A Cautionary Tale
I’m a pastor called to serve a small (30 member) congregation in the western suburbs of a large city. The congregation is mostly white, mostly elderly, and mostly tired. In addition to me, the part-time pastor, there is a part-time pianist, and a part-time custodian. Both the pianist and the custodian are also church members.
There are two churches that nest with us. One is an African-American Baptist church and the other is an Hispanic Pentecostal church plant.
We also host an AA group, a counselor who is also an ordained minister, and a Girl Scout troop from a local school. In addition, we have a food pantry that is open at various hours depending on our clientele.
Our building isn’t occupied all the time but it is well-used.
So, on with my tale.
The other day, I received a phone call from our custodian. He can be quite the sourpuss. Let me rephrase that… He’s a grouch. We’ll call him “Oscar.” The call went something like this:
Me: Oh, hi Oscar. What’s up?
Oscar: (Confrontationally) You really want to know?
Me: You called me, Oscar. What’s going on?
Oscar: (Really angry) They’re stealing toilet paper. And they’ve stolen the holders, too.
Me: Um… who’s taking the toilet paper?
Oscar: They are. It’s all gone.
Me: Really? It’s all gone? How do “they” know where you keep it?
Me: Well, I’m not that concerned about the toilet paper. I mean, if someone really needs it, they’re welcome to it. But about the fixtures?
Oscar: Yeah, they’re gone!
Me: OK, OK. How about I meet you at the church at 1:00 and you can show me what’s going on.
Oscar: (Grudgingly) Well, OK.
Me: See you then!
Mindful of my boundaries, I called one of our session members to join me. In addition to boundary concerns, Oscar makes me uncomfortable. He is always angry, always tightly wound, rarely kind.
I got there early and toured the restrooms, six in all. I tallied what was there and what wasn’t. (Yes, inventory is part of my call, though it’s usually office supplies, not personal care.) Of the six, only one had a partial roll of toilet paper available. The remaining five had none. And in the three restrooms where rollers are needed, they weren’t missing. In the other three restrooms, the paper holders didn’t require rollers; they had the roller stubs on the arms to hold the rolls securely.
Well, at least there wasn’t missing hardware, I thought. So the apparent petty theft is limited to the toilet paper itself.
The session member also came early so I took her through the situation and then we sat and chatted for a bit. Never pass up an opportunity for a little pastoral care!
Oscar finally arrived at his version of one o’clock. And he was already loaded for bear.
I tried to circumvent his anger and aggression by letting him know that I’d checked out the situation and was happy to report that nothing material was missing. No stolen rollers. So that’s good, right?
Apparently not. He was really incensed about the toilet paper. And again, I said to him, “If people are taking it because they need it, I have no problem with that”
“Well, I’m not going to put any in the restrooms. Just the one here by the office.”
The session member and I looked at each other, eyes wide.
“Oscar, you can’t do that.”
“What if the health inspector comes around,”
we said in unison.
“Oscar,” I said, “you have to put paper in the restrooms. And I want you to put an extra roll in each as well.”
You might think I was waving a red flag at a raging bull and perhaps I was but it had suddenly occurred to me that the reason there was no toilet paper was because people had actually USED it. Especially if Oscar was being protective of his stash.
Which, as it turns out, he was.
“If I put the toilet paper in there, they just steal it.”
“Who is stealing it, Oscar?”
“Oscar, who do you think is taking it? Is it our Baptist guests?”
“Is it our Pentecostal friends?”
Shrug. “I just want to know what you’re going to do about it.”
“Oscar, I cannot point a finger at only one group. Unless you have a reason to suspect one particular group, I’m not touching this. Like I said, if someone really needs the paper, let them have it.”
“OK, so you’re going to put paper in all six restrooms now, right?” I said.
“Well, I don’t put any in the two at the bottom of the stairs.”
“Because the food pantry people steal it, too.”
“Oscar, you will put toilet paper in all the restrooms and you will make sure spares are available. Where do you keep your stash?”
Glare. “There are a few rolls up here in that cabinet.” He indicates a cabinet outside the two church offices.
“And the rest? Is it upstairs in the upper room?”
“So no one has taken that because no one has the key to that but you. Right?”
“Cool. We’ll take care of the restrooms up here. You do the downstairs ones.”
So Oscar went downstairs.
You can be sure I’ll be checking the restrooms on Sunday morning. All of them.
When he came back upstairs, he revisited a complaint he’d had on Sunday. He said angrily, “Y’know, there were little kids in here running around all over the place. Up and down the stairs, all over the place. They’re gonna get hurt.”
“Oscar, little kids? That’s what they do. I’m sure you’ve had little kids here before.”
“Really? No little kids when your kids were small? It’s what kids do. They’re small, they’re flexible, and they know how to fall when they go boom.”
“But they’ll get hurt.”
“And if they do, we are insured and their church is insured. I will speak to Pastor Manny about that but kids are gonna run around.”
Oscar harrumphs, stomps around for a bit, and then leaves without saying good-bye.
Which makes me wonder where’s the church, where’s the gospel in all this? We are offering our hospitality to two churches and a few other groups. And our custodian really doesn’t get the hospitality aspect of open doors, welcoming spaces, and gracious provision.
But then, the session member shoots me a look, grabs a piece of note paper and writes Oscar a note.
“Please clean and sanitize the restrooms.”