The voice on the phone was hesitant and apologetic. The story that unfolded was as follows.
He said he was a German translator. He had worked in Berlin and Leipzig, but work was drying up so he returned to the United States with his wife and six children. He had taught German and Latin in a small Lutheran high school in southern Illinois. That school had to make staff cuts, so he lost that job. But he had just received a job offer to be a translator for the German Stock Exchange, and they wanted him based in Chicago. He and his family planned to move into Evanston for an easy commute and were staying at a Sheridan Suites Hotel in Elk Grove Village until the duplex on Oakton they planned to rent became available. Further complication: his wife was pregnant with their eighth child and was due to deliver within a month. But she had had cardiac problems during the birth of the seventh child a year ago.
The man knew that the transition would be difficult, but it just became really difficult because their ten-year old van had broken down and needed a transmission job. He could work out repayment with the garage owner, but in the meantime he needed transportation so he could begin his job, move his family into Evanston when the house became available, and have a dependable vehicle available if his wife needed to go to the hospital in an emergency. Both his parents and his wife’s parents were deceased, so he didn’t have family to turn to. He knew it was a lot to ask, but could Immanuel Lutheran Church rent a van for his family for a week until his car was ready. His company was wiring money, and he could pay back the church.
I was going out that way to visit a member in a nursing home, so I said I would meet Mr. K at his hotel and discuss the situation with him. I met with him and his wife on Monday, March 21. She was indeed great with child. I saw several of the children, including the one-year-old. The oldest son, he said, had won a science award in St. Louis the previous year and was now a university student in St. Louis. “How are you surviving?” I asked. “Lots of peanut butter sandwiches and visiting food pantries,” he said. “Also doing some translation projects.” “Like what?” I asked. He mentioned translating the correspondence between Spener and Francke (the two fathers of German Pietism) for Martin Luther University in Halle, Germany. He showed me a page in old German script. You know that hooked me. And I don’t deny that I liked the idea of a family of nine or ten with a solid Lutheran background moving into Evanston and maybe becoming a part of Immanuel. I even envisioned our families helping this family move in and providing meals when the new child was born.
So I agreed to rent a minivan for this family for a week. Immanuel doesn’t have a credit card, so I used my own and put Mr. K on as a second driver. I knew at the time this was a risky thing to do. But there was his pregnant wife with the heart condition and all those children.
Well, over the weekend Mr. K called me and said that the house in Evanston wasn’t ready and it looked like his van wouldn’t be ready yet either. He was working with a ministry in Roselle that helps people starting jobs get their cars repaired. Could I extend the lease a second week. I had already mentioned this family’s situation to the chair of the Immanuel’s Mutual Ministry Committee, and following his initial search of “Mr. K” on the internet, I did a quick search of my own and found out that Mr. K was indeed a German translator and a published author and poet. The son’s science award also checked out on the internet, and there was a photo of the boy with his parents — the same people I had just met. They seemed bona fide, so while I was nervous about having an open credit account and this family’s ability to repay me, I extended the contract for another week.
The next week I received a call that they had gone to St. Louis because he had to make an emergency run to the hospital, was concerned about his wife’s condition, and wanted to have access to her cardiologist. The second due date went by. He left a message asking if he should return the van to a Hertz dealer in St. Louis, even though there would be a fee for doing so. I returned the message: “Yes,” I said, somewhat relieved, “I don’t care about the extra fee. Return the van.” Of course, it wasn’t returned. Then I received a notice of a traffic violation in St. Louis for the Friday of the week I rented the van on Monday. So they had taken off with the van the very week I rented it for them — to St. Louis, not to Evanston.
My wife did a Google check under Mrs. K and her name came up on a prayer list posted by Christ Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Orland Park in April 2010. I called out there, and the pastor emeritus returned my call. Pastor Walter Ledogar told me that he had worked with this family for a year and a half, providing hotel accommodations, food, and clothing out of his church’s helping fund, but it reached a point where he had to cut them off. (In a later conversation with him, Pastor Ledogar told me that his church had spent $16,000 on this family!) I called the Hertz hot line and said that, in my view, the van was stolen. Of course, Hertz had to go through a process, which took another week. But finally, on May 12, Mrs. K called me and said that Hertz had called and accused them of stealing the van, but they had already returned the van. I told her to call the Hertz dealer in Schaumburg and straighten things out. I believe they returned the van to the St. Louis airport on the day they received the threatening call from Hertz.
The Hertz staff person in Hoffman Estates/Schaumburg did the best he could for me: he charged monthly rates for two months rather than per diem rates, and he accepted Immanuel’s sales tax exemption because he knew this was a charitable act. My credit card was charged $3,123.04.
I am relieved that the van was returned. It was a stressful situation at a time when I was going through Holy Week and Easter, wrapping up the confirmation program, and dealing with some parish pastoral care situations. I put a synopsis of this situation on the Society of the Holy Trinity (STS) Facebook page to alert other pastors, especially in Illinois and the St. Louis area, in case a family with eight kids should show up needing a van or a hotel. And by means of this column, I am alerting a wider array of pastors and congregations. I am comforted by the expressions of support I have received from other pastors, including that from the LCMS pastor emeritus of the church in Orland Park. Several offered to send checks to “help relieve your burden.” One who made this offer said, “We pastors are out there on the front line and we sometimes get wounded. We have to take care of one another.”
The Church has always helped the needy, who have always come to churches for help. I have been dealing with needy people coming to the church door for the forty-plus years of my pastoral ministries in five very different kinds of localities. I believe it is an integral part of the Church’s mission to provide charity for the poor and needy, as we see from the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles. In his First Apology ca. 150, Justin Martyr told the Emperor Antoninus Pius and the Senate of Rome: “Those who prosper, and so wish, contribute, each one as much as he chooses to. What is collected is deposited with the president [i.e., presiding minister], and he takes care of orphans and widows, and those who are in jail, and the strangers who are sojourners among us, and, briefly, he is the protector of all those in need” (I, 67).
The church got better organized in its charitable work as time went on. For example, the diocese of Rome was divided into seven districts, corresponding to the seven political districts of the city, and there was a suffragan bishop and a deaconry in each one. The deaconries were social ministry centers. We see the example of the inner mission work that was done in Germany in the 19th century that William Passavant brought to this country, along with deaconesses. We have set up a vast network of social services agencies, such as those under the umbrella of Lutheran Social Services of America. But pastors have been and still are on the front line of the Church’s charity. We’re the ones needy people ask for when they come to the church building looking for help. When people come in off the street asking to see the pastor, we know it’s usually money or some goods and services money can buy that they are interested in. We are often equipped with charitable contributions from members of our congregations given to helping funds. We try to be wise stewards and discerning ministers, but most of us err on the side of compassion, and we sometimes get taken advantage of.
The historic Lutheran approach to charity sometimes makes it worse when larger needs are presented, such as housing and transportation. When Luther moved to abolish begging in Wittenberg and set up a common chest from which city officials would help the needy neighbor, the idea was to help the neighbor get on his feet. If this worked, the neighbor was to treat what he had received as a loan and pay back the common chest. So we have been especially concerned to provide financial assistance where it might be the piece that puts the individual or family over the hurdle to begin making it on their own. I clearly perceived this to be the situation with Mr. K. But after several big disappointments in the last couple of years, I have come to believe that whatever causes people to be in their situation in the first place must be addressed before they can truly be helped. That requires really digging into people’s past and asking some probing questions and then providing ongoing support in the future. This is not something we can do on the fly.
It has been embarrassing to report this misadventure. Yet even now I don’t think my effort was wasted. The needs of this particular family are real. The congregation in Orland Park and I helped them to survive for a period of time, and undoubtedly other pastors, congregations, and ministries have done so, too. I have sent an e-mail to Mr. K suggesting that his family needs to relate to Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois or LSSI or Family Promise and not to individual pastors and congregations. But what I have done is clearly not the way to show compassion.
Let me add that I shared this situation with my mutual ministry committee as soon as I saw that there might be a serious problem. The mutual ministry committee accompanied me to the congregation council to provide moral support as I reported this story to them. The council concluded that I was not called as an individual but as the pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, and therefore shouldn’t have to bear the burden of this debt. A special fund was set up and an appeal letter was sent out to invite members of the congregation to contribute to the ministry I performed on behalf of the congregation. But the council also concluded that I shouldn’t have to bear the burden alone of making decisions about how to help people. We intend to develop a strategy on how we can dispense charity that we can realistically provide. Hopefully this story will have a happy ending. Pray God that there will also be a happy ending for Mr. K and his family.