Thursday, June 16, 2005


I still wonder if I did the right thing.

He was an unexpected guest last Sunday. I was in my makeshift office at church during the Sunday School hour. It's my practice to spend some time reviewing sermon notes and praying before refreshment time which immediately preceeds morning worship. The little office is just inside the front doors of the church, so I can hear if anyone comes in needing to be directed to a Sunday School class. That almost never happens. However last Sunday I heard the doors open and close and the shuffle of footsteps outside the office door, but the sounds stopped suddenly. I opened the office door and there, with his back toward me, was a man. I stepped nearer to him and tried to get his attention but seeing a fairly large hearing aid in one ear I tapped him on the shoulder giving him a start. He turned and faced me nervously, looking at me with sad eyes.

"I'd like to talk to someone," he said in a slightly hushed voice. I nodded, led him into the office and invited him to have a seat, unsure of what would happen next.

His name was Frank. He looked to be around 60, with close-cropped hair on the sides of his head complementing the nearly bald scalp on top. The smell of stale cigarette smoke stood around him. He was dressed in blue cotton twill pants with a matching shirt -- one which begged for a white oval name patch embroidered in red. He was slight of build but had a paunch around his belly which looked out of place. As Frank sat down on the upholstered chair, he seemed hesistant; almost as if he wanted to run back out the same door through which he had entered.

Frank appeared to be in a desperate state. As he began his story, he warned me that it would be strange. Somehow I doubted that it would be all that odd and in truth it probably wasn't all that uncommon. Frank had lost his wife to cancer two months earlier. His beloved Jean was gone, leaving him without any family nearby. He had been seeing a counselor connected to the Veteran's Administration and taking some anti-depressants which had been prescribed for him. But Frank hated the medication and had no money to continue taking them. His one last chance was to travel to Massachusetts to be with his brother and to receive and support help out there. His counselor thought it would be the best thing. So Frank had begun the trip from Lafayette, Indiana, but was running out of money. He had sold most of his belongings over the past sixty days to support himself and now had almost nothing of value left.

The situation had gotten to him. Frank confessed that this was the third time that suicide had entered his mind. He said that twice before he was unable to follow through, knowing it wasn't right. The third time had been just a few minutes before he walked into church. Frank planned to drive out into the country and kill himself, but out in the middle of nowhere was a church. Deciding he needed someone to help him sort things out, he pulled into our church's parking lot and stepped inside, hoping that someone could tell him what to do.

As Frank unravelled his tale, I became more and more confused about what to do. Certainly his story could be on the level and God had placed Frank in my makeshift office so that He could speak through me. Of course it could be just as likely that Frank was running a con, intent upon getting as much easy cash from gullible church people as possible. Or the truth could lie somewhere between these two extremes. Frank hadn't come in asking for money, but for advice. Still money was the only tangible thing I could give him, and I'm sure he knew that. I knew that I could take him into the adult Sunday School classes, let him tell his tale and watch the people supply him with plenty of money for the trip to New England. Yet at the same time, could I essentially endorse Frank's story and tacitly encourage gifts for this man as someone who is supposed to shepherd the flock? There was no clear-cut answer. Stories of con men walking in the door of other churches kept flashing through my mind. But in front of my face was a man who seemed genuinely hurt and confused.

We talked for around 15 minutes. I tried to explain to Frank that he knew suicide was wrong; that's why he hadn't been able to go through with it. I attempted to give him some hope, telling him that God could fill the empty space. And I tried to gently guide him into hearing the Gospel message, but Frank could see nothing past the immediate pain and the lack of money and hope. As we wrapped up our talk, I prayed with him -- half wondering how well Frank could even hear what I was praying.

As I walked him to the door, I reached in my wallet and pulled out the cash I had with me. It was no more than a five and seven or eight ones. He hesitated to accept it, asking twice if giving him this money would hurt my family's finances. Finally after my reassurance, Frank took the paltry sum and placed it deep in the front pocket of his pants. He looked at me with those sad and tired eyes and then gave me a hug before turning and walking out the church door.

I walked to a window to see what would happen next. Frank got into a white van with a license plate from Lafayette, Indiana -- at least one part of his story checked out. I stepped away for a moment to take care of something and when I returned to the window the van was gone. I didn't see which direction it had taken from the church.

I still wonder if I did the right thing.

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