Bill was standing on the sidewalk, outside of a local homeless shelter. He was chain-smoking, as he described his anger toward me. I had not been there for him, at least, not nearly enough. His hands were shaking and the nicotine did nothing to calm his disposition…
We walked across the street to the Waffle House, where I bought him a coffee. As we sat together at the counter, I explained to him that I have been devoting most of my attention to my daughter Ashlyn, who was recovering from brain surgery, and that I would not apologize for not returning his (incessant phone calls). He seemed to calm down, and then eventually he regretted being a burden.
He has no family to speak of. Although he once thrived in Wilmington, the economy choked him from his savings, and his health had begun to deteriorate. He had come to Asheville, and eventually to Exodus Church, for a new beginning, and I tried so hard to welcome him! We invited him into our home, and the community of faith reached out to him in fellowship. I remember he was riding in our minivan with us, and my daughters made him laugh… it was the first, and the only time, I had seen his bright white teeth smiling!
But as he was unsuccessful in finding work, his time was limited at the shelter. Bill found himself sleeping at the bus station, or in abandoned buildings. He would clean up in the bathroom at a gas station, and tried to keep an image of respect. But as the weeks grew on, he became less consistent at church.
“Do you have my phone number?” he asked, with a hint of resentment. I nodded in response, “Yes, Bill, I have your number.” He lit another cigarette – “Then use it!”
The last time I saw him, he asked me if God would send him to hell if he took his own life. He put his finger to his temple indicating his contemplated method of execution. For as long as I had known Bill, he had been talking about his inevitable fate… Until now, I had believed his emotional cries for help were probably just that ~ a desperate attempt to be seen and heard.
As we stood outside in the late summer heat, he asked me again about the eternal fate of a self-inflicted end. I talked with him for a little while about theology, and most importantly about the offering of abundant life that Jesus has offered us. “You are standing at a crossroad, Bill. One path will lead to eternal life, and the other will lead to eternal death. I beg you to choose life!”
He finished his cigarette and went to take his place in line for the overnight beds at the Veteran’s Shelter. He waived to me, and I disappeared…
Last night I found out that Bill had gone down to the river, and shot himself in the head.
And I am left to wonder if I had done enough to help him. Didn’t he warn me? Should I have alerted a medical response team or involuntary psychiatric assistance? And why hadn’t I bothered to call as he often came to mind? What are the funeral plans, and how can I honor him? After all, he was my friend.
Every fifteen minutes, someone takes their own life. Which means every sixteen minutes there is someone trying to make sense of it all.
I have devoted my life to the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The flesh and blood and life and death messiness of a rescue mission with fifty shades of grey. There is no class for this in seminary. I am driving around with this guy’s possessions in the trunk of my car. What am I supposed to do with that? Where can all of this carnage be buried? How can I radiate hope into a world so drenched in hurt?