Three strikes and he’s out. Jailed three times on charges related to his heroin addiction, he has struggled to stay clean and get back into the game for ten months now. He has done a handyman’s work for a landlord in exchange for a room in one of the properties and a few dollars to buy necessities.
He has sought work as an electrician’s helper, a trade learned in his high school vocational classes. But with a prison record and few skills in literacy, he has been unable to find a job. After his release, he often sacrificed food to be able to afford a cell phone, a necessity before any potential employer could call him back. He walked four miles to stand in line in hopes of getting jobs as a day worker. He lost his driver’s license and can’t afford to pay the fines to regain even a provisional driver’s license.
Against all these odds, he’s managed to avoid drugs for ten months, and he prides himself on not having asked his family for any money.
All this is predictable—and understandable—even to him. Though he was a poor student, he is quite a clear and rational thinker when he’s not using drugs. And so, in an effort to make his way back into the line-up of life outside of jail, he began a quest to find a church community and the spiritual sustenance to help him stay clean.
Lacking the clothes he felt he needed to go into a Sunday service, he wandered into a Methodist church in search of an AA meeting that he mistakenly thought happened that evening. What he found was a small Bible study group that invited him to join them. They even invited him out to dinner with them on a couple of occasions. But one evening, after going to the men’s room, he stood on the other side of very thin walls to hear two of the members of the group speaking ill of him. He left, feeling hurt and betrayed by people he thought were becoming his friends.
They contacted him, and he made excuses about why he didn’t return. Two of them came to his house to visit him, and he finally admitted to them why he’d left. They apologized, but he was too fragile to place his trust in them again.
For a while he stopped his search, but feeling the need for community, he visited a Presbyterian church. No one welcomed him as he sat at the back of the church. But he understood. He had finally bought slacks and a shirt at a thrift store, but he couldn’t afford the $800 to replace his ill-fitting dentures, so perhaps his own closed mouth discouraged anyone from speaking to him.
Reluctantly, he attended a church much like the churches of his childhood, the only place where he thought he might feel comfortable—a Baptist church where the sermon was full of the fire and fury of hell. The congregants welcomed him warmly at the end of the service, and he considered going back. But he needed more than the fear of hell to keep him out of trouble, and he ultimately decided to suspend his search and depend on his own reading of the Bible and a devotional book to try to connect with a Spirit of grace.
I wish I could say, as the song goes, “I’m strong, strong enough to carry him. He ain’t heavy…” He is heavy. And the load does weigh me down. But he’s my brother.
For years I watched from the safe distance of an adjacent state as he and another brother took advantage of my mother and my sister before his first two stints in jail and our other brother’s death from an overdose. The final strike came when, as our mother sat confined to a wheelchair unable to speak from a stroke, he stole a check from her checkbook and forged her name to cash it at her bank. Strike three cost him 19 months in jail and forced him to miss his mother’s funeral.
Determined not to become my mother and praying that he would not become our other brother, I have tried to help him without enabling him. Afraid to give him money, I send him occasional care packages and talk to him frequently on the phone to try to offer emotional support. And so far, he has managed to avoid a first strike in this new inning of his life.
In all of this, I am most disheartened by my brother’s experiences with churches. I find myself wondering how I would have responded to him had he been a stranger in my congregation’s midst one Sunday. And I have to admit that I might have behaved much as the congregants in that Presbyterian church he visited. I was most disappointed in that church because I had encouraged him to find a Presbyterian church, assuring him that we Presbyterians were more about grace than fear. Yes, I am Presbyterian. But as I had to admit to my brother in the aftermath of his experience there, there is a reason that some people laughingly refer to us as “the frozen chosen.”
After rejecting the fiery preachers of our childhood, I wandered into a Presbyterian church as a scorched and wounded 24-year-old. And if those thoughtful and thinking Presbyterians didn’t save my life, they certainly saved my faith by helping me believe in a Spirit of grace and compassion.
What would Jesus do? I suspect my brother would be one of those whose head Jesus would have touched as he said, “Your faith has made you whole.” But Jesus isn’t physically walking among us, and it’s up to us to be the hands that reach out to people in need.
What I’m certain Jesus would not do is what any of those three churches did when faced with a man like my brother. While society may have no idea how to help the hurting, we, the Church, have a responsibility to, at the very least, offer love and grace and compassion and prayer. I know I haven’t always done that, and I don’t have the answers to how to ensure that my brother doesn’t strike out again.
He is heavy. But he’s my brother. And he’s yours, too.