The Rev. J. Clarkson, Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, "When Love is Not Enough…And When It is"
When Love is Not Enough…And When It is
At some point during the pandemic, when there were still limits on how many people could attend worship in person but after our staff was able to work in the office again, Charlie started to visit us. At first, he would come into the building, find a secluded room, and sit in the air conditioning on a hot day. Once I realized he was here, I invited him to sit in our library. While I hoped this would feel more welcoming for him, I also sensed that we needed to have clear boundaries with Charlie.
Our church was once a simple country parish, and it has become a part of the suburban environment that has grown up around it. While we often see more than 100 neighboring families at our client-choice food pantry, we get visits from houseless individuals much less frequently. Usually, they are folks who, for one reason or another, cannot tolerate the close quarters of a typical shelter or need to distance themselves from environments where abused substances are readily available. Charlie seemed like a person who needed some space.
Whether the origins of that need were external or internal is hard to know, but Charlie clearly had trouble communicating with people. Given his physique and demeanor, one could easily interpret his clipped words and tensed arms as provocations, but they could just as easily have been responses to past traumas. None of us on the staff had the capacity to sort out a question like that. When we offered to connect Charlie with the people who did have capacity to help, he seemed reluctant. Eventually, he appeared to grow frustrated with our inability to serve him, and we grew wary that this frustration would boil over into behaviors that everyone involved did not intend. Because of our limitations, I had to ask Charlie to leave.
About two years later, Bruce showed up on our doorstep, asleep. Having visited our food pantry the day before, he made camp on the porch outside our office. We talked briefly as I opened the building for Sunday worship, each tiptoeing around the other as we got a feel for the person before us. Bruce was also clearly the type of person who needed some space, but since every person is their own person, I wanted to allow Bruce to be known for who he is, not just for any similarities he might share with Charlie. I also had services to get ready for.
It feels like a gift that, despite all of the challenges facing houses of worship and clergy in this era, I’m not constantly beset with negative self-talk. Usually, the imposter syndrome and narratives that I am single-handedly responsible for the decline of the church are met with more reasonable voices of compassion and realism. For whatever reason, the more reasonable voices had decided to take that Sunday off. Or more likely, they dozed off during my sermon and did not wake up. I found myself spiraling into self-doubt right there in the middle of the confession, and I did not come up for air during the Eucharistic prayer.
Being enough of a stoical Southerner to want to keep up appearances, however, I kept saying the words and began to hand out communion. All of a sudden, there in the line was Bruce. As far as I know, he was in the church the whole time, but I did not see him until he was standing right in front of me. I was immediately struck by the awareness that not even I, the rector of this parish, was smart enough or strong enough to break the church. Bruce still believed it was a place where he could seek a divine presence. Who did I think I was to believe that he could not?
Bruce still worships with us when he does not have to work at the grocery store across the street. Members of the congregation have collaborated to help with his material needs to the extent that Bruce is willing to accept the help. He has also occasionally insisted on providing sandwich cookies for the fellowship hour after a service. Bruce has offered to be present with us in community, and we are grateful to be present with him.
Charlie was present with us recently too. He arrived after a service started and sat near the front. I don’t know if he was avoiding eye contact with me, but with his head turned toward the congregation, his gaze was unsettling. As the ushers took up the weekly offering, he rose, followed them down the aisle, and plucked two bills from the collection plate. He returned to the front, stood, and stared in my direction before leaving the church. While his need for the money may be real, he also seemed to need to make a statement.
I’m not sure what his statement might mean, but I know the sadness I felt. In the days after the service, when some members asked what we could do for Charlie, I had few answers outside of prayer. That our community is not equipped to meet his needs is a truth that unmasks the tragedy of our limitations as human beings. If we can be enough for Bruce (which may or may not be the case), why can’t we be enough for Charlie? Of course, there are larger issues like the availability of mental health services and a lack of affordable housing at play, but those issues can easily become scapegoats for apathy. In the end, our limitations are a tragedy that I can only acknowledge and work to overcome with the help of grace from the one who loves Charlie, Bruce, and me in all of our imperfection.
In addition to serving as the Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Fletcher, NC, J. Clarkson is a former certified food handler in the State of Texas. He enjoys music, books, and days when he can put the top down on his Jeep.