We’ll call him Mr. Crusty. When I arrived for my first day as pastor at Small Church, he was at the church overseeing the laying of the new Sanctuary carpet. He doesn’t hear well, but I liked the twinkle in his blue eyes.
My first year I used to eat dinner once a month with the Men’s Club, a dwindling group of mostly elderly men who treated me like Princess Diana, taking my coat and pulling out my chair. They were such a surprise to me. They represented a long history in the church and a long history in City By the Sea, too, opening a door for me to the lives of people who weren’t the lawyers, doctors and downtown businessmen. They were contractors, plumbers, laborers, factory workers. When one of them got too frail to come, and another broke his hip and the one young member was away for work, they just stopped meeting, “temporarily.” But when Our Chef died last fall, it was clear to everyone that there was no Men’s Club anymore.
I was surprised to discover that Mr. Crusty didn’t like Mr. President, for the very good reason that W doesn’t have an inkling of how ordinary people live and what they face.
I conducted a wedding for his granddaughter at which the entire family rose as a body and swung around from the front row into the aisle to take her picture as she processed.
Mr. Crusty was a Trustee and a Deacon. He sat by unspeaking while we appointed a Vision Commission, stayed away when we had gatherings to discuss the recommendations. But at the two called congregational meetings where official action was to be taken, it was clear that he had been campaigning and influencing behind the scenes. It was months later before someone told me why he was so angry about our adjustment to a less complicated structure better suited to a small church and our re-naming of the Committees as Ministries. “We were CEOs, and she’s turned us into janitors!!”
Of course it wasn’t just me. A faithful group had met for many months and worked hard to find and build a model that would bring more voices into the financial leadership of our church and also assure that those who had the financial voice were actually involved meaningfully in other parts of the life of the church. But the Trustees became the Ministry of Property, and the new Council of Ministries was given the teeth the old Cabinet and Executive Committee never had, and I continue to believe that was a good choice, a faithful choice, for Small Church.
Mr. Crusty finished his terms on Diaconate (now the Ministry of Worship and Community Life) and Trustees (MoP), but after the Annual meeting in late January, we never saw him at church again. I visited his wife in the hospital, the rehab center and at home after her hip replacement surgery, but he always managed to avoid seeing me, scooting out the back door when I came by after church on Easter Sunday to bring Dear Mrs. Crusty her Easter Lily.
Then I heard they were attending Neighboring Church, and I backed off. I went on vacation, and when I returned there was a letter in the office asking for the transfer of their membership.
Since then I’ve heard tittle-tattle: he invited church members over for dinner and tried to recruit them to the other church; they refused. I’ve seen pledge checks from his non-church-attending daughter continue to arrive and celebrated a grandchild’s birth with his sister; even his family has refused his invitation to decamp. I sat with Mr. Ladykiller, the 96-year-old charmer whose frailty began the end of the Men’s Club and heard him say that Mr. Crusty has done this sort of thing before, telling me how he remembered Mr. Crusty as a little boy in short pants being dropped off for Sunday School.
Throughout, I understood that this old man was looking for something to control as he watched his wife in pain and began to suffer medical problems himself that no doctor could seem to resolve.
This morning I heard that Mr. Crusty is in the hospital, facing the amputation of a leg.
If they hadn’t moved their membership, I’d be there right now. If their new church were UCC, or the pastor a friend, I’d be asking permission to see him. I’ll call his sister, and maybe his daughter, too. But for now all I can do on this lovely autumn afternoon is pray for him, that he might feel the presence of our loving God and be comforted by it.