Except Sonia

Are people statistics or human beings?

* Peter Postle is a pseudonym, as are all
the names mentioned in this true story.

As a fresh, idealistic young theology graduate just out of college and ready to conquer the world for God, I was excited when I was assigned to intern with the man regarded as the best pastoral trainer in my conference.

Pastor James Fields was an enthusiastic pastor who believed in evangelism and in the importance of pastoral visitation. His district included two churches, one in the capital city, where the conference office was located, and another in a small town about twenty miles away. The smaller church, of course, became my responsibility and also my training field. During the nine months I was to work there, it would benefit from two evangelistic series. The first would be conducted in the fall of the year by a conference evangelist, the second in the spring by me.

Pastor Fields had a Rolodex file filled with the names of anyone who had expressed interest in the church or its programs for the last dozen years. Early that fall I found myself making the rounds, six days a week with a stack of cards reflecting the Rolodex file, knocking on doors, talking to people, giving them a flyer, and inviting them to the upcoming evangelistic meetings. Most people thanked me politely, shut the door, and, I suppose, deposited the flyer in the nearest wastebasket.

But not Sonya.

She came to the door of her small low-income apartment. When she found out I was an Adventist pastor, her eyes lit up and she invited me inside. I met each of her five children, ranging in age from three to eight. Sonya had Adventist relatives, was recently divorced, and realized that her life needed a change. She told me she definitely wanted to attend the meetings but didn't have a babysitter or transportation.

I soon found myself in the role of taxi driver. My wife and I would ride in the front seat of our little two-door Dodge, with Sonya and her kids in the back. We quickly realized that Sonya hadn't read Dare to Discipline or any other parenting books. Discipline and family decisions proceeded by the "volume method." Whoever could shout the loudest got their way.

But Sonya enjoyed the meetings. Pastor Fields and the evangelist noticed how interested she seemed and placed a red metal tab on her Rolodex card, signifying that she was a definite prospect for baptism.

The house guest

One day, when I went to give Sonya her Bible study, she introduced me to Brian. "An old friend" she said. He'd fallen on some rough times, had ended up in jail (through no fault of his own, of course), and had just been released. He needed a place to stay... just for a couple of days... that's all.

Dismayed (and naive), I said that I understood. I said no more, deciding that she knew the potentially compromising moral situation Brian was introducing. Sonya was, after all, a grown woman; older than I, in fact. She was attending the meetings and church services and would come to an appropriate decision when it came to Brian. She'd be all right, I told myself.

I did tell Pastor Fields and the evangelist about Brian, and they agreed to see Sonya. After their visit they assured me that Brian would be moving out.

He didn't. He was involved in several minor car accidents and came back telling Sonya how certain people were out to get him. He said they had been trying to run him off the road and were threatening his life. He had decided that he would have to "lay low" for a while longer... at Sonya's house. And so she let him stay on.

Meanwhile, the evangelistic series was closing. Pastor Fields and the evangelist were convinced that Sonya understood the church's doctrines well enough for her to be baptized.

The infection

It was then that Sonya came down with an infection, the type that can be transmitted only through sexual con tact. When Pastor Fields learned about her problem, he and the evangelist had a long visit with her. They came away saying that she was still a good candidate for baptism.

A woman living with a man to whom she wasn't married, a good candidate for baptism? Had she grasped even the rudiments of the gospel? I'd heard some disquieting stories about baptisms during evangelistic meetings, but I never thought that my two he roes this pastor and evangelist would be the main actors in one involving me.

I was the one who had been working most closely with Sonya, and so I summoned the courage to say that I didn't feel she was ready for baptism yet. The facts were, however, that the only other baptismal candidate was a thirteen-year-old girl who was frightened of water. So there was the possibility that she would back out of her decision for baptism at the last minute, leaving us with no visible fruit from the campaign. So Sonya had to be advanced into the baptismal font.

Being an intern working with an experienced pastor and a respected evangelist, and having already been put in my place for expressing some of my thoughts to the evangelist, I didn't argue. I sincerely felt that, after all, these were seasoned men and I was there to learn from them, not they from me.

So Sonya was baptized.

She attended church only a few times after that. When anyone went to pick her up for church, she simply wasn't ready. She'd come to her door, obviously just out of bed, with a crying child or two tugging at her clothes. And Brian would often stand passively in the background. When I stopped by, they would politely visit with me. But nothing seemed to make a difference, and nothing changed.

Hindsight

All this happened more than a quarter century ago. Recently I met Sonya's brother, who has been an effective worker in the church for years.

"Whatever became of Sonya?" I asked him.

"She moved away," he said. He described her children, now grown into adulthood. "She's a grandmother who enjoys taking care of her grandchildren while one of her daughters works."

"And Brian?"

"Oh, he stayed with her for 20 years; then one morning he just got up and left, and she's never heard from him since. We don't know why he left, but we think it was because all the kids had grown up and there were no more welfare checks coming in. It seems he was afraid he would have to go out and get a job. The truth is, all those years he just used Sonya and the children for a meal ticket."

Then Sonya's brother went on to describe how Sonya and her children had undergone two decades of serious abuse and mistreatment from Brian and how now they had nothing but wounds and grief to show for the years he had lived off of them. So much more had lain beneath the surface when years before we had gone ahead and baptized Sonya, ignoring the underlying problems that haunted her. Instead, we had been consumed with our own need to produce face-saving statistical results for the evangelistic campaign.

As I listened, anger welled up inside me. First, there was anger at myself.

Then anger at the evangelist and at the "system" that sometimes seems more interested in numbers than authentic results. And I could not restrain myself from asking the question, What if... ?

What if we had been genuinely courageous and challenged Sonya about her need to break out of an immoral and toxic relationship, being sure of her faith in Christ and His life-trans forming love, before we baptized her?

What if someone in the church had taken a real interest in helping Sonya bring her life under God's control?

What if  we had integrated Sonya deeply into the church family and enrolled her children in church school as part and parcel of her entry into the church? Might she have met an eligible man who could have helped her raise her children to the glory of God and their ultimate good?

What if as a church we had different, more comprehensive ways of measuring "success"?

What if...?

Pastor Fields moved on to a conference leadership position and has recently retired.

The evangelist ultimately moved on to a conference presidency.

I, too, have moved on and have served my church at many levels, including the General Conference.

We've all moved on.

Except Sonya.


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* Peter Postle is a pseudonym, as are all
the names mentioned in this true story.

November 1999

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