Pastor Notes #11
[From my journal while pastoring a church in downtown Columbus:]
It was a sad and difficult situation. We have a locked wooden box bolted to the back wall of the church. It has a slot in the top for receiving gifts that visitors (and members) might drop into it for the maintenance of our old historic building. Yesterday, that box was ripped off the wall. Dick [our custodian] caught the culprit in the act.
Dick had gone into the sanctuary at about 2:00 P.M. in order to lock it up [it was our practice to leave it open for prayer and shelter from 10:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M. every weekday]. When he got to the back of the sanctuary , he discovered a young white man on the floor, crouched over the wooden box trying to pry it open. When he confronted him, the guy just said something like, “Oh, no.” Then Dick said, “You’ve got to come with me. There’s someone you have to talk to.” And so, the young man — George R. — got up and meekly followed Dick to the office. He made no effort to get away. The doors were still all unlocked. All he had to do was turn around and walk out the door. In fact, he could have done that at any point during the time we talked to him up until the police arrived.
Dick found me working with Kim [the church secretary] on the Sunday bulletin. I recognized George right away. He had been in to see me some good while back, maybe a year or more ago. But he is a memorable figure. He’s about 25 years old and big — 6′ 2″ and about 230 pounds. He has a strong speech impediment, especially with “r” sounds. And he immediately impressed me as monumentally stupid. [I’m not really very comfortable publishing that last sentence, but that is what I wrote in my journal.] I don’t mean to be insulting toward George, but none of the more clinical terms really quite does justice to the experience of trying to penetrate his obvious and profound mental deficiency. I cannot imagine how he manages to function in the world. And, in fact, I suppose he doesn’t.
Talking to him is sort of like talking to a character out of Alice in Wonderland. You become more confused the longer you talk to him. If it weren’t for his equally obvious guilelessness, I would have been inclined to think he was “gaming” me, intentionally confusing and manipulating me. But the more I talked to him, the more convinced I became that his answers to my questions didn’t fit together or make sense, because his own thought process was so limited that he himself was unable to fit thoughts, ideas, and bits of information together in a way that made sense. He could give answers to my questions that simply didn’t hold together with each other without he himself being able to recognize the fact that his answers were plainly inconsistent one to the other.
A certain level of native intelligence in necessary in order to carry on a coherent conversation. George is, I think, only just barely able to keep his head above that level. So, he only fitfully achieved coherence.
Compensating, in some sense, for his intellectual limitations, is his apparently utter lack of deceit. He seemed, as we talked to him, to be simply frightened, remorseful, and confused. Dick and I were torn over whether to call the police. George was nothing much more than pitiable to us. And yet, we were pretty sure that if we just told him to “get lost,” he would soon again try something else just as foolish, futile, and probably more dangerous. He would very likely end up getting hurt and maybe end up inadvertently hurting someone else.
Kim joined Dick and me for a few moments, and after the three of us had talked it over, I asked Kim to call the police. I did not want George to go to jail, but I also didn’t want him to go back out onto the street. He needed someone with some coercive power and authority to intervene in his wretched life and force the matter of his incompetence on the social service support system.
George lives with a guy called Mike, somewhere on the west side of town, at, he says, “290 or maybe 293 W. Broad Street.” But that address doesn’t make sense with the other details he gave us. So, we never did quite figure out where he lived or exactly how long he’s lived there with Mike.
s SSI [Social Security Disability Insurance payments] in the amount, again according to him, of “$310 or $335 or something like that.” He has a payee [someone who is supposedly competent and responsible and will look out for his interests] at the Open Shelter [an independent homeless shelter and social service hub on the west side of Columbus] named Debbie. She pays Mike $260 a month for rent. The total rent is, again according to George, $460 a month. So, George pays more than half of the rent. Debbie gives George $25 a week to cover the costs of living. My arithmetic then makes George’s monthly SSI check $360, at least, otherwise Debbie is manufacturing money. But then any of these figures could be quite wrong. George doesn’t inspire confidence when he talks about such details.
He said he is a client at Southeast Mental Health Center, and that he has a case worker there — Ross Gibson. But I never could figure out how long he has been a client there or how long he’s been on psych meds.
George said that he has family — parents — in Florida. He said he last talked to them about four months ago. He says that he is on good terms with them, but I wonder about that. It strikes me as strange that they would live so far away from a son this disabled, leaving him in the care of social workers and Mike, if they were competent and caring parents. George doesn’t know their phone number or where exactly it is in Florida that they live, but he says that he wants to get his money and go to live with them.
I’m inclined to think that Mike mistreats George and uses him. George says that Mike is verbally mean to him, though he says Mike doesn’t physically hurt him. I can imagine that George could sometimes be exceptionally frustrating to have as a roommate, and so maybe Mike just runs out of patience sometimes — a lot of the time?
I don’t know.
When the police officers arrived, they were pretty good with George. The older of the two seemed quicker to grasp the real nature of the situation. His questions for George are mainly the same sort as my questions have been. Soon they are talking to George as if he were a naughty ten year old rather than a real criminal. They left, taking George with them, intent, I think, on treating the situation as a social service crisis rather than a criminal situation.
Dick seems to have felt really sorry for George. He wanted to give him some money, but I told him that I thought that would probably be more of a problem for George than a help. I can’t imagine that he has any real conception of how to manage money, any meaningful ability to prioritize his spending or to delay his present gratification in favor of future need. How much of that $25 makes it past the first or second day? Instead, Dick got a couple of the sack lunches that the deacons always keep in the refrigerator for people like George. We sent him off with those and wished him well — fervently hoped and prayed for George’s well-being.
What to do? I think we did the right thing for George. I know he was terribly frightened as the police officers took him away. I’m also sure — well, pretty sure — that they will take care of him and try to get him into some sort of more protective environment than the one he’s in right now.
[I feel a renewed sense of guilt and remorse as I re-write this story. I never did find out what became of George after he walked out the door with those two police officers. I should have tried to follow up with him. I did, as I recall, give the officers my business card and encouraged them to let me know if I could help. But no one ever got in touch with me, nor did I really expect that they would. People like George are notoriously difficult to keep track of. Of course, a criminal matter is not at all hard to follow up on. That’s a matter of public record. And if the matter had been pursued as a criminal offense, I would have been contacted. They could not have charged George with a crime without my filing some sort of criminal complaint. I never did that — never intended to do that — would have refused to do that if asked. But no one ever sought me out to ask even if I wanted to. That’s how I can be sure that George was shunted off toward some sort of adult protective process, or . . . . Well, it’s also very possible that the police officers just gave George a stern talking to and then turned him loose to get on with his life. And then what? I don’t like to think.
In any case, the days of a pastor can be very busy and full of people and circumstances crying out for your attention. We eventually got the contribution box re-attached to the wall . . . with longer stronger screws. And I never found time to try to track George down, neither did I ever see him around downtown again. I fear I’ll have to deal with my Savior/Judge someday when he takes account of what I’ve done or failed to do for “the least of these my brothers.”]
© 2009 Gary A. Chorpenning