Much have they oppressed me from
................... my youth,
......let Israel say,
Much have they oppressed me from
................. my youth;
..... yet they have not prevailed
..............against me. – Psalm 129
“Dear Lord, I want to make my life meaningful. I would face death at the hands of a savage people if it be your will. I would gladly take up the martyr’s cross and suffer humiliation and disgrace to glorify your name. Let me befriend the leper, give sight to the blind, bring hope to the hopeless. But God, I just can’t take this banal existence the bishop has laid out for me. I just can’t take it anymore.”
That is what I prayed to God day after day after day. I didn’t think that he heard me. I wasn’t sure he was there at all. I was alone, alone in the mountains. Alone with a people I didn’t understand and who didn’t understand me. And the bishop kept sending me blankets, blankets and used clothing. Trucks and trucks full of blankets and used clothing and other junk affluent people were sending from all over the country to clothe the naked of Appalachia. They were sending it to ease their conscience about the misdistribution of wealth in America. Somehow sending a blanket or a bike with no chain would make them feel better about having an abundance of material possessions when others had so few. I would get so damn sick of folding blankets that no one needed. But I guess it is the thought that counts.
My Episcopal congregation was relatively small. The people of Beriah County viewed the Anglican tradition as a little bit alien, a little bit too Catholic, but the bishop believed it to be fruitful ground for the planting of seed. Most of the people considered themselves to be Christian but were unchurched. Poverty was rampant. Twenty-two percent of the work force was unemployed. Over a third of the county had an income, which placed them below the poverty line. Virtually no industry was located within the county, though some men did work the mines in neighboring counties while others commuted more than one hundred miles in a day to work at the Bluegrass Auto Plant.
Many of the young people moved off after graduating from high school. It isn’t that they hated Beriah County; they just needed to find work. A lot of them came home on the weekends, just like their parents and grandparents used to do. A few took to growing marijuana or making crystal meth in order to make a living. Others took to smoking marijuana and using crystal meth to take up time, much to the heartbreak of their family and friends. The marijuana wasn’t so bad, but the meth really tore families apart.
I remember when I was a young seminarian. The world was complicated but my direction was clear. America was extricating itself from a war in Southeast Asia and African Americans were taking their place at the political table, but there was still much work to be done. We were going to build a new church, a church that would be in the service of those left behind. Just as Jesus ministered to the poor, so we too would redirect and redefine the mission of our church away from reinforcing the status quo of materialism and hedonism. We would raise up new flocks for Christ and the sheep of these flocks would graze in new pastures of grace and contentment. We were sincere, idealistic, and so incredibly unrealistic that it almost brings a tear to my eye to think about it.
So the bishop sent me to St. Meinrad in Beriah County. I was so happy. This was a place where I could really make a difference. I was single and full of energy when I arrived in Sailor and the place was exactly as I imagined it to be. Sailor was a community of less than two thousand souls, with a post office, small supermarket, a Dairy Queen, and a dollar store. Four lawyers operated from small offices near the county courthouse, where they initiated lawsuits against one another and spent most of their time running for local political offices. A small clinic attempted to heal the wounds of the unfortunate.
The church was housed in a singlewide trailer located at the juncture of two main roads three miles east of the downtown area. I was expected to live in the trailer/church and hold services in the living room each Sunday. I had a congregation of 26 people. More than half were saints who had moved to Beriah County “from the North.” “From the North” was an expression that local people used for anything or anyone who originated from outside of Beriah County. You could be from Florida, but if you seemed a little different, talked a little funny, you were “from the North.” If someone said you were “from the North,” it wasn’t a compliment.
Members of my congregation included the family of a physician from upstate New York, a psychologist, the family of a legal services attorney, a couple of social workers, a couple of “tobacco” farmers, and a few businessmen (one owned the local Dairy Queen). We gathered, we prayed, we folded blankets and used clothing and gave them to the poor.
At Thanksgiving, we prepared gift baskets for the needy, and at Christmas, we distributed toys to underprivileged children. I made speaking tours throughout the Midwest to raise money for our ministry, and I could be convincing. I made notes on the things that I saw in Beriah County – of shoeless children and single mothers struggling to make ends meet; of men who abandoned their families out of shame that they could no longer find work; of fifteen-year-old girls who wed older men because their families could not support them. I could make the statues weep with tears and hardened men would throw twenties into the collection plate. And everything I said was true, but no matter how much we collected, it was never enough. No matter how many blankets we folded, we could not cover the pain of poverty or the despair of the abandoned. The truth is, they had blankets, but they didn’t have hope. They believed in God, but didn’t have faith in His ability to save them. After years working in the vineyards, I began to wonder if He had the power to save me.
“Blessed are the poor, for they shall inherit the earth.”
“If they do,” I thought, “what a hopeless place it will be.”
Ironically, the poor we tended rarely came to our Sunday services. The congregation grew slowly. In time, we raised enough money to build a sturdy, picturesque brick chapel.
An Episcopal congregation “from the North” donated an electric piano so that we might add music to our worship service. Over the course of thirty years, we gained respectability and a few of the Baptist ministers would even greet me when we passed on the street.
I lived in the trailer once the chapel was built. It was comfortable enough and served as proof than an Episcopal priest could remain humble in spite of his calling. Parishioners occasionally stopped by and I regularly visited the sick and worked among the poor. I counseled drug addicts and alcoholics. I offered my sympathy and a little cash to unwed, pregnant teens. I encouraged young people to stay in school or get job training at the local community college. I never missed a meeting of the Beriah County Ministerial Association or a diocesan council. But mostly I read, folded blankets, prayed and grew old.
I was in the mountains but not of the mountains.
My isolation was complete.
I was well into middle age when I met Lynn on a speaking tour to raise money for our humble little church. I gave a guest sermon at St. Gilbert of Sempringham Church in Troy, New York. Afterward, I attended a brunch in the church hall. A young woman – thirtyish – came up to me holding a plate containing a Danish roll to ask about some of the things I had said about the people of Appalachia in my discourse. She was rather short, with dark brown eyes and extremely pale white skin. It almost looked as if all of the blood had been sucked out of her. But I was captivated by her gentle smile and seduced by her confident manner. I don’t really remember how I responded to her questions. My mind was confused by lustful instincts and I couldn’t really think straight. We met again for drinks later in the evening and I’m afraid I let her have her way with me. We parted in the wee hours of Monday morning. Actually, I fled her apartment like yesterday’s whore and moved on to the next stop of my tour.
When I finally returned to Sailor, I found a letter waiting for me. I’m sure that you already know that the letter was written by Lynn. I feel it unwise to reveal the more personal and descriptive passages in the letter, but she did express a strong interest in my work and a stronger interest in seeing me again. Oblivious to the potential for scandal, I invited her to come and visit me in Eastern Kentucky. She did, and our romance blossomed. The bishop presided at our wedding ceremony at the cathedral in Lexington and more than 20 people came to the reception, which was held in the cathedral basement immediately following the service. It all happened rather quickly. We really didn’t know each other very well.
My trailer was certainly more than adequate for my needs, but it somehow seemed shabbier after Lynn moved in. She didn’t complain much, at least, not at first. Certainly, members of our small congregation welcomed her with open arms. Unfortunately, my pay remained the same and there were few jobs available for someone like Lynn who had a degree in library science. Still, I must admit that my nights were warmer during the first couple of years of our marriage.
Lynn was intelligent and well read, but Sailor lacked the intellectual stimulation that upstate New York could provide. Our conversation became stagnant and the trailer seemed to get smaller and smaller during the winter months. Petty grievances became major sources of irritation. We unloaded trucks with used clothing, folded blankets, and distributed them to the poor. We listened to tales of hardship and woe. We consoled the grieving and patiently listened as they elevated the dead to positions of glory that they never occupied in life.
The television and the radio were our only windows to the world outside of Beriah County. Certainly, Beriah County had produced its share of celebrities. There was Josh Biglow, the pornographer, and Alvin Di vine Prophecy, the famed radio evangelist.
Dorothy Bunbee came close to hitting the big time in Nashville’s country music scene.
But all of these favorite sons and daughters became famous after they left Beriah County.
I was overjoyed when Walt Crosby came to Beriah County as the new pastor of Sailor’s First Methodist Church. He was young, handsome and seminary trained. Lynn was also happy to have a new friend. Walt was a Louisville native and had come to Sailor to save the wretched and the poor, the weak and the lame, and he found them…belonging to other churches or no church at all. Still he labored, as did I. First Methodist was one of the largest and wealthiest congregations in Beriah County and the members of the congregation took great pride in their new, young minister. He was a breath of fresh air, giving new life to an elegant corpse. He had lots of plans, but the heavy hitters in his congregation had their own plans, and they didn’t include working among the poor, at least, not beyond giving Christmas food baskets to a few elderly residents and some toys to lure underprivileged children to Vacation Bible School for a couple of weeks during the summer.
Walt was a frequent dinner guest. We shared his frustrations. He was busy, but lonely.
He was energized, but his energies were being diverted, maybe even subverted for the glory of the community “leaders.” Church members kept introducing him to eligible young ladies, but he found none to his taste. Well, actually he did. Unfortunately, she was married – to me. I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. I was actually glad that Lynn had found a kindred spirit. They were close in age and shared similar tastes in art, music, and literature. I don’t really know when their relationship moved from friendship to romance, but I’m guessing it occurred over a period of years, moving at a glacial pace, until it just happened. I could slowly see my satellite move out of my orbit and into his, but I was powerless to do anything about it. It was simply a matter of physics. I was hurt, but I didn’t really blame her.
Walt asked his district supervisor for a new assignment and he left to become pastor of a large church in Lexington. Lynn waited an appropriate period of time, and then she left the trailer. She obtained a position at a branch library in Lexington and moved to an apartment. We were quietly divorced a year later. In some respects, I was relieved. The tension was gone and there was more room in the trailer, but less conversation. I had more time to fold blankets.
I’m sure the deterioration and eventual dissolution of my marriage was the subject of a considerable amount of gossip. Strangely, no one spoke to me about it. Everyone acted as if Lynn had never existed. I was some sort of ever-virgin bachelor living alone in my singlewide cell. Was Lynn even real at all or just the product of my imagination? What sort of surrealistic purgatory was I trapped in anyway?
And then it came.
We had floods and forest fires, flu epidemics and ice storms, but the wind was never a formidable enemy. The mountains didn’t suffer tornadoes. That was a challenge flatlanders faced. We were protected here in the mountains, or so we thought.
We sure had plenty of warning. Johnny Scoldwell, the local weather forecaster, had been telling us for days that conditions were right for a tornado. It was just too warm for late winter. With warm air moving up from the Gulf and cold air moving down from Canada, some sort of climatic explosion was bound to occur. The first series of twisters swept across Indiana and central Kentucky on the last Wednesday in February and they cut an impressive path of destruction across the Bluegrass, but we were spared. The wind broke against the Pottsville Escarpment and the Escarpment stuck out its chest and turned back gust after gust.
“You shall not pass,” said the mighty rock formation. “I will protect God’s people!”
But God had other ideas, and he decided to humble the people of the highlands. I began reading Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ on Thursday afternoon and continued reading it into the night.
“How do I empty myself?”
“How do I truly become a temple for the Lord?”
I forgot to watch the evening news.
I had no appointments on Friday morning so I slept until 7:30 a.m. The radio warned of severe storms headed into the mountains by late afternoon. When I looked out my trailer window, it was a beautiful morning, not a cloud in the sky. I walked outside and noticed that it was unseasonably warm. What day was it? It was March 2, a new day, a good day. I walked over to the church and couldn’t help but observe that St. Meinrad was a beautiful chapel of fine brick and mortar. Surely, this fine building, small though it was, gave glory to God, as much glory as a medieval cathedral or a bishop’s palace. This is what God sent me to build. I should be satisfied. Thy will be done.
I ate a baloney sandwich for lunch and returned to the church to begin polishing the floor.
As I labored, less and less light filtered through the stained glass windows. I turned on the radio and heard reports of tornadoes touching down in Indiana. The storm was moving eastward. Severe weather was no longer a prediction, but a certainty. The reports grew increasingly ominous as the afternoon wore on. I needed to take precautions. First, I gathered up bottles of water, candles, and some food and stored these items in the sturdy, cinderblock basement of the church. Next, I contacted elderly residents who lived in trailers or dilapidated houses and offered to shelter them in the church basement until the storm passed. Several accepted my offer and I drove through the county picking them up.
By 5:00 p.m., the sky had an eerie glow with a mixture of sunlight and dark clouds, but the dark clouds were winning. They were blotting out what was left of the light. By 5:30 p.m., local residents were receiving phone messages to seek shelter immediately. A tornado was headed our way. I went out onto the highway to flag down passing motorists and offered them shelter in the basement. By 5:45 p.m., it was no longer safe to stay out of doors. The sound of a freight train was howling through the trees as eighteen refugees hunkered down with me in the basement of St. Meinrad. I led them in prayer. It is often said that there are no atheists in a foxhole during battle. I can assure you that all prayed fervently in that basement during the tornado. The chapel above our heads took a direct hit. Though all were prayerful, I suspect we all prayed for different things.
Some prayed for their lives, for God to spare them. Others prayed for relatives. I prayed for martyrdom. I just knew God had sent that tornado to Beriah County to take my life and carry me to glory. I had little else to live for. What other explanation could there be for this freakish weather event? I was ready. I was ready for the mental anguish and continuous banality of my life to end. This would be my reward, to be swept away like a divine particle into the next dimension. But it didn’t happen.
The wind abated, though the rain continued for another forty-five minutes after the big wind had moved on through. We slowly emerged from our subterranean shelter. I was the first to resurface. All I could see, in every direction, was rubble. Groves of trees snapped or uprooted. Houses were without windows, roofs, or siding. Fast food restaurants were without signs, walls, or service. Insulation was scattered about in bushes and tree branches, mixed with other pieces of wood and debris. My trailer was gone, though parts of its metal structure and the furniture inside were probably strewn about the county. For all intents and purposes, St. Mein rad had been swept from the earth, a total loss – or was it?
The brick walls of the church were gone, but the roof was not swept away. It had collapsed onto the concrete foundation and floor of the church. It was getting dark, and I had to find a place for my refugees to stay. They were in shock as they wandered aimlessly about the wreckage that was once a house of God. They had an air of disbelief with regard to what they were witnessing. It was as if they had suddenly been transported to war-ravaged
Afghanistan or some other horrible Third World place. “No, no, this can’t be our home!”
But it was.
Emergency rescue teams were on the scene as soon as the storm passed. Cots were placed in the health department, school gymnasiums, and church halls that had been spared. Those not directly affected quickly brought food and clothing to the shelters in order to help their less fortunate neighbors. Thankfully, no one in Beriah County had been killed, not even me. I was puzzled.
After sleeping the night on the floor of the health department foyers, I walked over to the ruins of St. Meinrad and tried to envision the future. My immediate concern was where to live. The church basement was still intact. It had running water and electricity. I was certain that I could secure a cot, a microwave, and a small refrigerator and dwell underground like a holy gopher. For some reason, the idea amused me.
I picked about the debris and began to move small pieces of the roof from the floor. As the morning progressed, more volunteers began to appear in the devastated section of town. Several members of my congregation began to help me clear the broken wood and shingles from the pews and altar. Many of the pews were still in good shape. The altar table remained unbroken and the bottles of wine, which represented the blood of Christ, were undisturbed. The unleavened bread of the Eucharist, which represented the body of Christ, was safe within the sacristy, as were the holy oils used in baptism. We were all amazed by this discovery. Several of those assisting me called it a miracle. At first, I didn’t know what to make of it. I just kept working.
On Sunday morning, the members of our church family gathered at the home of one of the faithful to hold a prayer service and give thanks to God for sparing our lives and the lives of others in the community. The bishop contacted me later in the day to offer what assistance he could. A friend drove me to the Big Mart at Paint Creek, and I obtained those items necessary to allow me to nest in the basement of what had been my church.
On Monday, it snowed. It seemed like a cruel joke. Despite the dramatic change in the weather, volunteers, the National Guard, and emergency workers all began to invade the zone of destruction. Heavy equipment moved in and the governor toured the area, making promises of aid. Do nations of money, cleaning supplies, food, clothing, and blankets followed in short order. Truckloads of items “from the North” arrived with college students who spent their spring break helping the victims of the tornado. For three or four weeks, great progress was made, but eventually people had to return to work or school or whatever life pursuit they were en gaged in, and we were left to figure it out.
I was lying on my cot, in the dark, wrapped in a donated blanket in my underground sanctuary when it all began to make sense. I had trouble sleeping. I dreamed that people were holding me down with my arms outstretched. Then someone placed a large spike in the palm of my right hand and began to pound it into the flesh. I wrenched in pain with each successive blow. I would awake, terrified, covered in sweat. My mouth would be dry.
After getting a drink, I would again lie on the cot, close my eyes, and attempt to sleep. I would return to the dream. Now my left hand would be nailed to the wood. I would again wake from the horror of the dream. In the morning, I was too exhausted to do much of anything that was constructive.
This routine continued for several weeks before I understood what God was trying to communicate to me: “The Church has no walls.” Of course, that’s what it must mean. We hide behind the walls of a church to pray and then go outside and act as if our lives were unchanged by the experience. We were both in the world and of the world, but we needed to be in the world, but not of this world. We should not hide behind the walls.
We must go beyond the walls of the church to spread the word of Christ.
Somehow, this revelation emboldened me. I jumped into my vehicle and drove to Lexington. I asked for an unscheduled audience with the bishop. Few things are unscheduled in the daily life of a bishop, so I had to wait a very long time as churchmen and members of the laity scurried in and out of the inner sanctum. After what seemed like hours, I was ad mitted into his presence. He greeted me warmly, with a hug, and invited me to sit in a chair opposite his desk. I rambled on for a bit – about the storm, about St. Meinrad, about my parishioners. He sat and listened patiently, with his hands folded, as if in prayer. Eventually, I told him of my dreams and my interpretation about what they meant. The expression on his face began to change. He looked concerned, so concerned that I finally stopped talking.
“Father Dave, I understand that you have been through a tremendous ordeal and no one has greater sympathy for you than I do.”
“Your Holiness, I know this all must sound a little crazy, but–”
“I have some difficult things to discuss with you, Father Dave.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“It won’t at first, and it isn’t easy to say. I’ve discussed St. Meinrad with the finance committee and we have decided not to rebuild.”
“That is a surprise, but one I can live with. I don’t need a church building. I told you, I had a revelation that told me the Church has no walls. I don’t mind living in a little concrete basement. I don’t mind holding services in people’s homes. That is what I’m trying to tell you. That is the way the Church was meant to be.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, get ahold of yourself, Dave. We’re Episcopalians, not a bunch of Pentecostals. You’ve labored in Beriah County for 30 years, but look at the results! Your congregation is pitifully small and there isn’t much of a chance that it is going to grow any time soon.”
“But I think if we try this new approach. . . .”
“The soil there is barren. You can throw down as much seed as you like, but nothing is going to grow. What does start to grow is choked by the weeds and the thistle. No point throwing out good seed after bad.”
“What…what do you suggest? I’ve literally devoted my ministry, my entire adult life to building the congregation at St. Meinrad.”
“And don’t think that I don’t appreciate what you have done. The Church will take care of you. Look, there are a couple of openings for chaplains in some assisted living facilities and prisons. You can work at that until you reach the age of 62 and then you can retire.
You don’t have a family, so I’m sure with Social Security and your Church pension, you will have enough money to live reasonably well.”
“But I don’t want to retire. I think I still have something to give.”
“Of course you do, Dave. That’s why I am suggesting you become a chaplain. There is a wonderful position open in Bowling Green that I need to fill.”
I didn’t really hear anything else that the bishop had to say. I just sat there with a sick smile on my face contemplating my future. It has always amazed me that when one is emotionally devastated by something, people will chatter away as if nothing is wrong. Do they really think the affected individual is listening?
When the bishop finally stopped talking, I stood up, nodded politely, and left the room.
Was this God’s will? I don’t really remember walking out of his office or out of the administration building. I don’t remember walking past the cathedral, with its impressive stairs and twin spires. But I must have walked for quite a while and then I stopped and tried to figure out where I was.
I knew that I was close to downtown and the neighborhood wasn’t very pleasant. There were some warehouses and storage facilities, a few small rundown, shotgun shacks.
I spotted a homeless man in an alley drinking from a bottle he kept in a paper bag. It was difficult to judge his age. He might have been 50, or a 30-year-old man who looked 50.
He was seated with his back propped up against that wall of a building. He was wearing a filthy pair of jeans, worn-out tennis shoes, and a dirty white T-shirt covered by a tattered suit jacket. His shaggy brown hair went in several directions at once and his face displayed an impressive three-day stubble. He didn’t seem particularly interested in me or in his surroundings. I approached him with a degree of caution.
“Ah…excuse me, young man… I seem to have lost my way. Can you tell me where I am?”
It took him a few seconds to reply or even to look at me. When he finally looked up, he squinted, then laughed. “You’re halfway to hell without a bottle to fix you.”
He raised his bottle above his head and laughed again. It was a spontaneous laugh but certainly not a pleasant one. “Would you like a swig?” It would have seemed rather snobbish for me to have refused and I am an Episcopalian, so I took him up on his kind offer.
I wiped the bottle top off with my shirttail before taking “a swig.” It was a rather harsh red wine with a kick. It was certainly not a wine I would normally have purchased myself – not a very good vintage, so to speak. However, given the circumstances, it did make me feel better. I returned the bottle to my newfound friend and sat down on the pavement next to him. I asked his name and he said it was Newton, Newton Pike. He laughed again and passed the bottle back to me. He asked my name. I said Dave and we both laughed.
I passed the bottle back to him. So it went until the bottle was empty and the light of the sun was beginning to fade. I assured Newton that I could remedy the situation if he could take us to a liquor store. He knew just the place.
We walked over to the liquor store, and I bought us some cheap wine. Then we returned to our preselected positions in the alley and consumed the contents. Too much wine and too much tension made me fall asleep. The light of the sun woke me from my slumber.
My jacket, wallet, and shoes were gone, as was Newton Pike. I began to wonder if his name was really Newton Pike. No matter, I took this to be another sign from God
I walked around for about two hours in my stocking feet looking for where I had parked my car. Eventually I found it and drove around Lexington until I found a car lot. I sold the car for $700, then walked to a shoe store and purchased a pair of tennis shoes (cheap ones). I next located a thrift store and purchased an old jacket.
I took the bus downtown and walked around giving away what remained of my cash, with the exception of two 20-dollar bills that I hoped would feed me for a few days. I felt this was what God wanted me to do. I was making a leap of faith, like Francis of Assisi. I was letting go of my material possessions. I was taking God’s message of hope and redemption to the poor and the weak and the forgotten. I was going to see Lazarus under the rich man’s table for the first time.
And I tried.
I soon discovered that sleeping outside was unpleasant and rather dangerous. I dreamed that there was a community of the benign homeless in Lexington – poor people helping one another survive as the prosperous ran about in blind ignorance of their saintly struggles. It was a dream.
Life on the street was nasty and brutish. Many of the homeless I met were mentally ill, simpleminded, or addicted to drugs and/or alcohol. Those who did not fall into one of these categories were broken by the strain of their lifestyle. It was hard to find a good place to sleep.
Spots under a bridge or overpass were overcrowded and hard to come by. There were plenty of alleys, but they were dangerous and offered little protection from the elements.
Rats were also a problem. You don’t see them in the day, but they are plentiful at night, and they are very hungry.
Once my money was gone, acquiring food took up much of my time. I climbed into more than a few restaurant dumpsters in order to fetch someone’s half-eaten dinner.
Gradually I learned where the soup kitchens were located, and I shuffled into line with capitalism’s other refugees. Soup kitchens were also warm and dry. Some have a lavatory.
I really learned to appreciate having a warm place to go to the bathroom. Eventually I established a routine, rotating on particular days to one of several church soup kitchens in the downtown area.
Man, being a social creature, seeks companionship. Eventually, I made a friend. My newfound friend was Ralph, a middle-aged black man who was missing his two front teeth. We met at a dumpster behind Tiny’s Restaurant. A cook had just thrown out a fresh pile of garbage, so we both knew the eating would be good. He made a fierce expression with his face and growled so as to scare me off, but I was hungry and made an equally fierce expression and growled right back. That made him laugh and he suggested that we split our treasure. I agreed to the arrangement, and we dined together in high style.
I suppose the first thing people noticed about Ralph was his hat. He always wore a black baseball cap with the letters “CIA” embossed on the front.
“Did you ever work for the CIA?” I inquired.
“Naw, I just found this hat and I liked it.”
“It’s a good hat.”
After eating our fill, we walked together without saying much and decided to bed down for the night in a narrow alley. We found some card board for bedding. There were three other men sleeping in the alley, but no one spoke. In the wee hours of the morning, we were awakened by revelers exiting a nearby tavern. One of the inebriated bar patrons wondered into the alley to relieve himself. Before he could get his zipper down, two of the homeless men who were already in the alley jumped him and knocked him to the ground.
A fight ensued and Ralph grabbed me by the shoulder and said, “Let’s get out of here before the cops come. This don’t look good.”
We fled into the darkness with the shouts of violent men ringing in our ears. It was clear that Ralph was looking out for me.
In the morning, we walked to the Salvation Army kitchen for breakfast and then spent the rest of the morning sitting on a bench in a concrete park, watching people make their way to work. Everyone looked so purposeful. First came the garbage trucks, doing their morning rounds. Next, the restaurant workers appeared to man the grills and the coffee machines. Buses soon appeared, and commuters filed out and ran to their offices. Later, shoppers appeared, and policemen, and people just out for a stroll. We watched them all.
No one noticed us. We were like the streetlights and benches, the pigeons and the bike racks. Ralph and I were part of the scenery.
“I could eat.”
“Okay, let’s panhandle a little and raise up some money for lunch.”
It took us a couple of hours to raise enough money for a sandwich. We had nothing but time. With our wealth in coins, we walked to a greasy spoon and bought a sandwich and split i.e. sat on a different bench at a different concrete park and watched. In the early evening we went looking for a good dumpster, then for a good place to sleep. So it went, day after day, until the weather got colder.
“I’ll be moving south for the winter. You want to join me?”
“No, thank you, Ralph. I believe I’ll stay right here.”
“Your choice, man, but it can get mighty cold and icy come January.”
“I appreciate the warming.”
We shook hands and Ralph walked to a truck parked near a warehouse to ask the driver for a lift. I walked back toward the center of town to look for a place to sleep.
About a month after Ralph jumped into the truck for his southbound adventure, I was curled up in an alley trying to get some sleep and a cold rain began to fall. By morning, I was soaked to the skin and had a toothache. I was tired of being homeless and tired of eating other people’s garbage. I was just plain tired and didn’t really know what to do. I made my way to an Episcopal shelter for homeless men and identified myself to a member of the staff. This caused a great deal of commotion. The receptionist had to contact the director of the shelter, who had to call the personnel director at the diocesan office, who had to contact the chaplain of the shelter, and so my presence reverberated through the entire church bureaucracy. After several hours of waiting in the reception area, a natty little man appeared in clerical garb and identified himself as the shelter’s chaplain. He showed obvious signs of irritation because he was called in on his day off. I had to fill out some papers. After some questioning, I convinced the chaplain and the director of the shelter that I was, indeed, Father Dave, the former pastor of St. Meinrad in Beriah County. They, in turn, phoned the personnel director, and he contacted the bishop. No one really knew what to do with me, but I was assigned a bed at the shelter.
No one wanted to take responsibility for an Episcopal priest dying of exposure in the streets of Lexington during the winter.
I am rather certain that during the following weeks there was a considerable amount of discussion about my fate. I was not included in the aforementioned discussion.
However, I was given the position of Assistant Resident Caretaker at the shelter and I was awarded a permanent bed and free meals. My duties include helping with the laundry, cleaning the restrooms, serving meals to our homeless guests in the soup kitchen, and other duties as assigned. A load of used clothing and blankets just arrived from the North, so I am currently folding blankets for distribution to the poor somewhere in eastern Kentucky.