dogmatics II / 2, 393ff.)

But the rhetoric of the “Moral Majority” is only a further development of the ideologizing of politics that stems from the Enlightenment. … The Enlightenment gave birth to a new conception of politics, namely, that happiness can be provided by a political system and that the goal of politics is happiness. The project of bringing heaven down to earth always results in bringing hell up from below. (pp 116-7)

Even though the reference to the Soviet Union is outdated and the present situation with Iraq is different, there are enough parallels to make us think. This and other parts of the book are a powerful reminder that church and state have different tasks and this distinction needs to be maintained even if every citizen were a member of the church. On the one hand, it is wrong to accept the relegation of the church (faith, values, purpose) to the private sphere as a result of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, it is equally wrong to identify any single country or political party with God’s will on earth. We are all fallible.

We ARE called to engage the culture and world-view of our societies, shape public life, challenge politic rulers with God’s standards, give people a taste of God’s reign through Kingdom activities, but we cannot establish God’s kingdom through political achievements.  We need to have the courage to testify to a reality that cannot be proven true according to the rules of our society (where only scientific facts count), and we need to give others the opportunity to observe us in community, worshiping our loving King, and experience through it the “radiance of supernatural reality” which can draw people into His kingdom.

Missional churches

I was very fascinated to read on Tim’s blog about the “The Nine Essential Practices of Missional Churches.” I have just finished reading “God’s missionary people” by Van Engen, and so this was an interesting parallel which I hope to explore more in future posts. For now only the list of these practices:

  1. Have a High Threshold for Membership
  2. Be Real, Not Real Religious
  3. Teach to Obey Rather Than to Know
  4. Rewrite Worship Every Week
  5. Live Apostolically
  6. Expect to Change the World
  7. Order Actions According to Purpose
  8. Measure Growth by Capacity to Release, Not Retain
  9. Place Kingdom Concerns First

More another time, as I am leaving for the airport.

Don’t rock the boat!

I was pondering the question posed in Don’t rock the boat. For some time I was aware that the biblical context is more group-oriented than today’s culture in Western countries, and therefore I would guess that churches in our countries probably do not as fully grasp what it means to be “the body of Christ” as people from a group-oriented culture. Therefore, I too find it hard to believe that a group-oriented society could be more abusive than an individualistic society.

This morning, when reading in Ephesians 4, I discovered a possible answer to this question:

15 Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. 16 He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. 

The church is the body of Christ, he is the head of this group, and he makes it fit together. This group-orientation is important but at the same time God is interested in the individual. We are called to be personally responsible for what we do, and “stand straight” before God, not “bending ourselves” to the group (cf. Leanne Payne). God is there to encounter each of us in a very personal way, interested in bringing out the full potential of the gifts he gave us, and giving us freedom to go our own way, even if it is detrimental to ourselves and the community.

On the other hand it is important to note that “the fullness of the perfect man” can only be reached as a group, not as an individual (Eph 4:13 according to the German Good News Bible. Unfortunately, this is less clear in most English translations.)

So, what does this mean in terms of the original question?

Every group that is not centered on God and has Christ as its head, will most likely make the group to an idol, the harmony in the group top priority, and the statements of the leader sacrosanct. That can work well for some time. At the moment where the individual members are no longer encouraged to listen to their conscience and “stand straight” in responsibility before their Lord and creator, the group dynamic easily becomes dysfunctional and abusive. This principle applies probably to any group – including Christian groups and churches. The individual needs the group, but the group also needs healthy individuals. This won’t work if the group becomes more important than the individual, and the group harmony is enforced at the expense of the individual.