I had the dream again, the one where I’m in the back seat of a speeding car and it dawns on me there’s no one driving. Somehow the car remains on the road but I don’t know how, and the scenery whizzing by paralyzes me.
I see a red light, and look around frantically for oncoming cars. There are none and my car whooshes through the intersection. My heart is hammering and I wonder if I should climb over the seat to take the steering wheel, but I’m confused and heavy-limbed. I see a curve ahead and I panic, but the car hugs the white line and races on. Apparently the hairpin has triggered a ringing, and I turn to look behind me for a police car, maybe, or an ambulance. But those vehicles don’t ring, exactly, do they? My mind isn’t working properly, and I can’t figure out where that ringing is coming from.
I rolled to Vince’s side of the bed, and clawed my way to consciousness, the ringing rising to the surface with me. Vince was already in the dining room, eating cereal and reading the newspaper, but our bedroom remained coolly shadowed. I could have slept another three hours on this Thursday off, if not for that ringing.
“Hello,” I answered, my voice sleep-clogged.
“This is the alarm company. The alarm at 222 Rutherford Street has been activated. A police unit is on the way.”
I groaned. I’d been on the job just eight weeks and this was at least the eighth alarm. Squirrels, it seemed, could set it off. Mice. Spiders. Not to mention, men.
The facilities manager typically got the first call, but he was on vacation. I tugged on a pair of jeans and a lightweight sweater. The morning looked foggy and gray, though it was late September, a summer month in this part of the South. I brushed my teeth and ran my fingers through my hair, not bothering with make-up. That’ll serve the intruder right, I thought irritably.
As I drove the seven miles from my house in the suburbs to the church just blocks from Main Street, the scenery changed from trimmed lawns and shaded houses to industrial buildings, windowless bars, a nursing home, abandoned gas stations. The closer I got, the deeper the dread settled in my stomach. I hated this job. I hated the creaky old church building. I hated what I’d gotten into, and I was close to hating God for getting me into it.
I repeated a mantra I used to soothe myself. Eight weeks down, and what, maybe thirty to go? Forty-four at the outside. I doubted I could last a year.
The early morning traffic was brisk on four-lane Rutherford Street, pronounced Rul-therford, a denizen of Old Greenville corrected me recently, rolling the absent “l” in his throat. I’m sure he summers on Pawley’s – make that Pahhwl-ee’s – Island, which prints bumper stickers declaring itself “arrogantly shabby,” if that tells you anything.
Old Greenville passed this church every day. But it didn’t stop.
The red brick sanctuary was handsome, especially compared to the nearby three-story education building with its broken windows and rusted air-conditioners discoloring the façade in green streams. It was a brave little church, too, hanging on in this outpost of a dying mill village; I’d give it that.
Rutherford Street was separated from the sanctuary stoop by a sidewalk and a strip of dead grass. No one was stirring at the Salvation Army Thrift Store across the street, but Tommy’s Country Ham House next door was filled with a breakfast crowd of businessmen, blue-collar workers, and retirees getting their day started with bacon and eggs, toast and grits, coffee and conversation.
I parked in the pitted lot behind the church and trotted up the sidewalk and around the corner to the sanctuary’s side door. This morning’s alarm was not the work of critters. Someone had kicked in the heavy wooden door, splintering the doorjamb. Someone, no doubt, who had eaten in the church’s soup kitchen, taken clothes from its closet, received groceries from its pantry.
A police officer met me at the broken door, and together we entered the chapel, hushed and lovely even with its leaky roof, streaks of mildew and blistered plaster. Despite the dimness, I could see that the brass cross and offering plates were undisturbed. The stained glass windows picturing the tablets of the Ten Commandments, Jesus in Gethsemane, and pinwheel designs in blues, golds and reds, were untouched. The honey-colored pews were as they’d been the previous Sunday, only empty now of sleeping bodies reclined against bedrolls.
The young policeman and I walked in silence down the maroon carpeting past the raised stage where the wooden pulpit stood, flanked by the thrones that pass for chairs in the world of religious furnishings. A paneled door leading to a rear hallway was flung open. There we found what the burglar was after – a plain, waist-high cabinet of cleaning supplies. Bottles of floor cleaner and cans of Pledge tumbled over the wood floor. The policeman raised an eyebrow.
“He was looking for something to huff,” I said.
He nodded, and asked what I wanted to do about the busted door. He then waited outside while I ran down to the basement and found a board, hammer, and nails. He and I pulled the listing door into its shattered doorjamb, and he pounded the board snugly across.
He stepped back, and smiled sympathetically. “Are you gonna be all right?” he asked. I swallowed the lump in my throat, and made a mental note to call the police chief and tell him how kind this young man had been.
I leaned against the brick wall of the breezeway, where the smell of urine wafted through the morning mist. I stared at the ugly patch job, and wondered: What kind of church nails its doors shut?
That would be the Triune Mercy Center.
And I am its pastor.
I thought I’d be wise by now.
I thought my experience with drug addicts and alcoholics and the mentally ill and people suddenly, brutally, surprised by homelessness would gel into wisdom. I thought I’d have something to teach people about how to deal with those who live under bridges and in vacant houses and in the woods – how to love them, how to haul them out of the quicksand and onto the solid red clay that underlies our little piece of South Carolina.
I thought I’d graduate from the Triune Mercy Center with compassion and wisdom.
People in Greenville sure give me credit for it. I’m always speaking at prayer breakfasts and mission luncheons and book clubs about homelessness and, especially, our Christian response to it.
But I don’t feel at all wise. I feel, by turns, cranky, humbled, incredulous, deflated, energized, furious, exhilarated, tired.
I suppose the lessons I was seeking are simply too complicated, too messy – not unlike our lives in this place. So I won’t try to tell you what it all meant, my time at the Triune Mercy Center. I’ll just tell you what happened.