How to be happy
Denver couple welcomes strangers from far and near
A few months ago, the doorbell rang one morning at the home of Merv and Ardith Eigsti in Denver, Colorado. A young woman stood there. She was canvassing for a building company. Selling siding, however, was not on her mind at the moment.
“Do you remember me?” she asked. “When I was a little girl you helped me with my computer, and you gave me some English language learning books. I still have those books that I’d like to return to you.”
When she was young, her family had emigrated from Guatemala, settling in the Eigstis’ neighborhood. How happy they were to see her! “You keep those books,” Ardith said. “Perhaps someone else in your family can use them.” Merv and Ardith have spent their lives saying “yes” to opportunities to share of themselves and their resources with neighbors and others. They learned to do this early on from their parents. Merv and Ardith grew up in farm families in Iowa that, though recovering from the Great Depression, modeled hospitality and faithful stewardship.
Ardith’s parents welcomed strangers into their farmhouse near Trenton, Iowa, sharing produce from their garden and giving faithfully to the church.
She recalls one special lesson from her father, who experienced being the outsider as a first-generation German immigrant. He told her: Don’t make fun of those who talk differently. They are just people who deserve to be treated with respect.
Merv’s parents also lived their faith with generous giving, before and after leaving their farm near Wayland because of his father’s asthma. In 1952, they moved to Denver, where he could breathe more easily.
Merv’s father found work as a salesman in a seed company. During the following years, Denver experienced an influx of Mennonites coming to do alternative service. Merv’s parents welcomed many of them into their home, offering lodging, meals and care.
Merv and Ardith were inspired by the example of their parents. “We are grateful for their legacy. We have always viewed giving as an opportunity, not as an obligation. We didn’t have to go out of our way to find ways to give. We simply said ‘yes’ when opportunities presented themselves,” said Ardith.
They started their married life on the family farm in Iowa. “When the call went out to host children from Chicago as part of the ‘Fresh Air Program,’ we said ‘yes.’ What joy that brought to our lives!” said Ardith. “We still get calls from one girl who stayed with us. She is now in her 60s.”
After only a few years of farming, it became apparent that, like his father, Merv’s health was suffering in the country. In 1957, Merv, Ardith and their young children moved to Colorado. Merv found work with the Caterpillar company.
They bought a simple house on what was then the western edge of Denver, where they settled in and got to know their neighbors. They become founding members of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church in 1962 and have remained actively involved there ever since.
The opportunities just kept coming. “When we read in the church bulletin that Jim Lawson, a blind man, needed a ride to church, we said ‘yes,’” Ardith said. A fellow church member had met Jim in the hospital and shared with him the good news of Jesus Christ. He brought Jim to church, but when the member moved away, someone else needed to help.
Getting Jim back and forth to church was no small feat. He lived in an apartment in a run-down area of town. The Eigstis had only one car and four children. Ardith sat in the front seat between Merv and Jim, and the four kids squeezed into the back. They did this for both the Sunday morning and evening services!
The Eigstis and others from Glennon Heights began helping Jim in other ways as well. Merv often ran errands for Jim over his lunch hour. Ardith and other women from the church cleaned his apartment as he aged. “He became part of our family,” Ardith said. “We included him in family dinners and holidays.”
Merv and Ardith would welcome many others into their home. “When the call went out for someone to host international visitors for one year through a Mennonite Central Committee program, we said ‘yes’ – twice, in fact. We learned to know Ruba and Suzanne, and about their homes in India and Germany. Doing activities with them kept us young,” Ardith said.
Merv and Ardith are interested in the world, as well as their own community. Ardith was pleased when the opportunity came to help establish a local More-for-Less shop, which sold fair-trade goods as well as second-hand items. When asked to co-manage the store, she agreed, even though it meant giving up a paying job to become a fulltime volunteer for several years.
Merv and Ardith also were willing to sponsor refugees from Vietnam. Merv provided transportation and support as they learned to negotiate the many challenges of living in a new country.
As the years passed, their neighborhood started changing. Some residents moved out, and a more diverse group of people moved in. Merv and Ardith had to think: Should we move too?
In the end, they decided to stay where they have lived for the past 57 years. They still had good friends in the neighborhood and rather liked the diversity even if sometimes it made things complicated. They also knew that if they moved, they’d have less money for things like music lessons for their children and sending them to camp. And they’d have less money to give to organizations and causes they wanted to support. These were the things they valued.
Again, an opportunity to help the community presented itself. A friend from the local PTA suggested that they might want to volunteer at the local food bank. They jumped in. Merv helped pick up day-old bread from a nearby bakery. As they learned to know new people moving into the neighborhood – the girl from Guatemala, for instance – they directed them to the food bank, if needed.
On the bulletin board in their kitchen there is a quote: “Being happy doesn’t mean you have it all, it means being thankful for what you have.”
This is the way Merv and Ardith live their faith. They love God with all their hearts, and they have made it a life-long priority to love their neighbors near and far as they love themselves.
“We are just ordinary people,” Ardith is quick to say. But they’re ordinary people who have been willing to say “yes.”
Betsy Headrick McCrae is pastor of Glennon Heights Mennonite Church, Lakewood, Colorado.