If anyone had ever told me I would save someone’s life, I would laugh in his or her face. They teach us about this kind of stuff in seminary, but no one ever thinks they will actually use the training. I, like many pastors, expect our careers to deliver many sermons, pep talks, and a lot of advice, but we hope we never have to talk anyone out of suicide. This would be the second time in my career that I would have to pull from my memory all the things I had learned and be an instrument for God.
The urgent call came in while I was shutting down my computer for the night. I was ready to head home for some much-needed rest, much needed love, and Betty’s stewed chicken and parsley dumplings. My stomach growled at the thought of the savory dish for which Betty was famous, and I couldn’t wait to get home and devour it.
It had been a trying day, most of which I spent nursing a pounding headache. Several times that day, I almost went home early, but I couldn’t escape the mound of paperwork needing attention. It made me long for the days when all I had to pastor was a bunch of kids. I thought the paperwork was bad then. It was nothing compared to that of running the entire church.
I’m thankful now that I stayed. If I hadn’t, I would have missed the call, and I might not have been able to live with the outcome. Neither my conscience nor my heart could handle another loss.
The church council met the previous evening and spent hours bickering over whether they should spend Wendy Parson’s endowment gift on upgrading the cooling system in the youth center or repairing the potholes in the parking lot. Both projects were long overdue, but then so were the utility bills.
I sighed. Unfortunately, the endowment gift couldn’t be used for daily operating expenses. I don’t understand why people have to put such strong restrictions upon the gifts they leave. It’s frustrating when you have a need but can’t touch the money you need to fix it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I begrudge the gift, it’s just that it’s hard for me to think about spending thousands of dollars on a cooling system when the church can’t even pay for the electricity to run it.
When I first came to be the pastor of New Hope Christian Church, I had just that—new hope. I was newly married and looking forward to a new job.
A recent encounter with a young man, who had killed a girl in a careless car accident, had inspired me to make the most of my life. Taking a big chance, I answered an ad in a local clergy magazine for a church that was looking for a young, energetic pastor to revive a flailing church. I had always been a youth pastor but thought it might do me some good to broaden my challenges.
What I found was a disgruntled, fading congregation, and it was my job to fix it. My hopes dashed to the ground. How was I supposed to do that when the members of the congregation couldn’t even agree on the best way to spend their money. As a youth pastor, all I’d had to worry about was pastoring—and I didn’t have to worry about electric bills.
I stood looking at the ringing phone. A cold dread spread through my body. An omen from God, perhaps. I answered it after the fourth ring, having spent the time pondering whether I even wanted to answer it; it was, after all, past office hours, and a call that came in this late usually meant trouble somewhere. Even so, something drew my hand toward the receiver. “Hello,” I said, “New Hope Christian Church, Pastor David Owens speaking. How may I help you?”
A young voice, squeaking like a little mouse came back at me, so faint that it was almost a whisper. “I’m sitting in your parking lot and I’m going to kill myself.”
I froze. My heart literally slowed its beat. The temperature in the room seemed to go up about twenty degrees, and I pulled the collar of my shirt away from my neck to reduce the heat. Then, all my long hours of training seemed to kick into gear. I said, “How may I help you? May I come out and see you?” The girl hesitated. I waited anxiously for some kind of indication that life still clung on the other end. I crossed to the window, thankful for once that the blasted, long, cord stretched all the way. I had been badgering Ashley, my secretary, about getting a short cord, but she just kept saying there was no money. Now I was pleased she hadn’t listened to me. I peered through a crack in the blinds.
“Stay away from the window,” the voice came back, stress clearly audible.
I immediately dropped the blinds and stepped back. She was calling all the shots. I knew deep down that she didn’t really want to kill herself or she wouldn’t have called me. “I’m stepping back,” I said. “Tell me what you need me to do.” Suddenly, I heard a baby cry. I froze. My heart skipped a couple beats. I wasn’t just dealing with one life; there were two on the line here. “It sounds as if your little one might be hungry. Do you need some food?”
There was a moment’s hesitation before she answered, as if she were trying to decide if she could deny the child’s existence. “She’s fine,” she said. “I just fed her.”
“How old is she?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation open.
“Three months,” she said, sniffing back sobs.
I ran through the possibilities in my head in an attempt to get to the root of the despair. She sounded young, so maybe she was a teenage mother who had decided to keep her baby, not knowing how hard it actually would be. On the other hand, perhaps that dreaded post-partum depression, that had so recently been making headlines, had become known for her. Whatever was causing her distress, I knew I had to figure it out soon or two lives would be at stake.
“What’s her name,” I asked. I thought if I kept her talking about her child, I might help her see some hope in her future.
Another pause and, “Her name is Grace.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
“I hate it,” she said. “My mother named her,” she snarled.
Ah, I thought; a little more was coming clear to me. “May I ask your name?” I waited through a long pause, and I guessed she was wondering if it was a trick question. As if by telling me her name, she might be revealing herself.
“I’d rather you didn’t,” she said in a voice that betrayed her true wishes.
“I should call you something,” I said. “Hey you in the parking lot doesn’t sound very flattering, not to mention it’s quite the mouthful.”
To my surprise and delight, she rewarded me with a cursory chuckle. “I guess you could call me Abby.”
I wondered if that truly was her name, or was she trying to throw me off track. I guessed it was probably a shortened name. I took a stab at it. “Is that short for Abigail?”
“Only my mother calls me that when—” She broke off. Caught off guard, Abigail had revealed a vital piece of information about herself. “I guess it doesn’t matter.”
I ventured to take a step closer. “It’s a little chilly outside, Abby,” I said, careful not to use Abigail. It had become my suspicion that this girl was angry with her mother for some reason. “Wouldn’t you like to bring Grace inside? We have a nursery in the back; I’m sure she would be more comfortable.”
Her tone became angry, and I knew I had stepped too far. “Stop telling me what to do! Everyone’s always telling me what to do!”
“No. No,” I said. “It was just a suggestion. If you’re more comfortable out there, then by all means you can stay there.”
I pondered the notion of calling 9-1-1 on my cell phone, but that option held risks of its own. What if Abby were holding a gun and the sound of the sirens scared her into action. Besides, I hadn’t given up hope yet that I would be able to coax her inside. She had come to me, after all.
“Are you still there, Abby?” I asked when the silence grew.
“Yeah, I’m here.”
The crying had ceased, so whatever was happening outside, Grace was now content. I played on that. “I see Grace has stopped crying. You must be good with her.”
“I’m okay,” she said. “She pisses me off sometimes, and even I know that’s not good.”
Dan, our director of custodial services, walked in the back door, ready to clean away our daily grime. He made a clattering of noises and I made a gesture to silence him.
“What was that?” Abby asked, with the slight edge in her voice returning.
“Nothing, Abby,” I said, hoping my voice didn’t betray me.
“I heard a noise. Did you call the cops? Oh, geez. I gotta go.”
I heard a rustling sound. “No, wait,” I pleaded. “I didn’t call anyone. You have my word.”
The line was silent. I was just thinking she had hung up when she said, “If I can’t trust a man of God, then who can I trust?”
I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at Dan, who had come to stand beside me. A puzzled expression on his face relayed his interest. There was nothing I could do that wouldn’t draw attention and scare Abby away, so I made a hushing gesture with my finger and Dan sat down. I was still standing at this point, hovering just far enough from the window that I might catch some kind of a glimpse. I risked a step forward and caught the faintest evidence of a car’s fender, hidden just behind the wall leading to the parking lot. Was she sitting in that car? Or was she hiding around a corner on foot, perhaps pushing a baby carriage.
“You can trust me, Abby,” I said.
“It’s not my fault, you know,” she said, as if I had a clue as to what she was referring. “She blames me, but it’s really his fault.”
I frowned in puzzlement. “Who’s fault, Abbey? If you tell me what happened I might be able to help.”
I heard some rustling, and then the unmistakable squeak of leather as someone slid across a seat. I risked peering out the window. “Is that you, Abby? Is that your car in the parking lot?”
“Don’t come out here,” she reminded me. “Or I swear I’ll kill us both.”
“I won’t, Abby. I’m going to stay here unless you want me to come out. Then all you have to do is ask.” I wasn’t worried about Abby and Grace freezing; it was April and had been an unseasonably nice day, but the nights still grew cold, and I didn’t want them to get chilled. “Can we agree on that, Abby?” She didn’t answer, and I wondered if perhaps she was giving silent permission. “Abby?” I asked again.
“Okay,” she breathed, her voice softening a bit.
Dan handed me a piece of paper. On it he had written: do you want me to call the police? I shook my head, wrote back, call my wife and tell her I’ve had an emergency. Dan nodded his understanding and ran off. I turned my attention back to Abby. “Do you want to tell me what’s going on, Abby? I get the feeling you really don’t want to hurt that innocent little baby.”
She scoffed, “She’s not that innocent—just ask my father. If you listen to him, he’ll say we both had it coming.”
My pulse quickened as she revealed more of the story. I didn’t like the way it was heading. Thousands of children are abused by a trusted elder every day—I had special training in dealing with abused children as part of my pastoral training, but I’d never had to put the skill to the test. “I’m listening, Abby, if you want to tell someone.”
At first, I thought she either hadn’t heard me or was ignoring me, but then she began her tale. I sat down in my big, comfortable chair and listened with rapt attention to Abby’s story. I expected child abuse, sexual assault maybe, but I never expected the truth of her tale.
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