‘Who is R. Kelly?” asked Gerhardt Aschenbrenner as the members of the Saturday morning breakfast fellowship filed into the Main Café in the quiet suburban village of Poplar Park.

Eric Anderson started laughing. “Asch, I think you’re the only person in Poplar Park who doesn’t know who he is. He was on top of the music world, Asch. Sold 75 million records. Was a pop music idol. And now he’s going to go to jail for racketeering, sexual exploitation of a child, kidnapping, bribery and sex trafficking.”

The guys just couldn’t stop talking about the R&B and hip hop star. 

“The man is talented,” Dominique admitted, “but his appetite for pleasure had no limits, no boundaries. I mean sex with 15-year-olds! 

Pastor Walter Mitty, who presided over this gathering of men, admitted to himself that he didn’t know much about the fallen idol but decided that the guy sounded like he was all id and no superego.

The words the men used to describe the King of R&B were “sick, self-centered, hedonistic, abusive, self-absorbed, pathetic, drunk with wealth and power …” 

When he walked out of the Main, Pastor Mitty felt confused about what made R. Kelly tick. 

So after he unlocked the door to the parsonage and opened a few windows to let in some fresh air, he called his good friend and neighbor.

“Michael, all they talked about at men’s fellowship this morning was R. Kelly. You and I talked about his downfall a little bit after hearing about his conviction on the radio, but I have this nagging feeling that there is more to it than a sexual predator finally being brought to justice.”

“I know. Like maybe there’s something about our culture that breeds men like that?”

After 10 minutes of sharing their mutual inability to dig deeper into the cultural soil to figure out how a monster like Kelly could thrive so long without being held accountable, they decided to ask Fr. Bob Sullivan to meet them Monday afternoon at Bernie Rolvaag’s bookstore and coffee shop to continue their discussion with a third point of view.

Fr. Bob looked a little out of place in his brown habit, enjoying a caramel macchiato with extra whipped cream. Michael teased the Franciscan, “Isn’t that macchdiato a little indulgent for a man who has taken a vow of poverty and simple living?”

Fr. Bob felt the affection from his Jewish friend and responded, “When we take the vow of poverty, what we commit to is not owning anything. Not even this habit I’m wearing.”

“Are you from another planet?” Mitty said, joining in on the teasing.

The Franciscan replied with a smile, “In a way we are. The way we see it is what humans need most is to be loved. You know, those lines from that old country pop song: I was lookin’ for love in all the wrong places? Well, we feel like American culture promotes images of happiness that don’t deliver what they promise. You know that Beatles song?”

“Can’t buy me love, right?” Pastor Walt interrupted. “I don’t care too much for money. Money can’t buy me love.”

Fr. Bob nodded, “You got it, Walt. So taking the radical step of owning nothing, we are firmly declaring that we’re not going to let stuff, if you will, own us. I’m enjoying this coffee, especially since Michael paid for it, but I don’t need it. None of us get it perfectly right, of course, but our goal is to pursue a spiritual even-keel that can take material goods and pleasures or leave them; take fame and success or leave it.”

“You sound,” said Michael, “like you think Americans are hedonistic, just like R. Kelly but to a lesser extent.”

“Well,” the Franciscan replied, “there’s always that question simple-living advocates ask women: How many pairs of shoes do you have in your closet?”

Mitty laughed. “There’s a store back in Manitowoc that sells basic stuff like work clothes, toilet paper and triple A batteries. One of its sayings is, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.’”

Fr. Bob asked, “Is Fleet Farm owned by Franciscans?”

He went on. “One example of how Americans are hedonistic is that U.S. consumer debt — credit cards and stuff like that — now totals 14.3 trillion dollars. That’s what, four times the amount in the reconciliation bill Congress is debating right now?”

“And,” Mitty muttered to himself, “Americans give only 3% of their income to charity.”

“Come to think of it,” said Michael, “I remember reading Hidden Persuaders which Vance Packard published way back in 1957 in which he shows how advertisers appeal to our unconscious desires to persuade us to buy things we don’t need.”

Fr. Bob said, “I read somewhere that excessive consumption is an example of looking for love in places that produce the opposite of well-being, and that around half of Americans are addicted to drugs, tobacco, alcohol, food, gambling, work, shopping and even exercise. Looking for love …”

Monday night Pastor Walt tossed and turned for hours before falling asleep. He kept trying to figure out exactly what he would say if he gave a sermon on R. Kelly next Sunday.