I am not sure if anybody will eulogize Tom W. He was homeless, an alcoholic, and had burnt every bridge he crossed. He tried to burn our bridge of friendship, but I put out the flames to his amazement. He showed up one December morning to our church and was welcomed in. For 18 months, Tom was more faithful to his church than some of our faithful. It was his church and he was one of us. Tom made us better people and because of that we were blessed to have Tom amongst us.
After our worship, we have a gathering where snack food is found. Tom helped clean up the sanctuary and afterwards went to eat. Tom and I were some of the last to leave the worship center. After eating, he cleaned tables. He helped. I said, “Tom, you have the gift of helps.”
“I just try to help out.”
“Thanks, that is what people do in church.”
Tom invited people to church, but they saw the church as an opportunity to take advantage of. Tom said, “Those guys embarrass me. I am not inviting them anymore. They steal from the offering plate. They steal food.”
Tom you can invite them it is OK.
“Tom, if you think this is the way to go, then thank you for protecting your church.” Tom was wiser than his pastor.
For forty days in 2009, Tom was in jail. He called me in Target on December 23 as his first call out of the jail. I told him of Christmas eve service and I wanted him desperately to be there. It would be good for him and us. He came to the service and many were surprised and overjoyed to see him. He was sober on the county detox program and wanted a fresh start. The county empties the jails at Christmas to help with staffing and folks who are marginalized arrive to enter the system when there are no exits. The world focuses upon Christmas and my life was the same. I was going on vacation and could not welcome him anywhere. The church was in the same place. He soon got back to drinking and in the crowd he had been in.
Tom and I struggled with each other. He struggle with my materialism, our pool and house. I struggled with his drinking. There were times when he crossed lines and I had to call him on it. There were times when he called me on the carpet. That is friendship to me. The stakes for me were tremendous it was his health and well-being and the well-being of the church. But, we came back to the conclusion that we had great affection for each other.
He was born Juneteenth. On his birthday, I sought him out. A parishoner and friend of his, Hope cooked cupcakes for him. I found him in the afternoon heat, he was already deep into the bottle. I gave him his gift from his mother that had been sent to me. He was focused upon the next drink and he left. I could tell that my son’s and mine appearance to him was embarrassing. He wanted to be better, but that day the burden of another year of being on the streets tied to the bottle sent him into a deep funk. I had hoped to get him before the desperation set in.
Tom died on July 24 most likely. That is my birthday and while I enjoyed my afternoon on the St. John’s river, Tom was dying. Cancer, alcoholism, and the heat of central California were against him. They found him at 10:30 AM on Sunday, the time church starts. In his Bible was my business card and a note, “Concert August 4 at Pastor’s House. 7PM.” He had planned on making the Bill Mallonee concert. On July 18, the last day I saw Tom, he was helping clean up after consecration dinner. He had eaten my barbecue and told me it was great. He decided he wanted to share part of the meal with others. So, he took some Barbecue beef to share with a homeless friend.
Today when the police detective showed up at the door, I was protecting Tom. Who are you looking for? I was mum, because Tom did not need problems with the police. Then the detective hinted his body was found. He told me where, so I went to the alley where they found him. I pleaded with God to free Tom and prayed for the rest of the homeless. Today, as I reflect upon my pastoral relationship with Tom…I think I did it right. Still we failed to bring him to total wholeness.
I am left with those questions, “Is caring for a person and showing them they are loved, enough?” Tom never left us, is that good enough? We made him part of the family and celebrated him. I don’t know. Would be so much easier to furrow the brow and to push him out. However, he came in the door. He was served and he served Jesus here. As we measure life, how about that?
Thank you God for Tom W. He was a blessing. He was a magnificent and wonderful creation of yours. I am grateful to be his pastor and his presence made this church a better place. God free Tom from those demons that consumed and welcome as your own. I believe in your amazing grace and I pray that grace extends to Tom. Please, Lord welcome him home. He has been without a home too long.