02 April 2009

Lenten Journal: Innocence Lost?

I've blogged before about how ministry sometimes means giving people a hand without expecting anything in return. I still believe this is true. But today a recurring phone call and two coincidental conversations reminded me that sometimes people can get really good at playing on people like me who believe we're called to help.

Guy called again today. This time he needed $200 to keep from being evicted. The emergency shelter was full, he had nowhere else to go, and the sheriff and the landlord would be there to evict him at 10:00 A.M. - even though Guy was expecting a disability check tomorrow and could certainly cover the back rent at that point.

Like most ministry sites, we don't keep cash on site and as pastor, I'm the last one who can write a check, so my hands were tied, and I felt awful. All I could do was tell Guy that if he needed to keep a roof over his family's head, he was welcome to crash with us for a couple of days. Then we said goodbye, I hung up the phone and spent the better part of the next hour feeling terrible, as though I were letting Jesus down by not dropping everything, running to the apartment and personally handing the landlord the money he was unsympathetically demanding.

At 11:00 I had a meeting with a seminary student who has asked me to be her mentor. I shared the story of the phone call with her, and she immediately said, "That's what 'Good Neighbor' is for: are you telling me Guy didn't call them?" When I told her he'd claimed they couldn't help him, she said, "Guy's taking advantage of you. I don't see how they could be unable to help, even with the economy as bad as it is."

Well, that made me feel just a bit better. Then, this afternoon, I delivered something for Beloved to her office, and happened to catch Beloved in a meeting with the pastor of our church. When I told Beloved about Guy's phone call, the pastor said, "Guy Smith." He said it without even a hint of a question in his voice. He then proceeded to tell me how Guy was known around town as a "frequent flier." Turns out he calls churches every few weeks with stories about eviction, his disabled wife, his diabetic daughter, and no one knows for sure what's true and what's fabricated.

Those of you who've been in ministry longer than I have are probably smiling and saying, "No shit, Sherlock?" Here's the thing, though: this guy is really, really good. I've seen his apartment - it's a shithole, and that's putting it kindly. There's got to be some truth to what he claims, because when I filled his tank two months ago, he had a woman and child in the back seat. So there are certainly issues there - but dammit, I should have known this was a play because it's always an emergency with Guy and it's always cash he's after. Chalk it up to Questing Parson's determination to help the genuinely needy, I guess - I'm a romantic and sometimes people can use that to their advantage.

It's certainly nothing new for a church to get played by an experienced player. But this isn't a con. Like our pastor said, "this is what survivors do." Whatever the story is, there are genuine issues in Guy's life, but now I've got to take care and make sure I'm helping properly, not enabling further abuse of my sympathy and the sympathy of those who come after me.

Jim Nestingen, my professor of church history and Lutheran theology, once said, "The last thing a good pastor should be is surprised." Well, hell, the thing that sucks about that being true is that the romantic, innocent pastor who left seminary wanting to genuinely help people is growing more and more suspicious, and it's hard to keep that from becoming outright cynicism. Sometimes learning more about the world in which we live makes me want to spend more time as far away from it as possible.

Grace and peace,

1 comment:

  1. Sigh. We've got some frequent fliers too. One lady always shows up in the 20 minutes before worship, needing some gas or money for car repair. She politely declines my efforts to get her connected to the local ecumenical agency that can provide long-term, systemic help.

    Another guy calls about every 6th Tuesday, needing "money for food". Not groceries, or a lift to the food pantry, or help getting downtown to apply for assistance, or the address of the hot meal program. Cash.

    After about the third request, I asked him, "When you decline my offers of longer-term help, what am I supposed to think you want the cash for, Ed?"

    Even though it was an honest question, and he knew it, I still felt like I had pinched the baby Jesus by asking it. Hard.