Front-page News

By The Reverend Thomas C. Willadsen

 

This column received a 2004 Award of Merit from The Associated Church Press in the category Biographical Profile

 

Recently I read an article asking, "What must the church do to get on the front page of the
newspaper?" Typically, churches do not make headlines, and when we do it is because of scandals.

Earlier this year my church got some front-page coverage in The Oshkosh Northwestern, so I
know the answer to the question about front-page news is "Bury the locally notorious schizophrenic man."

It is, as they say, a long story.

Martin Lloyd was found dead on Wednesday, February 11. A friend of his had left some groceries
for him outside his door and after they had sat there a few days, she feared the worst. When the
police entered his apartment they called the coroner.

Martin was a peculiar man. When I arrived in Oshkosh five years ago I assumed he was homeless. He looked like Bo Diddley, and acted and smelled like the homeless people I had served while volunteering at a shelter in Chicago. It turned out, though, that he had an apartment and frequented my church. The outgoing interim pastor told me that Martin knew more scripture than anyone else in the congregation and it was true; he had many verses memorized. Often during Adult Sunday School and during less formal worship services he would recite scripture-mostly psalms and epistle passages when he heard a word or phrase that spurred his memory.

When I first spotted Martin at church I assumed that he came just for the food we served
at coffee hour. Then I noticed he never once went through the line himself. He would sit off to the
side and people would serve him.

"Martin, there are Oreos and chocolate chips today, which would you prefer?"

"Fine, fine.

He also took his coffee "fine, fine."

Martin began to appear at our Wednesday after-school program. He sat on a pew at the edge of the room, just watching. At 5:30, when we make a circle holding hands and sing "Johnny Appleseed" he would stay there, waiting. After a few weeks, we moved the circle to surround Martin, so he would have hands to hold during grace. After a few more weeks the kids were vying for the privileges of holding his hand and filling a plate for him.

It seemed that everyone in town had somehow touched--and been touched by--Martin Lloyd.
When I heard of his death I sprang into action. I let the coroner know that we considered Martin a part of our faith community, though he was not officially a member. I let the funeral home know that we would plan a memorial service. We started to track down Martin's next-of-kin.

Martin was 79 years old. He had grown up in Mississippi and had lived and worked in Chicago
before coming to Oshkosh. The friend who had left him the groceries thought she knew the name
of an aunt somewhere in Mississippi. A member of my church tried to contact the canning factory in Chicago where Martin had worked; I phoned the high school he had attended, but all our leads were pretty lean. After a week, the coroner's office called because Martin's mother had been found, living in St. Louis! She, her daughter, her grandson and his wife and their daughter would all be coming to the memorial service.

Martin was notorious for several reasons. He was often seen fishing at the river. He walked everywhere he went, always with either his fishing gear or his guitar. His trademark, though, was the white construction helmet he wore. All the time. He just felt safer with it. After his death I learned how proud he was of his background in construction.

He came to Oshkosh about 14 years ago, drawn by the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual convention. A number of people here befriended him. He had a community of people he fished with; people who knew him from his morning coffee at Hardee's; people whom he had lunch with at the Salvation Army; the Presbyterians. If everyone who ever bought him a cheeseburger at Burger King had attended his memorial service our church would have been as full as on Christmas Eve.

Martin liked to travel. Every spring he went to southern California and Mexico for about six weeks. In 2002, he was gone for longer than six weeks. People started to miss him; rumors abounded. The Northwestern did an investigation. Martin was found in a nursing home in Los Angeles, having been beaten and robbed. The community worked to bring him back to town. He even got his old apartment back. (Martin lived above a bar, which embarrassed him. Anyone who gave him a ride home had to drop him off a block away, and he would not begin walking home until the driver had driven off.)

Planning the memorial service was a lot like herding cats. We scheduled the service for a Wednesday afternoon, so the after-school kids could attend. Most had never known someone who had died. Since our liturgical dance group practices on Wednesdays, they took part in the service, as did our octogenarian blues harmonica player--every church has one these days--who played a medley of Mississippi delta blues tunes.

One of Martin's friends prepared a ten page astrological reading for me. While I do not understand the significance of zodiacal cusps, I was amazed to learn that people with Martin's birthday are expected to be wanderers who find it difficult to settle any place and often drift from job to job. Still, I found myself unable to use these insights in my homily.

Two of Martin's fishing buddies paid for his obituary. Employees from a printer who often had lunch with Martin contributed the bulletins. Someone else brought the flowers. We stretched our Lenten Simple Supper Chili Feed and invited members to bring salads and dessert for the luncheon following the service. It wasn't the miracle of loaves and fishes, but there was plenty of food for everyone.

In addition to the front-page coverage of the service, several things were especially gratifying to me. I am very proud that the congregation I serve and this community had been able to care for one of our vulnerable people. Throughout the days leading up to the service the line "guard each man's dignity and save each man's pride" from "We Are One in the Spirit" kept echoing in my head.

I think Martin's family did not realize how precious Martin was to Oshkosh. They marveled at the kindness that was shown to one his sister knew as "a very eccentric young man."

Finally, memorial money poured in to the church. Typically we have a formula which divides memorials several ways, but in Martin's case the congregation's ruling board decided to have all the memorial money go toward purchasing a burial marker which features a man fishing and a guitar and reads
Martin Lloyd
1924-2004
A Gentle Giant

The remaining money is in a fund that aids travelers stranded in Oshkosh. Now we are able to help anyone in a situation like Martin's in Los Angeles.

Martin Lloyd's death and memorial service were indeed front-page news in this town of 60,000. But everyday, without the headlines, churches extend kindness, compassion, respect, and grace to eccentric, vulnerable people. And find themselves blessed when a Martin Lloyd comes along.

This column first appeared in The Cresset, published by Valparaiso University, Trinity 2004.