The year was 1983. I had just arrived in the Chicago area when I heard TV host John Calloway interview Harold Washington, who was running for mayor at the time. Calloway asked his guest, “You’ve been convicted of tax evasion and spent 36 days in jail. With that on your record, how can you justify running for mayor?”
Washington smiled that whimsical smile of his, and answered, “John, where I come from folks assume that you will fall down sometimes and, when you do, you pick yourself up and you move on.”
Folks assume that you will fall sometimes: I had never heard that growing up. What I heard was, “Never ever screw up. If you do fall, you won’t be able to get up. The shame will be too much.”
I took that to heart. Sexual abuse? Heck, I never even kissed a girl until after I graduated from college. Try grass? Some people famously said, “I smoked but I didn’t inhale.” I never even took a puff. The only time I ever drank beer was at home with my dad.
I knew what adolescent rebellion looked like — in my head — but not from my own experience.
What impacted me was not personally falling and getting back up, but watching other people do it. During my intern year in 1977 I was allowed to sit in on what they called a “spiritual rap” session, which was part of a 12-step program at a state mental hospital in Minnesota. What shook me was not only the brutal honesty of those alcoholics and addicts who had made messes of their lives, but also the tremendous courage they exhibited in accepting the help they needed to get back up and move on.
Then during the first years I was a pastor here in Forest Park, the treasurer of the congregation came into my office one day looking like he was dying. It took him 10 minutes to say that he was an alcoholic, had entered a 12-step program and had embezzled $10,000 from the congregation.
It was hard to watch how much pain he was in now that he was taking responsibility for the choices he had made. “You know you have to tell the council,” I said. He nodded yes, he knew.
At the council meeting, it again took him a long time to get the words out and, after he did, I felt my anxiety level go off the charts as I waited to see how those 10 people sitting around the table would respond to their fellow member’s fall.
Every one of them got up and, in one way or another, hugged the man and told him that they would walk with him through the dark valley ahead.
The meeting ended with the council saying, “You know, you have to tell the congregation.” The man again nodded yes, he understood.
The next Sunday the man and his wife were sitting in the third pew from the front on the left side. Everyone there had received the letter I had sent out explaining what had happened and that the council had set up a repayment plan with the fallen man. After the service, the same thing that happened at the council meeting occurred again with the 60 or 70 people who had been sitting in the pews. They all got up, hugged the man and offered support.
I am tempted to say, “I don’t wish that kind of trial on anyone.” But my experience tells me that going through that experience prepared me to a great extent for the day I wrote a letter to the congregation that my wife and I were getting a divorce and, worse yet, telling my two children.
I had seen other people fall, and their world had not ended. To be sure, the fall caused a lot of painful injuries. But in time, and with a lot of support, these injuries healed. They had all faced the consequences, got back up and moved on.
As you all know, we have that kind of situation going on among us in this village right now. I hope for two things in this regard. First, and I’m sure we will do this, I hope we will find ways to “hug” the family going through this and let them know we will walk with them.
And second, I hope we will all hear this story as sort of a cautionary tale, as a crack in our denial — to face the reality that our own roads will get bumpy someday. And by walking with this one who has fallen, we ourselves will become spiritually and emotionally better prepared to go through our own falls in the future with hope and courage.