Pastor Note #37 — A Boy on the Streets, Part 1
[A story from my time as a pastor in downtown Columbus:]
He wanted milk with the sandwiches I had given him. I had offered him lemonade, soda, and orange juice. But he wanted a glass of milk. When he drank it, it left a mustache on his upper lip. After a moment, he wiped it way with the back of his hand.
The day I met Jordan I had been at the courthouse for part of the morning on an ugly matter involving two of my members and their two adult daughters. When I got back to the church at about 11 o’clock, Jordan had been waiting in the sanctuary for most of the morning. He had been trying to reach his half-brother somewhere in the New York City area. He was supposedly going to call back to the church.
Vicki [the church secretary] had tried talked to him for a little while, but she found his story to be so disjointed that she suspected he was lying about some or many parts of his story. He claimed to be eighteen, but Vicki had doubts about that. He seemed, she thought, somehow younger than that.
I took my coffee and went to meet him in the sanctuary. Though we kept the sanctuary locked off from the rest of our building, it was open to the public for prayer and meditation during business hours. I found Jordan asleep on one of the front pews. He was lying on his stomach, stretched out on the pew cushion, a couple of back issues of Christianity Today and a Christian sports magazine from the church library lay on the pew near Jordan’s head. Later, I would learn that Jordan could scarcely read more than a few word.
I slid into the pew just in front of his and said, “Hello! Hello!” He started up, but he remained obviously groggy for several minutes. As he sat up, he realized, and so did I, that he had been drooling in his sleep and had left a wet spot on the pew cushion. He seemed a little embarrassed but only a little. He was not like some long-time, hard-core drunk who has long ago given up any interest in his personal hygiene and dignity. His reaction to the wet spot on the pew cushion was that of a little kid who hasn’t yet learned to be embarrassed by being caught in a deep, drooling sleep in a public place. He grinned sheepishly, ran his had over the dark, wet spot on the pew cushion, then returned his attention to me. We chatted for a few minutes there in the sanctuary. I tried to get some of the basic facts about him and his situation. He insisted that he was eighteen. When I asked him when he was born, he told me a month, day, and year that were almost exactly eighteen years earlier. Maybe he had just turned eighteen.
I learned quickly that he hadn’t eaten that day. So, I took him to the church kitchen were we had bag lunches that we gave out on
weekdays to homeless folks. I got him one of those, and that’s when he asked for milk to drink with it. I mentioned in passing that I was the pastor of the church. He expressed considerable surprise at that. He was impressed, he said, that the minister would be paying so much attention to him. Again, his reaction wasn’t that of a down-and-out street dweller who has become accustomed to having people ignore him or treat him as a nuisance, who has had his self-respect beaten out of him, and so no longer expects “respectable” sorts to pay him any attention. No, instead, Jordan’s reaction was that of a child who is surprised that an “important” grown-up was giving him so much time and attention.
He told his story in a confusing, allusive manner. He would tell me things that assumed information that I did not have. So, I would have to stop him and get him to fill in the missing information. This interruption in his flow would sometimes confuse him and throw him off track altogether. Or it might send him down some other, unrelated narrative trail, which I would only realize was unrelated after we’d gotten some distance away from the original point of his story. It was then incumbent on me to be the narrative guide and lead Jordan back to the original storyline, so that we could try to progress again toward a coherent understanding of his immediate situation.
Eventually, I came to the conclusion that he had run away from home the night before. He was a young man with a troubled past. At some point — in his early teens, I think — he had lived for a while in a group home of some sort. He was in the group home, because — again, I’m not quite certain of this –he had been violent or had threatened violence and/or had attempted or threatened suicide. All of that took place while he was living with his single mother, first, in a small town in the Hudson River valley north of New York City, then in Hagerstown, Maryland. He was now in Columbus, where he’d been sent by his mother, to live with his mother’s sister, her husband, and their two sons (Aunt Shelley, Uncle Terry, Peter, and David). Also, in the home was Steve who was also a teen like Jordan, Peter, and David and was a “friend” of his aunt’s family, staying there for reasons I could never quite make out for a period of time that was unclear to me. Steve arrived in the home fairly recently, it seems, and Jordan says that he feels jealous of Steve for some reason.
All of this attempt to understand Jordan’s situation took me almost two hours to ferret out of his involuted pattern of talking. I was never entirely sure how long he had been in the Columbus area. But he seems to have been there for several weeks to several months. He had been sent to his Aunt Shelley’s house because of some behavior that had caused his mother to be afraid to have him in her house–a behavior that she could not control in him. He made some obtuse references to having been in a fight with his brother — or was it a half-brother — who lives with his mother.
He spoke of having sharpened some scissors and some sort of kitchen knife into weapons. I asked him if he still had that weapon on him. He said he didn’t. But this history of violence or threatened violence or implied violence was very hard to sort out. I didn’t sense that he was making any organized effort to deceive me. Though, he was clearly uncomfortable having me know some of this information about weapons and real or threatened violence. He was a slight, waif-like young man, and so at no point did I ever feel uneasy about my own safety.
Eventually, I decided that I decided that I’d learned enough about him to help him and that trying to work my way through the intense underbrush of his personal narrative just wasn’t worth the effort at that point. So, working through a community social service clearing house, I got connected with the Rose of Sharon Ministry at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church down the street from my church. Mrs. Cash of that ministry listen to my retelling of Jordan’s story and agreed to pay$70 of the $94.50 necessary to put Jordan on a Greyhound bus headed to his half-brother in New York City. I made up the difference from my pastor’s discretionary fund.
Mrs. Cash and I wrote checks to Greyhound, whose ticket agents were quite accustomed to seeing my checks. I initially suggested to Jordan that he could go over to the station (half a block from my church) and get his own ticket. But he was very uncomfortable with the idea of walking into that station and taking care of business for himself. So, I gave in and went with him. The Columbus Greyhound station was (at that time anyway) always a busy place, full of a wide representation of people, mostly from the lower end of the economic scale. There never failed to be a few Amish folks there adding a certain exoticness to the scene. The ticket agents were not rude, especially to someone like me wearing a tie. But they were brusk and usually working with a very limited supply of patience. As I waited in line with Jordan, I realized that he would be just the sort of customer who would have driven them right up the wall.
After we got Jordan’s ticket, I took him to the in-station Burger King and bought him a second lunch. Like most teenage boys, his appetite was insatiable. Finally, with his stomach full and his ticket in his pocket, he was willing to let me leave, though I did need to assure him that he could come back over to the church, if he got too anxious waiting in the station. He didn’t come back to the church, and so I assumed that he left town on the appointed bus.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Jordan and I were not finished with each other yet. But that will be for another blog post. Watch for it soon.
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.