“Gary, I thought maybe you should know that there’s someone passed out on the front steps of the church,” he said as he sat down with his bag lunch at the table in the fellowship hall. We were gathering for our regular mid-week, lunch-time Bible study. Folks were gathering around the table with their various lunches — fast food, specialty deli, homemade. We were in the basement of my ancient church building in downtown Columbus, Ohio — half a block from the Ohio Statehouse, one block from the Greyhound station, across the street from one of the Hyatt’s two up-scale downtown hotels. We were also a hub for many of Columbus’s many, many homeless folks.
The Bible study was populated mostly by folks who worked downtown but who, on Sundays, went to church somewhere in the suburbs. Most were people I had gotten to know well over the twelve years that I had been pastoring there. They were part of one of my three flocks. One of my flocks, the one that actually called me and paid me, was the congregation of Central Presbyterian Church. A second flock was made up of the 50 or so business and professional folks we worked in the downtown and attended the mid-week, mid-day Bible studies and worship services. My third flock was the indeterminate number of homeless or barely housed folks who came for a warm breakfast on Sundays and bag lunches through the week and all manner of other help whenever they could get me to come to the door. There was some overlap in the three, and even where they didn’t overlap, the three flocks brushed shoulders a lot. It was a very stimulating and sometimes exhausting context for pastoring.
The church sat on one of the main thoroughfares through downtown Columbus. The front doors of the building opened immediately onto the sidewalk with no intervening lawn, railing, or flowerbox. It was not routine to have someone sprawled on the front steps but neither was it a unique event. So, I got up from the table in the basement fellowship hall and made my way to the front steps of the church. Traffic was swooshing along on the street. Groups of folks in business attire were walking briskly past the church studiously not noticing the grubby guy stretched out on his back on the steps of the church.
I was expecting to find one of our regular guys, Larry, belligerently passed out on our door step. Larry was someone we had been dealing with a lot during those days. Larry would go through cycles. We’d see him a lot for a while. Then we wouldn’t see him at all for
a stretch of several months. His absences almost always meant that he was in jail for disturbing the peace or assaulting a police officer or for just generally being a pain in someones neck. And he could truly be a pain. He was patently disturbed mentally. He abused most any kind of substance he could acquire. And his basic personal orientation was pronouncedly hostile to the world. We had banned him from the church on more than one occasion. He would then after a little while come back and promise to behave himself. And he would do that for a little while . . . but only for a little while.
But when I got to the front steps, I discovered that it was not Larry. It was not anyone I knew. It was a grizzled, white guy. Age is always hard to determine for folks who have been on the streets for a long time. This fellow had a shaggy, gray beard. He wore a ball cap. He was lying, sprawled on his back, his legs trailing down the steps.
I smacked him on his right forearm and said, “Hello!” I had to do that several times before I could get any response. The thought flittered through my mind that he might be more than just asleep. But then his eyes fluttered. I whacked him and “hello-ed” him a few more times, and then he lifted his head and opened his eyes.
He didn’t seem to know where he was. I asked him what his name was — “Raymond.” He struggled to a sitting position. His eyes had the puffy, bloodshot look of someone who has been drinking way too much for a long time. His nose had obviously been beaten flat over the years. His lips were caked with some dark matter. His balding head was crusted with dirt. He sat unsteadily, trying to get his bearings.
I told him he couldn’t sleep there. He wanted to know where he was. I said, “On the steps of a church.”
That seemed to surprise him. He asked me how to get downtown from there. This stumped me for a moment. You could hardly get more downtown than he was right then. I said, “You are downtown.” That statement seemed to completely baffle him.
I tried again. “Do you mean High Street?” High Street was one block to the west of us.
He said, “I want to get downtown.”
I said, “Well, you are downtown. This is Third Street, downtown. Where do you want to go downtown?”
I checked, “You mean Fulton Street?”
He nodded. I pointed down Third Street. “It’s about five blocks down that way.”
He stood up, then stumbled. “I got drunk.”
I said, “Yeah, I can see that.”
Again, he swayed, and I reached out, as though to catch him, but he righted himself. He smiled, “Maybe a little too drunk.”
I said, “Yeah, maybe.”
He thanked me and slowly zig-zagged his way down the sidewalk toward Fulton Street. I watched him go for a moment and wondered where he had come from and why he wanted to get to Fulton Street. I knew a fair bit of sobering up time would have been needed before I ever could have gotten those kinds of answers out of him. I turned and made my way back to the fellowship hall and the folks eating bag lunches there and waiting to study the Bible.
Should I have taken Raymond back to the church kitchen and given him a lunch? Yes, probably. Would he have actually come with me? Probably not. Should I have left the Bible study folks to themselves while I spend the next hour or so taking care of Raymond? Maybe, though he really hadn’t asked for any other help than directions to Fulton Street. And I suspect he wouldn’t have thought he need any other help.
By then, I had been working with hard-core homeless folks for twelve years. In Raymond, I saw a guy who was way down what must have been a decades-long spiral into social, spiritual, mental, and physical degradation and self-destruction. In the context of Raymond’s life as it was, this event did not likely represent a crisis. This was for him a regular mid-day turn of events. And it was really not an extraordinary event in my week. Was my willingness to let him walk away down the street a sign that I had become calloused to another human beings need? Or was it the result of years of working among folks like Raymond that led me to somehow understand that this event was not an opportunity to do much more than show basic human courtesy to another, though wretched, human being?
I knew that the folks gathered for a lunch-hour Bible study would have graciously allowed me to cancel the Bible study in order to tend to Raymond if that was what I judged to be necessary. They were not in a crisis. A missed Bible study would not be a major problem for their lives. But then neither was Raymond really in a crisis, at least not in his frame of reference. I had also learned through long experience that if I threw aside every scheduled event to deal with every drunk person who happened by the church, I would have made orderly ministry there impossible. And yet, . . . .
Ultimately, I have come to recognize that the world is a very complicated place. The tangle of brokenness and sin is not humanly comprehensible. Learning to listen to God better and better is the crucial ministry skill. In retrospect, I’m not sure I was very good at hearing God in those days. How might it have been different? I don’t know.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.
- Pastor Note #31 – “Does God Ever Say, ‘Ooops!’?” (gachorpenning.wordpress.com)
- Out of Darkness (dailymustard.org)