My phone rings, a little too early for a quiet Saturday morning. With mild irritation I put down the paper and shuffle across the kitchen to answer it. It is Pete calling from a phone booth on the other side of the park. I can tell from his low raspy tone that he has had a rough night. I know what he wants before he asks: Can he wash the FCS van this morning? I am not especially anxious to drag out the hose, bucket, brush, windex, rags and vacuum. Nor do I relish the "can I use your bathroom?", "can I have a drink of water?" interruptions. But the morning is sunny and the van is dirty. So I say "Sure, Pete, come on over." Pete does a very good job of cleaning the van - when he is sober. When he has been drinking, however, his work gets a bit sloppy and his attitude somewhat testy. So we have an agreement: no work while under the influence. A morning hangover, however, is a tougher call and Pete doesn't always agree with my judgement. But this morning he arrives at my door sluggish but sober. His odor and the leaves that cling to his sweater tell me that he spent the night in the park. He is hungry and broke. The $20 wash job is an encouraging start for his day.
I appreciate Pete's attention to detail. Even though his personal hygiene is often lacking, he has an eye for cleanliness. By the time he is finished with the van, its shine will equal any professional hand wash that could be found in the city. I feel good paying Pete a competitive wage for a job well done. I see the pride in his work. And he seems genuinely appreciative of my affirmation.
But there is a small problem. I have no way of knowing how Pete will spend the money I have paid him. I know he needs food and lodging. I also know he has a drinking problem. There are no guarantees - even if I would extract a promise from him - that the money will go for good purposes. Linda, my longtime friend and trusted ministry associate, says that I am supporting Pete's habit. She insists that I am being irresponsible by not providing some kind of accountability. And yet there is an unmistakable look of hurt that comes into Pete's eyes when I offer him food vouchers or a check made out to the local SRO hotel instead of the money he has earned.
It's not like we haven't tried to help Pete. We've done all the right things: full-time employment, church life, supported living, "twelve step" and residential treatment programs, prayer, confrontation, befriending - all without lasting results. There is nothing I would like better than to corner him into a cure, to employ compassionate contingencies that would bring him to ultimate surrender before the Source of his healing. But for some reason our methods keep coming up short. There is a battleground deep within Pete's spirit accessible only to the unseen forces that war over his soul. External leverage may sway battles but the war is an internal and entirely private affair. Its outcome will be measured more by miracle than method.
And while I pray for the miraculous, Pete continues to call me on Saturday mornings. With regularity he forces upon me the dilemma of "the lesser evil" (or is it "the greater good?"). Is it better to insure that my resources are put to healthy uses or to affirm a man's work and dignity through fair compensation? Should I pay Pete with in-kind "script" that insures the purchase good things or do I pay an honest wage for a job well done and leave him with his freedom intact? More often than not Pete succumbs to his vice. I know this. I also know that he wants the freedom to make his own choices, unhealthy though they may often be. He has told me so.
Pete is a man. I will treat him like a man. Not a project or a case or an alcoholic. He works hard and does not stoop to the indignity of begging. I will not demean him by imposing uninvited controls that diminish his manhood. He was created by God, free. I will respect him as such.