While some of the Family Promise kids played around us, others of them were working on homework and one was changing a diaper of another sibling, the tired and cooped-up adults looked at me with utter bewilderment when I gathered them together and asked them to stop setting the temperature on the thermostat down somewhere well below 68.
Over the past week, this has been a long-running complaint from a family who was staying in one of the smaller rooms at the end of the hall. Their children woke up each night cold, and while we gave them extra blankets and the overnight hosts pleaded with the other adults not to change the thermostat, every night the temperature in the Christian Education building continued to dip to a chilly climate. Most mornings the thermostat returned to a comfy 74 degrees before the host could get into the room to check.
Six nights had passed and the mystery was still not solved, despite our efforts to make the stay as comfortable as possible for all the families staying with us. “Maybe it’s changing itself?” one of the parents suggested. It was clear that she had no idea what was causing the problem.
But the seventh night was different.
Rather than being the last night before everyone in the program traveled to their next temporary home, another church in the Family Promise network, it was the night before the first tropical-storm-strength winds from Irma were going to impact Gainesville and it had been decided that the families would stay with us to shelter during the storm. We were also expecting up to fifteen more people to join us from the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance network, should they have difficulty getting gas and other necessities while traveling up through Florida from Tampa and elsewhere and got stuck part-way in Gainesville.
Only one woman ended up joining us that afternoon, Pauline, a tiny woman with expansive energy and an all-embracing heart. My family made the choice to stay as well, so we were twenty in all.
I led Pauline to the room at the farthest end of the hall, beyond the family who had been cold. She spent time meeting the other temporary residents, charming young and old alike as she usually does, with her emphatic way of speaking and her gentle heart. Finally, she settled into the room.
Three hours later she came back shivering, so I checked the main thermostat, and it was set below 68 again.
Which is why I stood there among the bewildered adults, asking again, why we were so cold.
And then I noticed the kids near us, several taking care of their younger friends or a sibling. Mature kids with kind hearts… maybe?
So I rounded up the flock of kids, with the youngest toddler waddling behind, and walked them down to the open door of Pauline’s room. I explained that the tiny, gentle woman who we all loved was cold. Really cold. And I was worried about her.
Would they all help me watch to find out how the temperature was getting set so low? Maybe they could figure it out when I couldn’t. I got some nodding heads and some thoughtful expressions, so I let the group of kids disperse and I went back to my office.
A couple of hours later, after dinner, I got another knock on the door. “Pastor, Pastor, the temperature is wrong again.” I sighed. “It’s cold again?”
“No Pastor, it’s too hot!”
I went out into the hallway and quickly noticed the temperature was now at the other extreme. I rapidly made my way to the thermostat and saw that it had been switched to heat, and the temperature set above 80 degrees.
Ha! Those kids must really be worried about Miss Pauline!
I adjusted the temperature, and then re-gathered my flock. I explained to the kids that if they wanted to take care of Miss Pauline, they didn’t have to turn the heat up, just leave the temperature at its original setting.
We had one more minor incident with the thermostat after that, but for the most part we slept as comfortably as we could during the storm. The power had gone out before our worship service that morning, came back on Sunday night, and went out again on Monday. But the number set on the thermostat remained constant, and whenever the power was on and the air conditioner ran, it stayed at a comfortable temperature.
I wondered what I could learn from the experience with the thermostat. With twenty people living that closely together for several days, I had expected far more conflict then we experienced. It was clear that, while several people were discomforted by the temperature changes, there was no ill-will in the heart of the one who was causing such mischief. Maybe one of the children was too warm, so another with a kind heart set the temperature lower. When I mentioned that Miss Pauline was too cold, the natural, responsible, response would be to do the opposite, to move the temperature up. So rather than actions of hostility, these were ones of initiative, caring, and responsibility, though rather over-applied. How many other conflicts are because well-intentioned people just do not understand the full impact of their words and actions?
When the power came back on and stayed on, several of us spontaneously danced together and shouted for joy. We had bonded. After another night together with the gentle sound of the air conditioner humming in our ears, everyone dispersed – the Family Promise families to their next temporary church home, and the rest of us to our usual beds.
But I will always remember the unknown child with a kind heart and the mystery of the thermostat.