Staking Ground

I never wrote much about Richard.

Sure, I mentioned a little about him during those early days of Echo Church, but didn't see fit to tell much more after that. Richard died a couple of weeks ago. It's difficult to determine the background of his life, because he could never tell the truth. For example, reading that old blog post when he told me his age, he should've been 50 when he passed. His obituary stated that he was 53.

Richard was a guy from the neighborhood, known to every church and business establishment throughout the area. Although he was harmless, he had a drug problem which caused him to do whatever he could to get his next fix. He would beg. And he would steal. I visited Richard in jail once. He had stolen some CD's to sell them to buy crack. Most of the time I knew him he was in and out of jail for petty theft. Still, we tried to love Richard. Refusing to give him cash, we'd buy him meals.* One time he urged me to get him winter clothes because he didn't have any. I scrounged around for stuff to give him, trying to meet his need. I never saw him wear the clothes I gave him. Those too were most likely sold for drugs.

We still maintained a good relationship with him until one Sunday night Kelly saw him breaking into a car in the church parking lot [someone had left their doors unlocked]. I told him to go home and that if we found anything missing, I'd call the cops. He didn't get enough time to take anything from the car.

A few months later, Richard seemed hopped up and was desperate for some cash. I told him we had nothing for him. At the end of the worship service that Sunday night, he created a diversion and stole money from the offering plate. Ironically, since our offering was collected after the service at the front of the sanctuary [and because our church is small], we knew the only money that had been given was from a newer couple who had been attending. That night I had to call them to see how much money they had given to decide whether or not to call the police. It was a small amount, so I didn't think it the best investment of my tax dollars to have the cops pick him up. By the way, this is why we now have an offering box with a lid instead of a plate.

As he returned the next week, I sat Richard down and forced him to admit his theft; he did and apologized. I informed him that he had broken trust with our church and before we let him back in, he'd have to pay God the money back and apologize to the church. After that, he was gone for almost a year; yet another theft charge kept him in jail until this past January.

Richard came into the church service early a few weeks ago. He shook many a hand throughout the church and sat silently through our service. He spent my sermon time drawing me a picture of a flower. Afterward, our leaders sat down with him and informed him that the terms of his reconciliation still existed— he needed to repay the money he stole and apologize to our church [many of whom had started attending since Richard was last incarcerated and had no idea who he was]. It was the most peaceful I'd ever seen him. He never even asked for anything. He said he wanted to right his wrongs, and he was ready to get his life in order.

The next week, I was at a meeting and not at our service, so I might not get all these facts straight. From what I understand, Richard was once again seen attempting to break into a car. He fled inside the church and hid under a table in a darkened room. He was confronted, told to leave, and still asked for money before being kicked out. I knew that he would be back, and I'd have to deal with him myself.

The week after that, right before the beginning of our service, our worship leader Tye alerted me to some snow tracks heading back to the minister's office. I knocked on the door, heard nothing, so I entered to check things out. I didn't see anyone and was ready to leave when I thought should glance into the private bathroom there. There was Richard, sitting in the dark on the toilet, claiming that he really had to go. I was irate. I had him come out and frisked him to make sure he hadn't taken anything. I kicked him out and told him that he had completely broken his trust with us. We are renting our space and are responsible for taking care of it and we couldn't babysit him throughout the building. I was so angry, I told him that I would need some time before my anger subsided and I would seek him out.

But within a couple of weeks, Richard was back in jail. There the years of drug abuse finally caught up with his heart. He died in prison.

This, friends, is a very depressing story. For over three years, we tried to infiltrate this man's life and were unsuccessful. We never got through to him— addiction won out. What good could come of this?

But even though experiences like this could reinforce the idea that there is no hope for the city, I am not dismayed. The culmination of the Scriptures in the book of Revelation is the city. And throughout the Bible, we are given a vision where the city is redeemed. We might not win every battle, but the war will not be lost.

One last story. Richard had roommates in a recovery home in the neighborhood. He lived with them for quite a few years. As I understand, not one of them will miss him. They described him as a "pain in the ass" whom they always watched out for, fearing he would take their stuff. Walnut Hills will soon forget Richard. We won't.

There will always be Richard's in this neighborhood. They will come to us wanting to find a path to their fix, but we will give them Jesus. We're continuing to stake our ground. Our community needs our church. And we're not going anywhere.


*While our church doesn't give out money to people, I will occasionally. I make sure that the recipients know that it's coming out of my pocket. I will usually only give a couple of bucks and will tell them that they'd had better not buy booze or drugs with the preacher's money. I doubt that my warning is ever observed.