She was a widow with four children moving from New York to McDonough. Her husband died a year ago from colon cancer. Because of a transfer with her job she bought a house in the Atlanta area and prepared to relocate her family.
A good church home in her new location was important to this pianist and organist who had been a Christian for 30 years. Since she was United Methodist, her uncle, a bishop in New York with another denomination, contacted a district superintendent in the North Georgia Conference. The DS identified a church that would nurture her and her family.
The bishop called the pastor of this local church south of Atlanta. The pastor was excited and pleased to receive this woman and her family. A couple of days later this woman called the pastor and needed help.
She was on her way from New York with her four children aged 8, 10, 14, and 16. The weight shifted in the U-Haul trailer that she was pulling with her 2010 Dodge Caravan and the vehicle hit the guard rail. She had to be towed to a nearby garage. She did not have enough cash for the total charges and she had no credit card with her. There was plenty of money in the federal credit union but she could not access it until she arrived in Atlanta. If the pastor could send money to cover the difference she would reimburse him when she got to Atlanta.
When the pastor did not immediately rush to her rescue, the distressed woman called her (bishop) uncle. He tried to pay with his credit car but the garage refused to take it over the phone. Her uncle was appalled that a Christian church would not help a woman stranded on the highway with four children. He was so upset that he called Bishop Watson in Atlanta to report the hard-hearted pastor.
Bishop Watson was not in the office, so I took the call. After hearing the story I said I would get in touch with this woman and see what could be done to help. I called her cell phone number which her uncle provided and she verified everything her uncle had told me. She told me of her new job in Atlanta and gave me the address of the house she had purchased.
I also spoke with the manager of the garage that repaired her car. I asked for the address and phone number of the garage and he readily provided them. He said that his phone and fax were the same number. If he was on the phone when I called back I would get the fax machine. In that case I could call the stranded motorist on her cell phone and she could get him.
If you are feeling sorry for this woman and her four children, wait until you hear the rest of the story.
With a little effort I discovered that the woman's phone on which we had been talking was listed to a different person's name in Jonesboro, not McDonough. I also found that the phone number for the garage was actually a fax number for a Holiday Inn Express. The street addresses that I was given for the garage and the new home were non-existent and the churches in New York did not know this bishop. The North Georgia district superintendent said he had not spoken with the "bishop" nor had he recommended a church for his "niece."
When I informed this woman what I had learned and asked for an explanation, she became angry and accused me of not wanting to help. After threatening to "report this to someone higher up" and telling me that I "would have to deal with God about it" she hung up the phone.
In almost forty years of ministry I have heard many similar stories. Even when my instincts tell me clearly that the requests for help are bogus I still find it difficult to say no. What if this one is genuine and I turn them away. Will I hear Jesus say, "When I was hungry you did not give me anything to eat. When I was naked you did not clothe me...?"
The people I talked with last week were running a scam. Folks like this play on the compassion of Christian people. They are criminals. I get angry because there are many people with legitimate needs that often go unmet because our experience with these con artists causes us to become suspicious and overly cautious. I get angry because many well-meaning generous and compassionate people give them money and that furthers their despicable behavior.
Followers of Christ are called to be generous and to care for people in need. We are called to minister to the "least, the last, and the lost" but we must not be gullible and waste the resources that are entrusted to us. At the same time we must guard against becoming cynical and calloused or we will miss the opportunities that God offers to provide for folks who are genuinely in need.
[Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," Jan. 31, 2011. North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.]