This is the first in a new series about all the people we encounter through outreach and shelter, who then disappear and we are left wondering what happened to them. This is the story of the first mystery of this type I encountered, which was the beginning of my calling to this ministry. –Pastor Collette
After checking in at the chaplain’s office, I was making my rounds at the hospital, visiting those who were listed as members of my church (Bethlehem Lutheran in Mankato). Paul’s name had been on the list, which surprised me because I hadn’t seen him in a few weeks. He always sat alone in the second row from the front on the pulpit side, his gray hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail. Though he’d been coming for worship regularly and had recently joined the church, I knew very little about him since my colleague had done all of his new member orientation.
I peeked in the room where Paul was supposed to be, but instead of finding him in the bed, I found a housekeeper stripping the bed. This usually means the patient has been discharged, but I thought I’d check with a nurse to be sure. “I’m looking for Paul, who was listed in this room”, I said to the first nurse who walked by. Several emotions quickly crossed her face, and she asked if I was family. “No, I’m his pastor. Did he get discharged?”
“Oh thank God,” she said. “We’ve been trying to figure out who to contact. He died just an hour ago and we have no next of kin listed for him. If we can’t find anyone, we’ll have to release his body to the county.”
So began a week of detective work around Paul’s life, trying to figure out who knew him, whether he had family, who would take responsibility for his body, his burial and honoring his life. Erica was out of town, but I learned from her colleague at the Methodist church that Paul had been a regular at their breakfast ministry, often making and serving the coffee. He had been homeless at one point in the recent past, but had been stably housed in a studio apartment not far from my home for a couple years. He had been in recovery from alcohol abuse for over 40 years and was a strong presence in the recovery community of Mankato.
Still, though many people thought he had family, possibly in Florida, no one knew their names or how to contact them. The hospital ran out of time and released his body to the county. I followed up with all the funeral homes in town to see who would do the preparations, and made sure they knew Pastor Michelle from the Methodist church and I would at least do a graveside service for him.
Finally, two days before his burial, a woman at church told me she knew he had a sister whose husband was a missionary, and that she thought she had tracked down their mission website. I called and emailed, and within a couple of hours I was on the phone with Paul’s sister, telling her what little I knew about how he had died and the plans we were making for his service. They had just returned from overseas, and said they would try to make it for the service.
The morning of the funeral I prayed that his sister and her husband would have an on-time flight from Florida, that someone besides the two of them and we two pastors would show up to honor Paul’s life. By the time I drove out to the rural cemetery where the county had found a free burial plot, I knew Paul’s family were driving down from the Twin Cities. And by the time Pastor Michelle and I had arrived and talked through the plan for the service, the cars and motorcycles started pulling in.
Under the hot Minnesota sunshine, Paul’s family and his pastors were joined by nearly fifty others who’d known and loved him: his recovery community, volunteers and members of the breakfast ministry community, and a few Bethlehem members. Those gathered shared stories of his long sobriety, his consistent willingness to help his neighbor, and his faith. I learned from his family that he had become homeless because he had given all his money away in one of those email scams from a foreign stranger asking for money.
Before Paul’s death, I had never thought about what happened to those who had no family, or at least no listed emergency contact or next of kin. I was appalled to discover how difficult it was to unravel this mystery for someone I saw in worship nearly every week. I vowed that part of my ministry going forward would be to ensure that fewer people ended up unknown and unclaimed in our community.
It was because of Paul that I started going to the breakfast ministry regularly. Erica was kind enough to shepherd me around to the tables, introducing me to the regulars and filling me in on some of their back stories. As a strong introvert, this kind of outreach is still one of the last things I am inclined to do. It was and is deeply uncomfortable, but when I take the risk, I find myself welcomed into the community of those who don’t belong anywhere else. The people I meet at breakfast, through the shelter, and on the street have claimed me as their pastor just as much as I have claimed them. I’m thankful to Paul and so many others for teaching me what it really means to accompany our community’s most vulnerable neighbors.