Sunday, February 18, 2007


NOTE: The following is a true story. It was sent to me by my friend Kent Williamson and was written by his mother-in-law. I hope it makes you think.

An Encounter with Peter
by Sandy Sturch

Peter, a man in his early 50's, slight stature, dressed in a dark blue suit, with blue shirt and a red tie that said "Jesus" on it, and a lapel pin of a small white dove, walked into First Presbyterian Church on Sunday morning, February 11, 2007. His hair was slightly peppered with grey, he wore dark-rimmed glasses, his eyes were dark, and his face had prominent bone structure; his fingers were long and slender. He was from New York City, was staying at the apartment of a friend while he was out-of-town. He was not a street person. He was not homeless. But he was family-less and desperate. He had come to San Antonio to kill himself.

Katie spotted him in the McCullough Room, where the people gather for coffee and cookies on Sunday morning after worship services. She offered him food and coffee. Soon he found himself in the Guthrie-Bryant Chapel, talking with a few church members who listened to his story. He repeated over and over that he was going to kill himself. One of the ministers, George, asked to spend some time alone with Peter, and took him into one of the church offices where he called the suicide hotline. After a few minutes, the suicide counselor hung up on Peter. George continued talking with him. When George and Peter finally emerged from the office, George announced that we were taking Peter to lunch. I had been waiting in the lobby of the church with Katie and with Bob. Peter chose to go in Bob's car, along with Katie, and George and I, having driven to church at different times, drove our cars to Water Street Oyster Bar, our favorite place for Sunday lunch.

The waiter went around the table taking our orders. When he came to Peter, Peter said, "I'll have a double bourbon with soda." He wanted no food. We urged Peter to have a meal, but Peter said he had had a good breakfast, he wasn't hungry, and the drink was all he wanted. When our food came, we joined hands around the table to ask the Lord's blessing on our food and especially our conversation with Peter.

Peter was indeed the center of our conversation. He told us the same story over and over; he had nothing to live for, he was going to kill himself. But in the same breath, he said what he really wanted was for someone to adopt him. He wanted to be a part of someone's family because he had no one. In fact, the bad thing about killing himself was that in the end, no one would give a damn, so even that wasn't very satisfying.

We learned that Peter was a graduate of Princeton University, born to Jewish parents, though he did not claim Judaism as his faith. Both parents were dead. He said he killed his father. When I asked how, he didn't want to go into it. His mother committed suicide. His father left him $1,000,000 dollars that would soon be gone. He had never done anything with his life. His dream job had been as a receptionist in New York City, but he quit, just quit, for no reason. It was then that he realized how much the job meant to him and how much the people meant. It was a place where he had friends. Now he could see that. Suddenly he was totally alone. No one cared if he lived or died. He hated himself for walking out on the job. He wanted to go back, but he knew he would never be hired again, not after walking out, and by now, someone else had his job. No, he couldn't go back.

Furthermore, he had no skills to work anywhere else. He did not even know how to use the computer. He did not even know how to drive a car. There was no hope for him. He had never been married. He had no relationships with either men or women. That was not his problem. He was not depressed over loss of a lover.

He had no one in the world who cared about him. All he wanted was to be adopted by someone. He just wanted to be a part of someone's family, he said.

Then he said to us, "Look at you! You are all so lovely. This is amazing. I am eating this meal with you, and I don't even know you. Please, everyone, eat very, very slowly because I want this meal to last forever. I don't want this meal to end, because when it is over, I'm going to kill myself."

When he said, "I wish someone would adopt me," I thought, "Yes, Jesus wants to adopt you—you could have a family." But was he in a state of mind that could comprehend what I would say about Jesus? I asked him what he knew about Jesus, hoping to tell him how much Jesus loves him. But before I could finish my sentence, he said, "I hate Jesus!" He said he hated Jesus because Jesus sends people to hell and that's what Baptists preach about Jesus. We said that we were not Baptists, and this is not what we wanted to tell him. But he did not want to talk about Jesus. He did not believe in Jesus. Yet he had walked into two downtown churches that morning. The first church he visited was Grace Lutheran, across the street from First Presbyterian. They gave him some literature and gave him the dove lapel pin. He didn't explain the red tie with "Jesus" on it, but it appeared that a Christian had encountered Peter even before we did. He kept saying how much he wanted this meal not to end, how lovely we were, and that when it was over, he would kill himself.

We asked about doctors, medication—and yes, he was on medication. When he asked if he could order another bourbon, George said no. He gave no indication of being drunk, but he would not eat but a few of the sweet potato fries that Katie offered him.

The conversation continued, the same things repeated again and again, always ending with, "I want to be adopted...I don't want this meal to end...when it's over, I will kill myself."

Katie finally had to return to church for a meeting, so she borrowed Bob's car, and as she said goodbye, she looked Peter straight in the eye, and earnestly said, "Peter, take care of yourself." I had to leave also, and I assured Peter that I hoped we would see him again.

So George and Bob were left with Peter. Peter had heard about the spaghetti dinner and youth talent show at church that evening, and this intrigued him. So George drove Bob and Peter back down to church where they spent the evening with other church members who gathered for the dinner and special program by the youth. When it was over, Peter refused the offer of a ride home and slipped out into the night.

I could not get Peter off my mind. When George got home, we talked about the afternoon spent with Peter. What could we have done or said differently? Who could we have called for help? Would Peter really kill himself? Why didn’t we have a plan in place to help people like Peter? Any one of us could have "adopted" Peter that night. We all could have offered him the comfort of a home. We could have invited the stranger in. But, yes, that might be dangerous. How much risk should we assume? Our rational minds had many reasons why we ourselves, disciples of Jesus Christ, could not have done more for Peter. We did what we could, didn't we?

In Tuesday's San Antonio Express-News, February 13, 2007, there was this article:

Man dies after leap from hotel's 11th floor. A man died Monday afternoon after he jumped from the 11th floor of a downtown hotel, landing in an interior atrium, police said. Authorities did not release the man's name, but officials said he was in his 50's. Police are calling the death an apparent suicide.

The San Antonio Express-News does not typically report on suicides unless the circumstances surrounding them are public. A witness told police she saw the man jump around noon from the 11th floor of the Hyatt Regency San Antonio at 123 Losoya Street, officials said.

He landed on a floor just below the lobby level, which is an enclosed atrium that faces the River Walk. San Antonio Police Department Homicide Detective Bobby Bradley said people were mingling throughout the hotel when the man jumped.

The man was not a registered guest at the hotel, Bradley said.

I wondered, was this Peter? Or was it one of the many other Peter's in our city?

"…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me....And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'"
Matthew 25:35-40 (NRSV)

"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead." - James 2:14-20

As I continued to reflect on our encounter with Peter, these scriptures haunted me. I searched for new meaning, trying to escape the guilt I was feeling, and wondering for what sins of neglect I needed to repent.

What we did that was "right" did not seem to matter as much as how impotent we were to help Peter. In today's culture, how is the church to respond to needs like Peter's? How does a faithful disciple respond to the needs of the Peter's in the world? And the harder personal questions: How much should I risk to help a person in need? What is appropriate? What is foolish and dangerous? How do I apply these scriptures in today's world?

NOTE: After I read this email from Kent I was reminded of the elderly homeless woman I had been talking to for several weeks. Her name was Linda. I used to buy her a Quizno's sandwich and we'd sit and talk while she ate.

One morning I saw her walking down the sidewalk in my neighborhood. I stopped to give her some cash and she told me she was hoping to find a place to sleep for a few nights because the nights were getting cold.

For a moment I considered bringing her home. I'd like to think I drove away without offering her a warm bed because I have two small children, or because I wasn't able to clear it with my wife first, or some other good reason...but I fear the truth is that I didn't invite her into my home because I've not yet walked that far with Jesus.

After I got this email from Kent I received another from him reporting that the man who jumped off the hotel was not Peter. He was alive. He had returned to their church and now they had one more chance to adopt Peter into their family.

I've never seen Linda on the streets since that day.


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