Harold…is a character. He’s 62 years old, a large and tall man who is part of our church family and recognizably needy in a number of ways. He lives in a subsidized apartment half an hour from the church and is on disability. Harold shows up for volunteer landscape duty every Wednesday at the church, with a foot of extra belt length hanging from his old pants, wearing a white t-shirt and badly stained baseball cap. He rides the bus on Wednesdays to come and rake the grass after someone mows it. His thick glasses may preclude him from doing a perfect job, but he does the job. Every week.
The length of any conversation with Harold depends on the day, ranging from short one-word answers to my questions (without looking at me), to long and wandering monologues lasting 20 minutes. He stays up on the news, which sometimes gives us common ground to talk about. He has so many stories from living around the world and having any number of occupations that one begins to suspect he would have to be ONE HUNDRED and 62 years old if they were all true– time in Korea, fishing, driving long haul trucks, Seattle, military service, an African American community, construction work, Alaska, the oil industry, a Native American reservation, doing judo and karate, working as a cowboy and on and on. If he talks long enough, conspiracy theories eventually make their way into his stories.
Things are not always predictable with Harold. I’ve heard one story from before my time about him getting into a Sunday morning shouting match with a man with Alzheimer’s over the cookie plate. On Volunteer Wednesdays, our resident saint and gardener Sally brings a lunch for Harold. Sally doesn’t hear so well anymore, but Harold has a loud voice and sometimes they talk while he eats. Sally is one of Harold’s go-to people if he needs help or has a question. He gets miffed with her, too, especially if he is inconsistent with taking his medications. Occasionally he snaps at her on the phone and hangs up. But Sally patiently waits for him to level out and inevitably has a lunch for him the following Wednesday.
Harold is a regular at Sunday worship, but during the worst of Covid, he couldn’t watch our video and/or livestream service, as he doesn’t have a computer. When I checked in with him by phone, he’d cheerfully tell me not to worry about him, he was fine, and on Sunday mornings he was happy to watch Jimmy Swaggart on TV! Once we started meeting outdoors, Harold has parked himself near the back, often needing to leave for a mid-service restroom stop. Or two. Any time there is an invitation for the congregation to pray out loud, he’s usually one of the first. His prayers are straight forward, honest and occasionally cringeworthy. Last Sunday, the worship leader invited people to voice their prayers out loud, and Harold jumped right in. It’s not recorded, but it went something like this:
“Lord, be with…the president, President Joe and stuff, and help him be a leader for our country. And Kamala too, and stuff. And for the firefighters, be with them and stuff. Yeah, and I want to pray for the Governor, Governor Newsome and stuff. And for all the people who try to keep us safe, for people in the military and stuff, and the police, and others too, and stuff, like the FBI and stuff, and the CIA and stuff. Yeah, be with them and we pray for our country and stuff. In Jesus’ name.”
It was quite a bit longer than that, but you get the general picture. Occasionally Harold clams up. He won’t vote at a congregational meeting, and it seems like he’s opposed to anything that feels like he’s going on record because…well, that’s when the conspiracy theories start, and he’s being watched by the FBI so he wants to be careful not to be trackable.
Every church has characters like Harold, I think. At least, I sure hope so. He has lots of needs and can be prickly or awkward. He’ll never be a leader or teacher and he bears no resemblance to the target profile for church growth. But Harold has a home in our church family. He has friends and is known. He serves. He worships. He prays. I’ve learned a lot from him. Along the way, I’ve come to realize this–the life of our entire community would be much, much poorer without Harold. Thank God he’s here.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.