Con artists at the door: The ministry of being lied to

My first ten years in ministry were spent in Chicago in a church office above a soup kitchen. The kitchen's clients regularly invaded my office. First I'd hear heavy footfalls in the hallway, sometimes a sharp, offensive odor, and then an inquisitive "Father?" I am not a priest, but by this point it was too late to stop the drop-in. Head and shoulders were appearing in the doorway.

Then came a wild lie, usually followed by a crazy story. "I'm on the run from the Colombian mob. I just ditched a car full of cocaine on the side of Addison Street and I need $200 to get a bus ticket out of town. Otherwise they'll come after my family. They could be on their way here right now." Or "I found a job as a line cook, but I can't begin until I've got a pair of rubber-soled shoes, and they cost $60." Or the quick and dirty version: "I'm down to my last colostomy bag!"

At first I was bowled over by such lies. Then I got wise, or so I thought. I became able to differentiate between a junkie's obvious dissembling and the artistry of a more nuanced con. I tried to see each lie as a sort of performance piece, and sometimes I handed over bills as rewards for stories well told. But more often the stories weren't well told. Eventually I began interrupting each visitor by sliding a 20-dollar bill straight across the surface of my desk. The money felt like a sort of toll, a tax I paid to return to the sermon or the church newsletter or the e-mails that were piling up even as the story was being spun. As the old saying goes, "Please get out of my office so I can get back to ministry."