Uncle George

We were on our way to church one night for yet another predictable and disappointing church service.
We were members of Brooklyn’s most popular interdenominational church.  
But for us, something was missing…something was just not right.

“What was it?’ we wondered yet again…

We had tried so many times to get into the spirit of the place…
We couldn’t put our finger on what made us so uncomfortable…
Lord knows, everyone else seemed wildly enthusiastic.
What misfits we were....  
We couldn’t fit ourselves in no matter how hard we tried.
People were beginning to notice that we hung back a little.

We had discovered that everyone had to be in lock step at all times…or else.
The same smiles, the same ‘amens’, giving assent to every suggestion from the pastor.
Right or wrong.  No questions allowed.
We were beginning to realize that this was not a group that tolerated dissent.

The dissatisfaction we felt was growing.
Each service felt like a fresh assault on our spirits.  
That night, as we drove to church for the Wednesday evening service,
we finally voiced our deep discomfort.

The question we finally asked ourselves was “What is church? ”
Was this God's idea of how it should be ?
If so, we were woefully lacking...
We were at an impasse and something had to give.
We sat silently and waited…  We wanted God’s input.
We drove slowly and somewhat aimlessly in the direction of the church
as we considered the question.

It was a bitterly cold and rainy evening in February.
As the daylight faded, the rain turned to sleet and ice.
The wind was whipping, people were clutching their coats.
It was not a night to be out if you could avoid it.

We found ourselves in a black neighborhood crowded with people at the end         of the work day.
We drove slowly, observing the scene, when we suddenly spotted an old black man weaving his way through the crowd, clad only in pajamas and bedroom slippers.
We watched in shock as people rushed by, pretending not to see him.
He was being jostled and pushed aside by the commuters rushing home for the evening.
We simply couldn’t believe that no one would extend a hand to help this elderly man.
Maybe they thought he was drunk.
The cars behind us were honking and pushing us along, so we circled the block hoping that by the time we got back to that corner, he would be gone, hoping that someone would have looked after him.
When we finally got back to the corner we found him again, stumbling badly now and being shoved by the still unseeing crowds.

Where had we seen that behavior before?
We realized with a little catch in our throats… after our church services!
The church we attended was situated in a poor neighborhood.
As we left services each time, there would be a few homeless people standing outside asking for a bit of help.
The church folks would callously push past them, sometimes with a shove or a harsh word.
They were rushing off to their favorite cheesecake restaurant where they
would invariably stuff themselves.
The servers hated to see them coming.  Their mistreatment of the servers was legendary. They'd run the staff ragged all evening.
It was always the same thing…how much could they get for nothing?
They often complained until they got a free meal.
In the end they might leave a bit of small change for tips.
Their behavior stood in such stark contrast to the message they professed.
We were embarrassed to be seen with them after a few such encounters.  

We soon shed those thoughts and focused on the scene in front of us.
Suddenly our man stumbled and fell into a filthy, storm-clogged gutter.
Still no one seemed to notice!
We maneuvered our little Volkswagen to the curb and jumped out.
We lifted the old man to his feet and half-dragged him to the car.
He was nearly frozen.  He was incoherent and shivering intensely.
He was in bad shape from exposure to the cold and sleet.

We tried in vain to find out who he was and where he needed to go.  
He carried no ID.  He could not speak.   His condition was pitiful.
So we just concentrated on getting him warmed up.
He was not drunk, but beyond that, we couldn’t piece together his situation.
We searched for a policeman, but couldn’t find one.
We were at a loss in a strange neighborhood with a nameless, homeless man        - in tow.
We realized that we would have to come up with a solution ourselves.

Once seated in a warm car, our fellow was coming around slowly.
We found a diner and got some hot soup for our guest.
Offering him some hot food stirred him and he showed the first signs of life.
He shivered so much that he couldn’t hold the container or feed himself,
so we fed him carefully.  
After a few spoonfuls of soup, he nodded off and slept a bit.
His shivering slowly subsided.
We drove aimlessly for awhile just to thaw him out and figure out our next move.
He started to come to after about an hour, but we still couldn't get a word from him.
No name, no address, no explanation.  
We drove around and around feeling pretty helpless.

And then our man made a sudden move.
He jerked his head up and clumsily pointed to the right with a grunt. That was all.
So we headed right.  Then after awhile, he sat up and motioned to the left.   Off we went to the left!  Then he nodded off again.
This was repeated a few more times until we finally realized that we were going in hopeless circles.
We were no closer to a destination of any kind and to make matters worse, we were now lost in an unfamiliar part of Brooklyn on a dark and stormy night.  
Our passenger obviously didn’t know who he was or where he lived.
Now what!?  

As we threaded our way through the area, we found a block of brownstone houses.
It was a quiet residential street... a place where we could pause for a few moments out of traffic.  
Finally, I said, ‘Stop the car’.
I got out and headed for the first house with a porch light.
I knocked on the door and waited, feeling a little fear and a lot of frustration.

A tall stately grey-"haired black woman answered the door.  She towered over me,  obviously wondering what a white girl was doing knocking on her door after nightfall.

I tried to explain to her that I had an old man in pajamas with no known identity in my possession and that I needed to use a phone, Please....

She drew herself up to her full height and questioned me closely.

Where had we found him?  What was he doing?  What did he look like?  What was he wearing?

Suddenly, she gave a shriek and cried  "Uncle George!”  
I stepped back, startled...
She dashed inside, grabbed a coat and ran past me down the steps into the street to our car.
I followed her, still uncomprehending.

When she reached our passenger, she launched into an emotional tirade.
“Uncle George!!!  What got into you that you would leave the hospital!!!??"

This WAS, in fact, HER Uncle George!  I shook my head in disbelief!

Meanwhile, poor Uncle George was getting the scolding of a lifetime.

It turned out that Uncle George had been taken to King's County Hospital that morning with a stomach complaint.
As near as anyone could tell, he had waited hour after hour for someone to see him.  Toward the end of the day, he simply got hungry and frustrated and just left on his own.
He was going to walk back home.  He was a bit senile and confused and lost his way.
He had been missing for hours…and now, in some inexplicable way, he was home.  

We were all amazed at what had just taken place!
His grateful niece thanked us and hurried him inside, scolding all the way!

As we headed back toward the church, we checked our watches.
We had been gone for more than 2 hours.
Church would be letting out just about the time we would be arriving.
It was hardly worth the trip now, we realized.  We might as well head home.
We were actually kind of relieved to have missed church that night.

We turned the corner and headed toward home when suddenly,
the atmosphere in that little car shifted slightly.
There was a Presence...soft, but sure.

And the revelation that came into us held the answer to our all-but-forgotten question...
the one we had asked earlier that evening.

“This is Church,” the Voice said.     “THIS is Church…”    

Debra Robinson   skydancer@ij.net