Pastoral Thoughts, August 2023

by Father Jim Warnock

When I drove into the church parking lot a few Fridays ago, I didn’t expect to see an abandoned car sitting in the handicapped spot near the entrance to the sanctuary. Occasionally we’ll find a car in the lot, usually empty and gone in a day or two. This one was unique. An older silver Corolla, beat up with the hood popped, it was set apart by the two bicycles tied to its roof and the array of blankets, clothes, and an odd collection of undefinable things tied to various parts of the vehicle. The trunk was open, some kind of ancient engine sticking out.

I didn’t see anyone around the car, and I thought for a moment that someone might have died inside. Approaching the driver’s door, also ajar, there was a man, gray-haired, heavy-set, wearing shorts. I said hello, and he told me he’d been a truck driver, that his car needed a jump and to be connected to power. When I didn’t respond to his liking, he started arguing with me, that he wanted to get to a hospital. He wanted me to provide the jump and if not, an extension cord. He claimed to have a “box” that would charge the battery if it could be connected to power.

Honestly, I didn’t trust him enough to allow him to attach his cables to my car, but I noticed his legs were grotesquely swollen. I could easily get him medical aid, and I offered to call 911 for him. He responded with a detailed history of his unfortunate dealings with doctors, claiming he had been thrown out of ten hospitals. After several minutes, however, he calmed down and agreed to be seen and possibly transported, so I called for paramedics. When they arrived, he quickly became angry with them, repeating his story about being rejected from ten hospitals and insisting they did not want them to help him. The lead medic told him he would likely lose his leg if it went untreated, but the man declined all treatment. The paramedics left.

That was the beginning of a bizarre day. I went for lunch, returning to find the man in conversation with a teenager who was driving a 3 -wheeled ice cream cart. The teen had tried jumping the ancient Corolla with no luck. The man insisted he could fix his car if we would only buy him various things. By this time Deacon Jeffrey was involved. We called the police thinking that, if they arrested him for trespassing, he would at least get medical attention. No luck there: the police officers, though quite sympathetic, told us that, post-Covid, he would simply be cited and released. The man said that, if he had two hours, he could fix his car. We agreed to give him the time. Two hours passed, and nothing happened except the teenager brought him food with the money the man had given him. The police came back and told the man he would be required, having refused alternatives, to leave the property. The rescue mission was full, and he was refusing to go there anyway; the Salvation Army has no local number. It was agreed, finally, that Jeffrey and I would push his car over to B street and leave it there to await further developments.

Overnight, Deacon Jeffrey came up with a better solution: we could use our discretionary fund to buy a tarp, park his car in a corner of our west lot and cover it. The man’s biggest fear, and not an unrealistic one, was that a hospital visit would leave his car isolated and his belongings would be stolen. Covered and in our lot, that was less of a concern, so maybe we could take him to an emergency room. It was a good plan, and it would have worked, but when we looked for him again, he and his car were gone.

Did we do the right thing? The simple answer is to acknowledge that we are to love God and our neighbor and leave it at that, but how does that work in reality? I could have let the guy jump his battery, but I thought it wouldn’t work and I wasn’t willing to accept the possibility of damaging my car in the effort. I could have let him into the parish hall, but I knew nothing about him. There’s always a balance between wanting to help and putting yourself or others in some jeopardy. That is an issue for me as a priest and for the parish.

I faced similar situations in other parishes where I’ve served, though possibly none as strange as this one. We are not alone in our helplessness. The police and fire fighters were very respectful, trying to work with him on a solution—but became frustrated. Did you notice I never got his name? He was belligerent most of the time, so I didn’t ask, but he was also probably mentally ill in some way. In retrospect, I think I should have insisted and gotten his name.

How does this story end? We will never know what happened to the man. He’s faded into the background of a society that has an enormous problem dealing with people who are unhoused, mentally ill and/or drug addicted. We live in a place with limited resources for this issue, and we are forced to improvise. I wish we had had time to get the tarp and secure his car, but we didn’t. We are left with no real end to this story. We could, probably should, push for political change, to work to build a place in our society where more resources are given to the least of us. That certainly fits with a biblical worldview. At the least we must remember that our charge to love God and neighbor remains, but we are going to have to be flexible and creative in living it out.