Post Author: Sarah Gladstone
I couldn’t help but notice that the third photo in from the right featured a man with a rather spectacular mullet and a western bolo tie. Of the eight men pictured at the front of the courtroom, in their extra large and stately frames, I named him Judge Billy Ray.
“How did I get here, Billy?” I asked him while sitting in the empty courtroom.
As I am one of those people who likes to be everywhere at least fifteen minutes early, I had plenty of time to sit on the hard court room bench and ponder this with my new mullet-ed friend.
This was not my first time in the courtroom. There had been another appearance before the Judge, and before that, many other meetings with the attorney. I was beyond dumbfounded to think that this legal saga continued.
Five months before, the family of ten renting out the church’s parsonage found the rent to be too much and stopped paying…again. This had happened before. But rather than talk with the pastor or the church’s moderator about putting together a payment plan, they severed communication and went into “avoid the church people” mode, which I imagine was extremely difficult given that the parsonage shares a driveway with the church.
We made many attempts to reestablish communication.
But for every phone call made, there was one left unreturned.
For every certified letter mailed, there was one sent back unopened.
For every meeting they were invited to, we were left waiting and twiddling our thumbs.
Last summer, as the church council and the parishioners became more and more frustrated, this became my new pastoral mantra in life: “It is what it is, people! The family next door has clearly fallen on a hard time. Life happens! There is no need for us to speculate. Please be in prayer….” I don’t think I can count the number of times that I’ve said something to that affect.
By late summer, it became necessary for the church to begin the process of an eviction. And I mean process. Through a series of phone calls to the realtor, attorneys, the police department, and the sheriff’s department, a pathway of time-consuming, bureaucratic stepping stones was set out before us. So, we did the work of hopping from stone to stone, step to step. Unfortunately, I soon found out that those stepping stones were more like playing Chutes and Ladders:
We need help with this eviction, so we have to contact the sheriff.
In order to get the sheriff involved, we needed documentation from the judge.
In order to meet with the judge, we needed to have the tenants “served” with a summons.
The sheriff can only “serve” people every third Thursday.
In order to have someone “served,” we needed to file papers with the court.
But first, to do that, we needed an attorney.
In order to get the attorney involved, we needed documentation from the Church Council and the bank.
Oh, by the way, they all need to be paid. The sheriff needs money, the court needs money, the attorney needs money….
Paperwork to meetings, letters to court dates, phone calls to in person bargaining. Stone to stone, step to step.
And as I sat there in that courtroom with Judge Billy Ray that day, listening to the florescent bulbs buzz overhead, I had what felt like eons of time to think back on how excruciating this whole process was. Partly because of the stepping stones, but mostly because every step we took brought up a lot of questions for the church community: questions about the nature and limits of Christian mercy, questions about moral responsibility, questions about living and acting in the juxtaposition of grace and accountability.
It was painful for both the church and for the tenant, which was a family of ten, including seven children.
And you know what? I am glad that this whole process was so hard!
If this was easy, if we had evicted this family without blinking an eye or shedding a bucket full of tears, if we had pursued this whole situation as nothing but a cold and clear-cut business move, if we had remained unwounded and uninterrupted by this, then I would say, “Shame on us.”
As it was, every step we took offered the church an opportunity to reevaluate. We were gifted a chance to think about extending grace, again. To think about praying, again. To think about civility and Christian fairness.
Eventually, I was able to talk with the family face-to-face outside the courtroom before our first ordered appearance before the judge. (This was not because the system wanted us to communicate and hash things out, but simply because we were forced to occupy the same space.) The family was scared for their future more than anything, which, of course, meant they expressed that through anger at the church for not being more charitable and anger at the pastor for not being kinder. We cried together, talked things through together, and eventually came to a place of at least understanding how we had all gotten here to this really frustrating, sad place.
I walked away from that encounter thinking that at least it offered us all a sense of perspective and acceptance.
Many people say that there are aspects of our life and our ministry that have to be handled like a business deal. They say we have to be tough, seal off our hearts, suck it up. Go through the motions and get over it.
But I pray that our skin is fragile and that our hearts bleed. That is what it is to live a life of Christian awareness. We have to be affected by the hurts and struggles of those around us. To do anything else would be apathetic and sinful.
Now, a couple months later, I live in the parsonage that the family left. Even after the cleaning crew came through, I still find parts and pieces to children’s toys around the home, little bits of evidence of the home’s past. They are reminders to me that there is a family out there struggling to get on their feet and that they need our prayer.
They remind me that being sad and frustrated is okay, and that when our hearts bleed it’s a very good thing.
Sarah Gladstone is the pastor of Hampshire Colony Congregational Church in Princeton, IL. Her passions include narrative preaching, writing bad poetry, and developing new ways of reaching out to her local community.
Image by: Joe Gratz
Used with permission