The Lost Sheep
On the face of it, the request was simple. Shannon, a long-time parishioner, was ready to be released from the hospital after three months of grueling in-patient treatment for leukemia, and needed a place to stay. She called the church office.
Terry, church secretary, recognized her voice immediately. “How are you?” she asked. Terry administered the church fund set up in Shannon’s name after it came to the rector’s attention that Shannon had no health insurance.
“Not so great,” Shannon replied. “I mean, the treatments are going okay, and the hospital is prepared to discharge me. But they won’t let me go until I have a place to stay.”
“Can’t you go home?” Terry asked.
“Furnace is broken, so there’s no heat.”
A gust of wind rattled the windows next to Terry’s desk. The very thought of living in a house without heat in January sent a shiver through her. “Oh dear,” she replied. “But wait. Isn’t there enough money in the account to get it fixed?”
“Not sure,” Shannon said. “It might take a while.”
Terry shifted in her seat and looked over at the rector. When Father Jim drew a question mark in the air, Terry rolled her eyes. “So what can we do for you, Shannon?”
The parish had already done more than enough, Terry grumbled to herself. First the fund, generously supported by the parishioners, then the organized visits to the hospital. Plus all the cards, even flowers.
“I’d like to stay in St. Andrew’s Hall—just until the furnace is fixed,” Shannon said.
Terry nearly gasped at the audacity of the request. The Good Shepherd Episcopal Church did plenty for people in need, especially through the Ecumenical Hospitality Network, a consortium of churches in and around Chicago that welcomed the working homeless for week-long stays in the church hall, complete with hot meals cooked in turn by volunteers from the parish. But there were rules, the premises to be vacated every morning at seven, beginning and end dates.
“Oh, gosh, Shannon, I don’t know if that’d be allowed,” Terry said, hoping Shannon would get the hint. “I’ll speak to Father Jim and get back to you.”
Father Jim, the interim rector, was coasting to retirement after the death of his wife two years before. Beloved by the parish, he was a jolly fellow with a loping gait and a somewhat intemperate appreciation for fine food. When friends suggested he should watch his weight and think about getting into shape, he’d laugh and answer, “I am in shape. My shape is round.” He realized, of course, that he was not as fit as he could be for a man in his late sixties. He took care not to exert himself too much lest the old “ticker” give out. Serving The Good Shepherd during a transitional period seemed like a relatively easy last assignment.
Until this. When Terry explained Shannon’s request, he knew the vestry would never go for it. But he decided to put it to them anyway, just so the rejection wouldn’t be his alone.
The vestry voted, and Shannon’s request was ovewhelmingly rejected. Taken by secret ballot, the vote would have been unanimous were it not for a single abstention.
When Father Jim broke the word to Shannon in a phone call, he heard her deep sigh and trembling voice. “What am I going to do?” she asked..
It was at that moment that Father Jim heard Christ’s words, as clearly as if the Savior were sitting right next to him: “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.”
An answer came to him, unbidden, unfiltered, unexamined: “Maybe you could stay in the rectory until your furnace is fixed.”
A large, Victorian-era house, the rectory was big enough for a family of five or more. In fact, the previous rector had lived there with her husband and three school-aged daughters. When Father Jim moved in on his own, he had barely enough furniture to fill all the rooms. As far as space was concerned, there was no problem housing a needy parishioner for several days—maybe even a week. Father Jim reasoned that he didn’t really need the Vestry’s approval on this plan, any more than he would need their approval if he were going to have a houseguest.
It suddenly occurred to him that his scheme was probably in violation of Canon Law, but the invitation had been extended. He couldn’t very well take it back.
On a snowy afternoon in late January, Shannon pulled her old VW bus into the driveway of the rectory and began to unload her belongings. Having expected her to arrive with a suitcase or two at most, Father Jim was a bit alarmed when she hauled out a dozen battered old cardboard boxes. Was she indigent? Father Jim couldn’t remember if her name was among the parish’s pledging members. An interim for only the past three months, he didn’t know everybody’s name yet, let alone who pledged what to the church.
Father Jim reached for one of the larger boxes and discovered to his surprise that it was much too heavy to be clothing. A trickle of sweat ran down his back and his chest felt tight. For a moment, he thought he was going to have a heart attack. Nevertheless, picking his way through the snow and ice, he carried the box into the rectory without a word. Shannon trailed behind him with a smaller box.
“Follow me.” Father Jim said. His footsteps drummed heavily on the stairs to the second floor.
He gave Shannon the master bedroom, the only bedroom with its own bathroom, while he moved into the small guest room on the floor below. If Shannon was touched by his kindness, she didn’t show it.
It took about half an hour to get all of Shannon’s belongings into her room. Although she was clearly exhausted, Father Jim couldn’t help but notice a gleam in her eye as she looked around the room at the queen-sized bed, the down comforter, the high ceiling, and the large windows that let in a lot of light.
Father Jim felt a stab of sympathy as he looked at her. The chemo had been rough on her: She had lost all her hair, as well as her eyebrows and eyelashes, and her skin was sallow and blotched. Her clothes hung loosely on her thin frame.
“It’s only three o’clock,” he told her. “Why don’t you have a lie-down, and when you’re rested, I’ll show you around the house. Then I’ll cook dinner.”
Father Jim headed down the stairs, stooping to wipe the snowy tracks on each step with paper toweling as he did so.
For Shannon’s first dinner in the rectory, Father Jim made spaghetti and garlic bread with a big tossed salad. Vanilla ice cream would have to do for dessert.
Father Jim was used to cooking plenty and then freezing the leftovers so he would have labor-free meals later in the week. He watched as Shannon piled her plate high with spaghetti and smothered it with sauce. There’d be no leftovers tonight, that’s for sure.
But she only played with her food, moving it around the plate. After dinner, most of it ended up in the trash. If there was one thing he couldn’t abide, it was wasted food. As a kid, he had always been made to clean his plate.
Shannon was sick, he reproached himself.
It didn’t take long for word to get around that someone was staying in the rectory. The VW bus parked in the driveway gave it away.
Apprised of the situation, Claudia, one of the parishioners, decided to arrange a meal rotation for Shannon so Father Jim wouldn’t have to cook for her every day. Seven parishioners agreed to provide a day’s meals for Shannon that they would drop off at the rectory on the evening preceding their assigned day. Breakfast and lunch were simple matters: cereal, sandwiches, cookies, fruit. For dinner, they furnished meals that could be microwaved.
Shannon was given a shelf in the fridge.
A week into Shannon’s stay, the food had piled up, and one shelf was no longer sufficient. Father Jim was more than a little vexed one day when Shannon, who had left the house for a doctor’s appointment, returned with chicken McNuggets, french fries, and a large Coke.
“What about the food that the Johnsons brought in last evening?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ll get around to that,” Shannon said. “I just felt like some fast food for a change.”
But she didn’t get around to the Johnsons’ dinner, or the Clarks’ or the Cunninghams’ either, for that matter. She only picked at their offerings, favoring the desserts and the soft drinks, the salty snacks and the granola bars.
The food began to spoil.
“Shannon, you’re running out of room. I think we need to start throwing some of this food out,” Father Jim said one day.
Shannon wouldn’t hear of it. Wrappers and containers from food items that didn’t need to be refrigerated littered the house. Father Jim believed it was important to respect Shannon’s privacy, but one afternoon when she was out he noticed an unpleasant odor coming from her room, and he peeked inside. It was a rodent’s paradise.
An apple core rotted on one of his finest oriental rugs. A half-consumed glass of milk had soured and was spreading its miasma through the room. Sheets on the unmade bed were stained and littered with crumbs. Empty soda cans were stashed in a corner of the room, while styrofoam containers from fast food restaurants covered the desk. The mahogany bedside table was sticky and discolored: Who knows what had been spilled on it?
The cardboard boxes seemed to be exactly where they had been put down the day Shannon moved in. Although a few had been opened, nothing had been unpacked.
He closed the door quietly and trudged down the hall to his study. Sitting at his desk, he tried to block out the image of what he had just seen and forced himself to pray.
But for what? Patience? Wisdom? Tolerance? Mercy? The repair of the furnace so that Shannon would get the hell out of the rectory and he’d have his bedroom back?
Like a rebuke for his uncharitable thoughts, Christ’s words from The Sermon on the Mount came to him: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
Father Jim winced. Obviously, he had a mercy deficit. He was being weighed in the balance and found wanting. Christ had cured the blind, made lepers clean, raised the dead… All Father Jim was being asked to do was to provide lodging for an ill parishioner for a couple of weeks, and he was finding the burden too heavy. What kind of a Christian was he? What sort of example would he set for the parish if he cast her out?
Word got back to Father Jim with a very different judgment. As far as most parishioners were concerned, he was being a fool. Once Shannon’s hoarding tendencies became known, whispered disapproval turned into outrage. The anger grew when someone discovered that not only had Shannon spurned their meal offerings in favor of fast food, but she had taken no steps to get the furnace repaired. How long did Shannon expect to stay at the rectory?
More than a few complained to Father Jim that it seemed to take days rather than hours for him to return phone calls. They made comments about the diminishing frequency of his hospital visits. His sermons weren’t as witty and well-written as before. Something had to be done.
On a bright, crisp Monday morning, three weeks into Shannon’s stay in the rectory, Julie, one of the younger parishioners, came to talk to Shannon. They used to be friendly before Shannon’s illness, so Julie volunteered to approach her about how she was doing. But the minute Julie saw Shannon wearing stained flannel pajamas that hadn’t seen a washing machine in a long time she knew something was wrong. Shannon slouched in an armchair in the living room, watching Good Morning America and eating Fruit Loops straight from the box.
“So how’re you doing, Shannon?” Julie asked.
“Okay.” Shannon barely took her eyes from the TV screen.
“Chemo all finished now?” Julie asked.
“No, I’m due for another chemo treatment next week. Not looking forward to that.”
“Oh wow. I can imagine.” Julie paused. “So, what’s up with the furnace?”
“Did you call someone to fix it?”
“Yeah, I’ve left messages, but they don’t return my calls.”
“Would you like me to try?”
“No, you don’t have to do that. I’ll call again this afternoon.” Shannon dug another handful of cereal out of the box.
A week later, with Shannon still at the rectory and no progress reported on the furnace, Father Jim prayed for Divine Intervention.
Then Shannon spiked a fever—103.5 degrees. There was no way he could keep her at home in that condition. Shannon was re-admitted to the hospital.
As she recovered, it was clear that Shannon couldn’t return to the rectory, nor could she be discharged to her own home. One of the parishioners learned from a friend who heard from one of Shannon’s neighbors that her house was uninhabitable—no heat, no water, no electricity. Years of hoarding provided a breeding ground for rodents and cockroaches. The property was condemned.
The parishioners didn’t give up on Shannon, at least not at first. They investigated homeless shelters, but Shannon needed a place to stay during the day, which made her ineligible. They worked with a local public housing authority to find Shannon lodging and procured forms for her to complete. The forms lay on her bedside table at the hospital, splattered with coffee, but empty of ink. When Father Jim visited her, Shannon couldn’t understand why she couldn’t return to the rectory.
Father Jim wondered when Shannon had lost all purchase on reality. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders had recently added “compulsive hoarding” to its list of mental illnesses, but perhaps there was something else going on too, a category ending in –ism, -is or –ic that described her set of symptoms. Unfortunately, despite repeated requests from Father Jim, the hospital elected not to call in a psychiatric consult. The social worker assigned to Shannon was stymied by her refusal to cooperate in planning for her release.
The priest felt great pain over failing a member of his flock.
Time passed. Rumors circulated among the parishioners that Shannon had been released from the hospital into the care of a relative. Relative? What relative? As far as anybody knew, she was alone in the world. Had she lied to them?
Lent came and went. then Easter. The church thrift shop was up and running after its winter hiatus, and members of the parish were busy organizing a bake sale as a fundraiser for the parish youth. The kids’ annual pilgrimage to Canterbury, England was just around the corner.
Then, one sweltering day in July, Father Jim was walking down Michigan Avenue when he spotted a woman sitting on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign that read “Abandoned in my hour of need. Please help.” Sweat glistened on her face, yet she was covered in filthy blankets. A supermarket cart nearby was filled to overflowing with paper cups, soda cans, plastic bags, a pair of old sneakers, sunglasses missing a bow.
Leaning over to see if there was something he could do to help, Father Jim recognized Shannon. But she simply stared at him through empty eyes and said nothing.
Father Jim fished his wallet out of his pocket, found a $20 bill, and dropped it into her plate.
His heart heavy, his conscience troubled, he paused, but only for a moment. His mind flashed back to Shannon’s room in the rectory that had to be fumigated and cleaned by a professional cleaning service after she left. He shrugged his shoulders, sighed, and continued on his way.
Then he heard Shannon call him by name. Father Jim felt a rock-hard pit in his stomach. So she had recognized him. What words of abuse would she fling at him? Worse, what would she ask of him?
“God bless you,” she said.
Once a professor of French literature, Mary Donaldson-Evans has transitioned from writing about fiction to writing fiction and creative non-fiction of her own. Her creative work has been published in The New York Times “Metropolitan Diary,” TheStir@CafeMom, The Lowestoft Chronicle, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Corner Club Quarterly, and BoomerLitMag.
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