Larry will never forget the first time he saw him. We were pastoring in Herrickville, a farming community in Northeast Pennsylvania. I've written a bit about our early years in Bradford County, a beautiful little chunk of God's creation made up of dirt roads and green vistas. He was traversing one of those very roads when he came upon a lone figure dwarfed in a large trench coat, wearing a crumpled hat and carrying a gas can. Larry pulled over to ask if he could give him a ride somewhere. He was met with a toothless grin as the gentleman slid in beside him. He introduced himself as Albert.
He showed up for church the following Sunday with his wife Jeanette and their son Joey who was probably twelve at the time. Albert was scrawny, I don't think he weighed much over a hundred and twenty pounds. His son, however, was built nothing like his father. He was big for his age, favoring more his mother who was a bit on the plump side. They settled in and we began to see a lot of them. Jeanette was intelligent and pleasant. But we soon discovered that Albert was a different matter altogether. He was slow, simple, and at times difficult. He wanted to play softball, for example, so joined the church team but would curse every time he missed the ball. He found it difficult to control his emotions and was easily offended. But in spite his lack of social graces, most in the church were patient with him. There were a few, however, who complained about him, tired of his poor manners. Thinking back, I might have been one of them.
Then came Father's Day. Larry had asked his Sunday school class to write down and then share something they had learned from their dads. During the course of the discussion, Albert said he had learned nothing from his father because he'd never known him. He then told his story, that he was the result of an illicit family relationship. When I later heard what Albert had said that morning, I felt a deep sadness, imagining the difficult childhood he must have had. After that I found myself becoming more patient with him and less critical.
There were still some episodes with Albert after that, at one point he even left the church for awhile. But Larry was always attentive towards the family, and after paying them a few visits, we saw them once again back in the pews. I remember well the time they invited us into their home for a meal, so proud that they were able to extend hospitality to the pastor and his family. Larry happened to take a picture of Albert in his kitchen that day. He looked a bit frazzled, but I know that he was trying the best he could to express his gratitude to us for caring about him and his family.
|Albert in his kitchen the day he and Jeanette invited us for dinner|
Albert had been given the important job of counting heads on Wednesday evenings when we ran our children's program, and Jeanette was helping pretty regularly in the nursery. It was also on a Wednesday evening in early December that we would see them for the last time. As they headed out the church door for home that night, Albert turned to Larry and told him how glad he was that he took the time to pick him up on the road that day.
The phone call came during dinner the next night. Albert's house was on fire. As Larry pulled up to the property, he saw no sign of the family among the crowd that had gathered there. It wouldn't be until the fire was extinguished that the horrible, gruesome discovery was made. There were three bodies in the garage, so badly burned they were unrecognizable. An investigation would later reveal the truth. They'd been murdered and their place doused with gasoline and set ablaze to cover the crime.
It was sometime afterwards that Larry sat down with the man who would spend the rest of his life in prison for their murders. He had asked for the preacher to come, wanting in some way to explain how an ordinary day had turned so tragic. Ironically, Albert had considered him to be one of his closest friends. But it was a female companion, also a so-called friend, who suddenly snapped and pulled the trigger, killing Joey first and then his parents. I can't imagine the shock, then the unimaginable horror of that moment when Albert and Jeanette heard the blast and saw their son fall to the ground. He was everything to them, his being that gave them both purpose. So as horrible as those next moments were, when those final shots rang through the air, I do believe that God was showing mercy to Albert and Jeanette.
There was a memorial service for the three of them and the church was packed. I think they would have been surprised but pleased to see how many people had come to pay their respects. I was in Herrickville a couple of months ago and passed the place where their home used to sit. All traces of the house are gone, nothing there to remind us that a very simple man and his family died on that bit of ground almost thirty years ago.
But Albert never really went away, I've seen him many times since, pretty much everywhere I've lived. He looks different and his circumstances have changed, but it's him. He can be difficult and sometimes demands more of me than what I have or feel like giving. And his story often makes me uncomfortable, it's so different from my own. It's then that God speaks to my spirit. "Except by my grace," he whispers, "that could be your story."
|Jeanette, Joey and Albert in 1983, a year before they died|