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

June 10, 2011

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."

I cared, but I also took each lie as an affront to my pride. First of all, I could see right through them. More important, I knew the church could help. But how could we ever meet the needs behind the lie if the liar refused to just come clean? So I let the entire exchange become transactional. "You need money and I need you to get out of my office. Here's a twenty."

But not everyone agreed to my price. Toward the end of this time a man showed up with his two young children in tow. He told me that he'd lost his job nine months earlier and his home was about to be foreclosed upon. He needed to earn $400 or else they'd all be out on the street. He pointed toward his kids when he said this. The good news was that he had found a job working construction. He could start the very next day, make $400 by the end of the month and thereby save his home. The bad news was that he couldn't begin until he had a pair of steel-toed boots. And they cost $105. I held out a twenty. He told me that wasn't enough. The boots cost $105. He had $25. He showed the money to me, crumpled bills pulled from his pocket. He just needed $80 more. Eighty dollars and he could work again. Eighty dollars and his house would be saved. Eighty dollars and his wife and kids could breathe easy again.

I bristled, tired of being lied to, and asked if there were any other way I could help. But he was too deep into his story to back down. So we sat there in a standoff, my pride versus his lie and nothing in between them—certainly not the presence of God. The silence in my office intensified. His children squirmed. No one said anything, until finally he grabbed the money from my desk and marched straight out.

These days I work in the wealthy suburbs of another heavily Cath­olic city. My church has two secretaries who stand between my office and the front entrance. Unscheduled visits are rare. But every few months a needy, sneaky visitor will sidestep these guardians to knock upon my door. "Father?" And it starts all over again.

The first time this happened I felt my old irritation rear up. Yet ensconced as I am in a plush and well-protected office, I know that I am cut off from Christ. Indeed, I have never felt so close to him as I did during those years I was lied to almost every day—which is not to say that Christ was present in those exchanges. Far from it. Initially I thought I saw something holy in the expectation those visitors brought into my office. They were poor and they knew the church should help. But I was quickly disabused of such sentimentality. They were liars and they knew the church could be manipulated.

Yet there was something sacred there as well. Or maybe it was almost there, but also absolutely absent. Simone Weil wrote that "grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it." I have not felt a void as stark or wide as that between a desperate person willfully, wildly bending the truth for cash and a church that sits on money. We are all lying when this happens. Mistruth abounds, and Christ's absence is laid bare so plainly that it almost becomes its own living thing. Almost. But in reality he lives outside the pastor's office, hovering, pulsing just beyond the boundaries of such conversations. Waiting to step into the void our lies create and magnify even as they bar his entrance.

All of this is to say that my latest re­sponse is simply to let the lies unfold. I sit on my wallet, leaving the twenties un­touched. My visitor talks at length about his need for steel-toed boots, for rubber-soled shoes or a bus ticket out of town, and together we create a space that cries out for Christ, a void that names both his utter absence and his very nearness.

Comments

Letter from Allie Rosner

I  read Matt Fitzgerald’s article “Con artists at the door” (June 14) with a mixture of recognition and dismay. As the associate pastor of a wealthy church, it is part of my job to meet with people who come to the church asking for money, so I know the mixture of compassion and healthy suspicion that this task demands. I know what it is to feel the “void” between a “desperate person . . . and a church that sits on money.” And I also know how it feels to be manipulated.

But what I fail to see is how Christ can be present in an encounter between a pastor and a person in need if the pastor begins with the assumption that this person is a liar. In my job I have met many kinds of people with many kinds of needs, and I’m sure I have been lied to more than a few times. But I don’t believe that the majority of the people I meet are liars. I believe that most of these people are in fact telling me their own versions of their own stories.

Would a person’s story sound different if I were to gather all the facts and tell my version? Perhaps. My version might, for example, attribute a period of prolonged unemployment to a drug problem as opposed to bad luck or divine abandonment. But just because someone’s version of his own story might differ from mine doesn’t make it a lie. It may in fact be a truth worth listening to.

Every church with the resources to meet financial needs must balance compassion with good stewardship. I’m

certainly not suggesting a naive, “no questions asked” approach to handling re­quests for money. But it is both patronizing and false to think that we can “create a space that cries out for Christ” by automatically judging any needy person who walks through the church office door to be a liar and a con artist.

Allie Rosner

Williamsburg, Va.

Letter from Walter Everett

While I appreciated Fitzgerald’s honesty regarding con artists, I was also a bit disturbed by the seemingly cynical view that all requests for assistance are phony.

In my first pastorate over 50 years ago, my heart went out to an elderly man who shuffled to my door during my first week. It was a Saturday, and he explained that he was supposed to be getting room and board where he was living, but his land­lady had gone away for the weekend and he had no food to get him through. He asked for a dollar. Even at 1950s prices, I knew that one dollar would not go very far, so I reached into my wallet and pulled out a five-dollar bill. He promised that he would repay the money on Tuesday when his Social Security check was due to arrive. 

Tuesday came and went, and I thought to myself, “I’ve been taken.”

On Wednesday during a heavy downpour, my doorbell rang and there stood the elderly man, soaking wet. He handed me a five-dollar bill and said, “I’m sorry I’m late, my Social Security check was late in arriving.”

You can imagine that I was an easy pick after that, until I realized that not all requests for help are made by honorable people. But I have always been careful to evaluate those who have come to my door, realizing that, as with that elderly man, the next request might be from Christ himself.

Walter Everett

Lewisburg, Pa.

Letter from Joy Sylvester-Johnson

When I first read Fitzgerald’s article, I was angry and muttered something about “this guy needs to find a new line of work.” Then an incredible sense of sorrow came over me. As the CEO of a rescue mission where last night some 400 men, women and children sought safe shelter, I have learned that often the ministry is in the interruptions.

With a simple phone call no doubt many of the petitioner’s “lies” could have been confirmed as true. Restaurants really do require rubber-soled shoes and construction sites really do require steel-toed boots to start the job. And yes, desperate people really do desperate things like “lie” when their survival and that of their children depends on it.

I had to wonder what was so important in those e-mails of this busy pastor. I really wanted to read the sermon that was being written that made him so eager to get the petitioner out of his office. Did he preach about Jesus standing with the poor? Or was the text dealing with how things sometimes get turned upside down and inside out when we look at it from God’s perspective? When will I live what I preach?

I became angry because even though I am intentional about listening to all the stories I too sometimes want the story to be done. But my sorrow came because so many pastors try to “buy off” the poor with a 20-dollar bill. The question for me is: Do I want to buy off poor people or be their friend in the same way that God has befriended me? I am so glad that God has time for my story and that there is a place for me in God’s story.

Joy Sylvester-Johnson

The Rescue Mission

Roanoke, Va.

Letter from Jonathan L. King

Oh, the tall tales we clergy hear from con artists seeking cash! Many years ago I learned of a plan that satisfied with a practical solution both the sympathetic (but skeptical) ear and the charitable impulse. Several churches in the suburban town where I was living contributed to a charitable fund that was administered by an officer at the local police headquarters. If the cleric had heard a supplicant’s sob story and was willing to help financially, he would fill out a form on church stationery with the person’s name and the amount to be distributed, then direct him or her to proceed to the police station to collect the money.

The police were seldom bothered! In fact, fewer beggars came to my office there than in any other church I have served.

Jonathan L. King

Wyckoff, N.J.

Con Artists at the Door

I've just read the letters to the editor from the current CC (July 26) responding to Matt Fitzgerald's article "Con Artists at the Door."  I was struck by how judgmental they were.  I think Matt was truly struggling with an issue most of us as clergy have surely experienced.  I know I'm often at a loss when someone shares such stories with me.  On the other hand, I find myself haunted by a quote I once heard, attributed to St. Jerome:  "If I give to someone who is undeserving, then I've committed a mistake.  If I fail to give to someone who is deserving, then I've committed a sin.  I'd rather be guilty of a mistake than a sin."  I've always encouraged the churches where I've pastored to think along those lines, even as I try to live up to them myself.

 

Bill Hennessy

Williamsville, NY