–The following article includes a variety of stories, all true. Names and various details have been changed or merged with other true stories in an attempt to protect identities and to prevent inflicting any further trauma to those whom these stories belong.
written by, Stephanie Wilson
On a typical Saturday morning, the church custodian arrived to work to attend to his regular duties in preparing for Sunday morning services. As an older gentleman, the custodian had worked there for many years and in his time had seen his share of dirt, stains, ware, and tear. He never minded the task before him, because he practiced his art in love as a service to the Lord and his community.
One particular Saturday, the custodian went about his regular duties. Despite no abnormal tasks before him, he had the distinct feeling that someone else had been there before him, cleaning. This notion perplexed him since the floors still needed shining, the trash receptacles still needed emptying, and the wood furniture and fixtures had collected the same amount of dust they had every week for years. Unable to shake the thought, the custodian presented his uneasy feeling to God as he often enjoyed conversation in prayer while going about his work.
The custodian was accustomed to and treasured his prayer time. He, often sorting through and sharing his thoughts- and God, offering familiar company and quiet guidance as perceptions previously hidden often seemed to unveil.
While waxing the floors, the custodian took notice of the over-flowing lost and found receptacle. It had been neglected for quite some time and the custodian decided to bring a load of the receptacle’s items to be donated to the shelter at the end of his shift.
After replenishing the tissue boxes and placing the fresh delivered floral arrangement in front of the pulpit, the custodian retrieved an old empty box from the storage room. With box in hand, he navigated his way back to the lost and found receptacle.
His thoughts wandered to the once young neighbor boy who used to come around from time to time to offer help with various church tasks. The custodian knew that the boy had lost his mother at a young age and was often home alone while his father who never attended church worked long hours to pay the bills. The church had become an extended family to the boy who was grateful for the company and appreciated no one minding that he spent the long hours his dad was away keeping whoever might be there some unsolicited company. Being poor in spirit, lacking wisdom in spiritual ways, the boy attended every service and event as he grew. He desired to be included in what scripture described and celebrated as a spiritual family. He made friends and even dated the daughter of a prominent church board member. Upon graduation and asking for her hand in marriage, the girl’s family became protective of their daughter seeing that the boy did not measure up to their ideal standards of a good Christian husband. Heartbroken, the young man scarcely came around- and eventually, stopped coming around at all.
The custodian knelt down on his aching knees to better position himself near the contents of the overflowing lost and found receptacle. Near the top of the pile of items, there lay a single flip-flop. The object immediately sparked a memory of items returned to the church following a tragic van accident some members of their youth group had suffered years ago on their way back from a mission trip. The items were found scattered near the scene of the accident and were left behind by their rightful owners while emergency vehicles tended to the wounded and swept away to the hospital carrying treasured cargo inflicted with various injuries. A single flip-flop was among the items returned to the church by a community volunteer that Saturday morning years ago. It had belonged to the one fatality resulting from that accident. The church mourned and some members left as they could not shake the sadness that struck every time they returned to rooms filled with memories of a more carefree time. Some months later, the leader of the church, fearing that prolonged grieving would eventually be the demise of previously growing attendance numbers, hired a professional counselor to process with the survivors of the accident in a single hour-long session. Following the session, the pastor called for an end to their mourning as he saw a year sufficient time to mourn and it was high time to move on. No more talk of the accident was to take place, he had instructed his support staff. The survivors eventually graduated high school and went their separate ways, many finding support outside of the church walls- each in their own way. Few could ever reconcile with the church in a way that would allow them to darken the doors of a church community since.
Placing the lone flip-flop aside in hopes of soon recovering its match, the custodian was surprised to come across what appeared to be a wedding band stuffed deep in the pocket of a discarded pair of jeans. Clothes were sometimes left behind following basketball practice scheduled in the gym after weekly meetings. The loyal custodian scolded himself for allowing his thoughts to meander to a board decision that resulted in encouraging a staff member to resign when it became evident that his wife no longer wanted to remain married to him. This particular staff member had become a friend to the custodian and the custodian knew the shame, guilt, and heartbreak that his friend endured both before and after he overcame the fear of presenting his situation to the board. The custodian understood that divorce is frowned upon, especially in church leadership. Regardless of this standard, the decision felt cruel and dismissive of a friend and human in need of support- while at the same time stripping away emotional and financial support in the interest of protecting appearances. The staff member, being meek and not wishing to distress the church and friends he had come to love, quietly resigned at the request of those in authority. With a heavy heart, the custodian tucked the ring safely in his own pocket and made a mental note to ask around if anyone had misplaced their wedding band the following day.
As the custodian filled his box with unclaimed hats, mittens, and umbrellas, he soon came across a familiar wristband. WWJD had been inscripted into the leather fibers and missing the adjoining piece that affixed to the latch. Wristbands like these were popular for a time among youth and the leadership who worked with them. His thoughts transported to a couple in the church who had grown up there, married, and continued to attend faithfully during their children’s’ upbringing. Perhaps it was their familiarity with the other congregants, or perhaps it was out of a deep-seated thirst for civil righteousness that the couple became uncomfortably vocal around unpopular political issues that aligned with Jesus’ teaching (despite scripture that could be- and often was- twisted to defend the opposing view). The majority of congregants had become disenfranchised with immigrant neglect and the rights of marginalized people less familiar to their comfortable community. The couple became such a nuisance to their peaceful community, they were socially ostracized by many who were angry about their Christian nation deliberating the idea of allowing other influences to impede or even attain the same rights American Christians had always afforded through political influence. Some attenders who agreed that more could be done did not appear too upset with the couples’ outspoken stance, but those who took offence made it clear that the couple was to be dismissed claiming their dangerous views were obviously in conflict with true American nationalism by siding with a party that honored free will over criminalizing abortion. Come to think of it, although the custodian still saw the couple from time to time, now empty nesters, he hadn’t seen their kids in years.
The custodian shook his head with regret. How often do we fail to simply do what Jesus would do? He placed the wristband in the box and offered a silent prayer for wisdom as we each seek His truth, and for the strength for each to be brave enough to fight for those we are called to defend.
The custodian soon came across a backpack. He opened it in hopes to identify its rightful owner. Instead, he found a lunch bag with a half-eaten and rotting banana inside. An insulated cup designed for soup was seeping its leftover contents. Deciding the lunch bag was beyond salvaging, he tossed it in a nearby trash bin that he would be sure to take to the dumpster on his way home. Wasted food. The custodian wondered if any of the congregants had ever known the true pain of those who hunger. He recalled a leadership session held at the church some years back. Community pastors in the area took turns hosting a semiannual leadership event to discuss local needs and opportunities to serve the community. While attending to a coffee spill during the event, the custodian couldn’t help but overhear a conversation between two of the attendees. They were discussing the recent resignation of a music minister. Apparently, the music minister had invited a homeless man into the church upon finding him taking up shelter under the awning of a side entrance one early Sunday morning. Running behind for pre-service practice, the music minister assured the hungry man that the executive pastor who held the key to the food closet would assist with at least some canned items when he arrived in the next few minutes. The executive pastor, later seeking reassurance from a colleague at the leadership session offered, “I mean, what was he thinking? We can’t help every beggar that comes to our door. You feed one guy; they’ll all line up for endless handouts.” The colleague responded in turn, “So your music minister resigned over that? Surely he is aware the city already provides a community shelter, I mean, we all take turns volunteering time there. Best to keep homeless resources in a location familiar with responding to those with heightened behavioral risks.”
The custodian found himself wondering where that music leader ended up. Did he have a family? Had he found another position leading music in a church that more closely shared his heart for serving strangers in need? How was his departure expressed to the church community at large? Did the music minister leave humbly in the same way he expressed mercy to others in need?
Turning back to the contents of the lost and found, the custodian saw a familiar item placed there by him a couple of weeks ago. A foam cut-out toy plane had found its way underneath the bleachers in the gymnasium. He recalled speaking to a girl who regularly attended the youth group sitting atop the bleachers alone. She had been quietly waiting for her parents to finish up choir practice following mid-week service. The custodian enquired the whereabouts of friends she typically visited with during that time. “I guess the things we used to share interests in have changed,” she replied. Her peers were gathered behind the church highlighting events of a party she had attended with them the weekend before. Not willing to commit to an outlandish risk in a high-stakes game of truth or dare, the girl left the party without her friends who said they wanted to stay and would find another way home. She often wondered why it was so much easier for her to stand up for moral boundaries around her peers at school, but felt so much more confused and isolated when practicing those same moral boundaries around her church friends. Had she been unrealistic clinging to a standard so pure that many were quick to dismiss the same path? Was that standard worth suffering abandonment by peers with whom she shared so many fun memories in less assuming times? She clung to her faith but felt blindsided by her unanticipated loneliness- especially by those who claimed to share the same beliefs. Forcing a passive smile as the custodian offered a knowing gaze, she returned her focus to the empty space before her and continued to sit in thoughtful solace.
While reaching to carefully place the toy plane in the growing box of donation items, the setting sun reflected off a traveling mug with a chrome lid which had fallen behind the lost and found receptacle. Ah! A name for the owner was written in fading letters across the bottom of the mug. It’s owner, Troy, was a well-liked guy with a relaxed demeanor. He knew no strangers and often stayed in touch with individuals who had moved on to other awaiting chapters and seasons of life. The custodian remembered one Sunday morning when the organization a block away who claimed to be a church but acted more as a mission protesting their views at other various events and organizations across the nation- chose this very building to protest against one chilly, but otherwise relaxed Sunday morning. Their picket signs tended to be overly graphic and seemed to suggest that anyone who was not affiliated with their group was surely bound for hell. As congregants began to arrive that Sunday, picketers were met with looks of irritation and distain. Church leadership agreed to set up an emergency meeting to devise a response plan and statement to the public if necessary. Meanwhile, Troy picked up a stack of disposable cups along with a carafe of coffee and headed straight for the picket line. The custodian watched as he casually struck up a conversation with the picketers who seemed confused by his assumptive approach. The picketers accepted the warm coffee resulting from the unexpected gesture. Within minutes, the picketers simply left and never targeted them again. Although Troy, a peacemaker in every sense of the term, was often questioned for where his loyalties lie in regard to those considered to be friends or foes of the church, he never seemed to know an opponent that couldn’t be swayed. Sadly, his refusal to keep social distance from previous attendees disqualified him from ever being granted an official leadership position within the church. If this bothered Troy in any way, he never showed it and often acted as a sort of unofficial greeter at the entrance before services. The custodian wondered in prayer if misplaced loyalty often blocked the benefits of simply making peace with those we often encounter. Placing the traveling mug atop the coat rack, the custodian expected he’d return the mug to Troy the following morning.
Lying at the bottom of the lost and found receptacle, the custodian was curious to discover a 10-year sobriety medallion. A sense of compassion and sorrow filled him as he wondered if the medallion’s owner was hopeful to become reunited with this symbol of daily struggle met with considerable accomplishment. The custodian was familiar with the weight and meaning behind such an endeavor. His son, Mark, had the fortune of finding his own path to sobriety through a program affiliated with their church’s denomination. His hard work and example, along with an education at a respected Bible University earned him a place on the program’s board- and eventually a job offer to run the new re-entry center for students nearing the end of the in-patient program and getting ready to phase back into society. Excited and thankful for this new opportunity, Mark sold his successful business and made plans to move his wife and children an hour north to begin this new chapter.
While the re-entry center was being built, Mark had been asked by the executive director, a Pastor and Politian by trade, to travel to each rehabilitation center in the quad-state region and perform an audit since Mark had done this sort of work for another position he had previously held. While the audit was welcomed by some, a few within the program viewed it as an assault to their competence (and perhaps feared what the audit would ultimately uncover. But, as the custodian figured, judgment is best left for the one who ultimately judges.) As fate would have it, the director crossed paths with a mosquito carrying the West Nile Virus and within hours the director fell comatose and was admitted to the hospital to begin a series of long months toward recovery. Within 48 hours of the director’s admittance into the hospital, the deputy director (the wife of a long-time pastor within the program’s affiliated church denomination) made it her first act to pull the plug on both the audit and the construction of the new center- all while the director lie comatose and unaware of the abrupt halt to his plans already approved by the board. Mark was given two days to clean out his new office and never return.
Confused by the abrupt change of plan and alarmed by the prospect of sudden unemployment without the ability to return to his former clients per a non-compete clause agreement along with the sale of his former business, Mark reached out to various members of the board sure that they would help support him with at least keeping plans in place to open the new center as they had readily agreed upon when acquiring the property and voting in support of the director’s plans for a new center there. Mark was hurt when the only offer of support from one board member was advice to invoke Matthew 18:15-17 which directs, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” The board member truly believed Mark was being persecuted because of righteousness but explained that he didn’t feel right confronting his longtime friend for her change of plan and believed it best for Mark to pursue this unfair turn of events for himself.
The custodian felt a sense of shame rise within him when he recalled his son telling him that not one member of the board had the courage to question the deputy director’s decision following a second decline from her and now fully implemented as acting director. It likely had to do with both her husband and best friend serving as active members of the now six-person board. Despite Mark’s numerous attempts to challenge the reversed decision for the audit and construction of the new center to the board and local and national offices of the program and affiliated denomination- Mark’s plea for support or even a discussion fell on deaf ears. No one wanted to come up against a family who held so much clout within those institutions, even if the action was deservedly questionable and undoubtedly underhanded.
Mark ended up accepting a retail sales job while slowly building up a new clientele in an attempt to reinvent his former business. The custodian was painfully aware of how hard it must have been for his son to not fall back on old habits and remain sober, especially when the pain and persecution was inflicted by the very program and church affiliation that had served as coach and a continued support system through his entire rehabilitation and ongoing mentorship in the years since his decision to turn away from harmful coping mechanisms. Although Mark and his wife continued to attend church in their new hometown, he never would pursue work within a church again believing his talents would be more valued and suitable to other arenas.
The custodian placed the medallion in an envelope to be delivered to the program office that would hopefully be successful in reuniting it with its rightful owner. Picking up the box of donatable items and walking toward the parking lot, he thanked God for the opportunity and privilege of knowing him along with the ability to share his thoughts freely without shame. The custodian had witnessed many stories with various outcomes throughout his time serving the church and community. He asked for forgiveness for those whom he was quick to judge and for continued strength to guard his faith by placing it with God alone and not in the institutions, titles, and programs we are often quick to deposit our hope instead.
Driving home, the custodian was reminded of his uneasy feeling that the church had been cleaned before his arrival. He reviewed his day and the memories triggered by items he came across in the lost and found. Then, as if it had been sitting there in plain sight, an answer to his uneasy feeling seemed to simply surface. The added cleaning was not the result of the hands of a mystery volunteer. The church, in neglect to maintain focus on simply following Christ’s example of how to treat others, had cleaned out precious members, talents, and skills once placed there by God only to be rejected by policies and procedures that would ultimately find no place in God’s kingdom or plan. The custodian pulled over to the side of the road as tears clouded his ability to safely drive. He sobbed for the shame he owned in his part for continuing to support those acts by simply remaining silent all those years. Why had he never thought to speak up? The custodian seeing himself as simple and wanting to maintain a humble disposition never felt his voice had a place in the politics of church policies and outcomes. Desperate to make up for his past failings to take a stand for Christ’s teachings, he begged for God’s forgiveness, wisdom, and the strength to speak up when an action to do so is warranted. His body shook with sobbing for the time he could not regain and the opportunities and maybe even souls needlessly lost at the shame casted from those who have been entrusted to uphold the teachings of Christ- not just church leadership, but anyone who identifies as a follower of Christ. Suddenly, a wash of familiar peace swelled up inside of him. He knew that God is always quick to forgive and rejoices when his followers recognize and turn from their wrongdoings.
The image of the Lost and Found sign, having seen that sign and receptacle in the same location for years, came into clear view within his conscious memory. What has been lost can be found again. The custodian realized that this concept was not limited to silly treasures and mismanaged property. God’s business is Lost and Found, and He rejoices with us when we admit becoming lost in our pursuit of seeking God’s path for us as a result of putting policies, titles, and yoke-heavy fundamentals ahead of God’s simple path. Grateful for his unending forgiveness, wisdom, and second chances, the custodian signaled his way back to the road as he resumed his commute home.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:3-12