It was Tuesday noontime. I had gone into the big, dark Romanesque sanctuary of my church in downtown Columbus, Ohio for a weekly prayer meeting with a handful or so of people, mostly not members of my congregation but rather folks who worked downtown and constituted part of my weekday ancillary congregation.
As I sat in a pew talking with Ruth S., I noticed toward the back of the sanctuary what looked like an elbow rise up above the back of one of the pews. Someone, it seemed, was lying on the pew. The elbow went down again. Then, after a moment, up it came again. Someone was indeed lying on one of the pews. I excused myself from Ruth for a moment, got up, and walked back to see who was stretched out back there.
We kept the sanctuary open to the public from mid-morning to mid-afternoon. It was something the church had been doing for years, since long before I’d arrived there. It was one of my favorite things about pastoring a church on a busy main street in a busy downtown of a big city. We had lots of foot traffic on the sidewalk just outside the front doors, and it was common at any given time to find one or two people sitting in the hushed dimness of that big, old space. There were lots of reasons why people came into the place.
It had housed its first worship service about a year before the outbreak of the Civil War. It was tolling its bell five years later, when Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state a half a block north in the rotunda of the Ohio Statehouseon its way back to Illinois for
burial. And so, right down to my time there, nearly a century and a half later, there had come to be a sort of weight of history about the place. Some people came in for that reason alone. And I had no objection to that. But the place had a better benefit than the soul-adjusting weight of decades.
It was a space that by design and through long years of use tended, if you let it, to orient your attention toward God. And that was the reason I took deep satisfaction in keeping it open as much as possible, so that people could come in and, whether they expected it on not, find themselves in the presence of God (as the literal Hebrew of the Old Testament puts it — “in the face of God”).
I’m sure that not everyone who came into that place consciously experienced God’s presence, but they were always at risk of it, while they were there. So, if they only came in to get out of the rain for a little while or to get warmed up or cooled off, if they only came in for a quiet moment to collect themselves amid the hustle and rush of a busy life in a busy city, all of that was all right with me. I didn’t care much if they tracked in slush from the sidewalk or if their rain coats left a few spots on the backs of the pews. It wasn’t a museum. It was a living place for living people to use.
Still, I was protective of the atmosphere of the space. People did often come into the place to pray, to read the Bible, and to sit quietly before God, and so it needed to be a quiet place. One behavior that I would not tolerate in the sanctuary was being drunk. If a person was actively and obviously drunk, I would require them to leave, though sometimes I would take them to the kitchen for a cup of coffee and a bag lunch before sending them on their way.
The other behavior that I would not tolerate in the sanctuary was sleeping, especially if the person was stretched out on the pew. It does not take much to turn a large, dimly lit space, closed off from public view, into a scary place. Strangers stretched out sleeping in such a space makes, in my view, an intimidating environment. Anyone, no matter how grubby was welcome to sit quietly in the pews. No one, no matter how well dressed was allowed to stretch out and sleep.
That was why I left Ruth to go deal with whoever it was who was lying on that pew toward the back of the sanctuary. I was not prepared for what I found. Stretched out on the pew cushion was an African-American man in, it seemed to me, his late-middle age. His loose clothes were very dirty. His hair was gray, sparce, and patchy. But the most arresting aspect of the man’s appearance was that every visible area of his skin was covered in open, oozing, bleeding sores.
“Hey there! How’re ya doing?” I managed to get out. He looked up at me, startled.
“Oh, I’m hurtin’! I’m hurtin’!” he said.
I told him that I’d prefer that he not lie down on the pews, but already as I said it, I had doubts that he could actually raise himself up to a sitting position. He explained to me, still lying down, that he had full-blown AIDS and had been told by his doctors that there was nothing they could do for him.
As I listened to his story, I could see that he was actively bleeding into the pew cushion and that a small puddle of blood had formed on the floor just below him. I pointed that out to him, though I have no idea what I thought he could do about it. He assured me that he would clear it up, but it was obvious that he was in no way capable of doing that, and I would have been ashamed, if I had ever allowed him to try.
I said, “I’m Gary. I’m the pastor here.”
He told me that his name was Charles Radison. He pleaded with me to let him lie there a little longer. I relented and told him to stay where he was. I really didn’t think he could do anything else. He went on to tell me that he had nowhere to stay. He was from Indianapolis where he had a room, but he’d come to Columbus to visit one of the famous, suburban megachurches that he knew from its television ministry. After visiting that church, he was now stranded in Columbus without money or any means of getting home.
By this point in our conversation, the usual five or six folks had gathered at the front of the sanctuary for our Tuesday noon prayer time. So, I told Charles that he could just rest quietly there and that I would come back in a little while. He thanked me, and I joined the others for prayer.
After about an hour of prayer, folks left to go back to work. Dick, the church custodian, came into the sanctuary to get the heavy brass cross and candle sticks from the communion table. Those things we only put out for services. We didn’t leave them unattended. I called Dick over and told that we had someone lying on one of the pews. Dick and I walked back to where Mr. Radison was lying. I could see the shock on Dick’s face as soon as he laid eyes on Charles, the same shock that must have been on my face when I first saw him. In fact, it occurred to me that Charles probably saw that look on the faces of most people who passed him on the street. What was that like for him?
I told Charles that we would be closing the sanctuary soon and that he couldn’t stay here much longer. With Dick standing beside
me, I asked Charles again if he had AIDS and if he had medicine for it. I did that so that Dick could be aware of the nature of the problem that we had.
It had become pretty obvious that Charles was simply not capable of sitting up. He was plainly in a great deal of pain. I suggested to him that maybe he needed to get medical help. At that he tried again to raise himself up and couldn’t, and so he agreed that he needed to see a doctor. So, Dick and I went to the church office, and I called for an ambulance. We went back into the sanctuary, and I told Charles that an ambulance was on its way. He thanked me.
Dick stood talking with Charles, while I went out onto the sidewalk to watch for the ambulance. I could hear it coming in just a few minutes. The paramedics were very kind — unexpectedly kind — to Charles He was in such pain that he wouldn’t let anyone touch him. One of the paramedics held out his hand, and Charles grabbed it to pull himself finally into an up-right position. The other paramedic gently laid a blanket lightly over Charles’ shoulders.
Charles gathered up his things, apologizing for the mess he’d made and thanking us for our help. He hobbled gingerly out to the ambulance. I walked behind him and the paramedics. He was crying as he walked. As he climbed into the back of the ambulance, which was pretty high, he cried out loudly, because bending his knees was very, very painful for him. He said the devil had chewed the flesh off his legs. I couldn’t see his legs because of his trousers, but if they were worse than his arms and back, then I expect his description must have been pretty close to accurate. he was weeping loudly in the back of the ambulance as the doors closed.
As the ambulance pulled away, Dick and I looked at each other. We were both pretty well shaken. We went back into the sanctuary and stood looking at the pew where Charles had been lying. The cushion was covered by a number of bloody stains where the blood and ooze had seeped in. Also, scattered across the spot where he’d been were a number of scabs that Charles had pulled off of himself in the process of rubbing and scratching himself — Job-like. On the floor below the cushion was a six by four inch puddle of drying blood with several smaller blood splatters around it.
Dick wondered out loud how we would be able to clean things up. The paramedics had told us to use a 5-10% solution of chlorine bleach water. I reminded Dick that I had gotten him a pair of large, heavy-duty rubber gloves. I suggested that we just throw the pew cushion away and replace it with one of the extra cushions we had stored in the balcony.
I told him not to open the sanctuary to the public again until we had been able to clean the place up really well. Dick had us open again by Thursday.
On that Thursday, I was able to talk to the social worker from the emergency room at Grant Hospital in downtown Columbus. She told me what they had done for Charles. In those days the confidentiality rules were a little looser. After some tests, they gave Charles a voucher for a bus ticket back to Indianapolis and one for some medicine. Then they had sent him out the door. he had been sleeping in doorways during the week prior to his turning up in our sanctuary.
I thought that was probably the end of the story. I couldn’t help thinking about how I would have hated to have to sit beside Charles on the three hour bus ride from Columbus to Indianapolis. I felt ashamed for having thought that, but there it was.
All through this encounter with Charles, I kept thinking about Jesus’ dealings with lepers. All through, I had a powerful desire to avoid touching Charles, his belongings, or anything else that Charles had touched. I struggled with a very strong desire for Charles to leave and stay away from me. Charles wasn’t the first person with AIDS whom I’d met. I had developed a close and deep relationship with a young man, Matthew, who was HIV positive and came to see me regularly. I shook Matthews hand whenever I saw him, put my arm on his shoulder, and didn’t think much about it. But I suppose it was the myriad open, oozing sores covering most of Charles’ body and his general physical degradation that simply unnerved me.
Jesus, too, must have been tempted to respond the same way to the ruined lepers who met him in the road on more than one occasion. Surely, the lepers of the gospels must have looked and felt very much the way Charles looked and felt. Yet, with no need to do so, still, when he healed them, Jesus touched them. I had not touched Charles. I hadn’t even prayed over him. True, Dick and I had been kind to Charles. We had gotten him some tangible, physical help. We had not railed at him about the terrible mess. But Jesus had given us a better example. Instead, I had allowed the devil to frighten me and disempower me, and so I had come up short. Could I not have asked for a rubber glove from the paramedics, laid a hand on Charles head, and prayed for him?
The story wasn’t quite over. On the following Tuesday, as we were just getting started in our prayer time, the door opened and into the sanctuary hobbled Charles Radison. He looked much cleaner, and the sores on the parts of his skin that I could see appeared to be healing well. He seemed to be in far less pain than the week before, but still he was clearly physically uncomfortable.
I confess I wasn’t quite horrified to see him, but my gut lurched in that direction when I saw him. I said, “Charles, what a surprise! We were about to have a prayer meeting. You’re welcome to join us.” I’m ashamed to admit it, but I was relieved when he said, “I’m still hurtin’. I can’t sit still. I’ve got to keep moving. I just came in to say thank you.”
I wasn’t, by God’s grace strengthening me, willing to let him just walk away. I told him that I wanted to talk to him before he left. So, I walked with him to the door. I asked him about the vouchers that he’d gotten from the hospital. He told me that he’d been back to Indianapolis but had decided to come back and settle in Columbus in order to be involved at that megachurch in the suburbs. I commented that it seemed to me that they hadn’t treated him very well the last time he’d come to Columbus. He said, “Oh, they treated me all right.”
I reminded him that they had not helped him get home, even though he’d come specifically to share some “visions and prophecies” with them. He paused and allowed as that might not have been very generous of them. Still, he was convinced that he should be involved in their ministry.
I gave him a sack lunch, and before he left, I reminded him that his open wounds, of which he still had a few visible, were dangerous to other people because of his AIDS and that he should be careful not to bleed on anyone or on anything that other people might come in contact with. He said he would be careful, then he went on his way. I never did see him again after that, this wounded brother of mine. But God is still using this experience to work his grace further into my heart. Someday, I expect, I will see Charles again, healed and whole in the Consummation of Redemption, and we will rejoice together.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.