The letter was written with a felt-tipped pen on unlined tablet paper. It arrived in my mail a few days after I had written a column on the Catholic bishops and their ideas for improving economic justice. It came from Mrs. Lou Combs, who lives in the community of Burning Spring, about six miles from Manchester in eastern Kentucky. I think the best thing to do is to quote the letter.

"I read your column in the Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday, concerning bishops and their answer to problems of poverty. I would like to tell you how I feel.

"First, I am 40 years old. I come from a very poor family of 13. I married at age 15, have a wonderful husband and five of the greatest children anyone could have. None of them have cause us any problems so far, and don't drink or use drugs. Thank God.

"My husband has been totally disabled for the past 22 years. He draws Disabled Social Security $590 pr. mo. We don't own a home. We have just loved each other and prayed to God to make a way for us. So far we have put three of our children through high school. Three years ago, Feb. 13, 1981, my father died and ever since my life has been a nightmare. He meant so much to me. It has been a dream of mine to get him a tombstone, but days go by with no hope in sight. Only God knows how it hurts.

"Two years ago our daughter got sick and had to have an operation. We had to borrow $10,000 because we don't have any kind of insurance or medical care for me or the children. Our payment is $240 pr. mo. at the bank. That comes out of the $590 check. So you see what that leaves us for house rent and food or things we have to have.

"I cannot speak for the rest of the poor families in the world, but I know there is more that could be done to make people like me have a better life. As I said before, I have lived this life for 40 years and believe me if there is Hell on earth I have lived through it. Now for the first year in our life, if God doesn't answer our prayers, our children will not have a gift for Christmas. I just don't know how much longer we can hang on. If you know any of those Bishops, please tell them if they want to help a poor family, we sure need it. And tell them to pray for us. . . ."

In a final sentence, Mrs. Combs invited me to come for a visit. I couldn't make it, but I asked the Lexington Herald-Leader to send a reporter to pay a call. Reporter Andy Mead drove down to Manchester and found the Combs family living in "a kind of ramshackle old house, roomy but in need of repairs." They pay $50 a month rent, but heat and utilities are on top of that. Since she wrote me on Nov. 27, her financial situation has improved. The family qualified for $100 a month in food stamps, and she began receiving $47 a week in unemployment compensation. (She recently was laid off from her on-again, off-again job as an assembler in a plant manufacturing small electric appliances.)

Mead tells me that there are many families in eastern Kentucky much poorer than the Combs family, and I'm sure that is true. The bishops noted in their pastoral letter that by the government's official definition, 35 million Americans today are "poor," and another 20 or 30 million have so little that by any reasonable standard, they also are needy. Somewhere in these faceless statistics stand 40-year-old Lou Combs, her disabled husband and her children.

I pass along her letter because it speaks of a woman possessed of what used to be called True Grit. I suspect she was in a blue mood when she wrote me. She had been laid off at the plant, Christmas was coming on, and something must have summoned a special memory of her father. Her wants were not extravagant.

Some of us in this world have much; some have very little. In a free society it cannot be otherwise. The idea of using mechanisms of government to make us all substantially equal -- an idea that runs implicitly through the bishops' letter -- is a bad idea. But no mechanism of government is required for us voluntarily to help the Lou Combses of our communities. They are never far away. They live over the mountain, or down the road, or somewhere on the other side of every town.

Copyright (c) 1984, Universal Press Syndicate