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The Death of Evelyn and the Failure of the Church

Written by Hugh Hollowell : September 24, 2008

A heavy girl, perhaps 250 pounds, Evelyn’s greasy, stringy hair only served to accentuate her poor skin. Her weight made her shuffle rather than walk and her head was always bowed, seeking not to offend, avoiding eye contact. At 23, most people her age are very conscious of their appearance, but Evelyn’s wardrobe consisted of thrift store finds and cast offs, leaning heavily toward stretch pants and sweatshirts that advertised events she had never seen and places she would never visit.

It was my second month in Raleigh. I was volunteering with a group that fed the homeless in the park on Sunday when I met her for the first time. She shuffled through the line, mumbling thanks for the watery mashed potatoes and chili-mac, eyes on the ground. Several times I tried to engage her, but between my maleness and her demons, it just was not happening. Like a dog that had been struck once too often, she flinched at contact, muttering secrets only she knew to people only she saw.

When there was an open bed, Evelyn would stay at the woman’s shelter, but more often then not she had to make other arrangements. On cold nights, she would trade sexual favors in exchange for a warm bed. To pick up spending money, she would give men oral sex for $5. Because of her weight and mental issues, often the promise of a warm bed was revoked, or the money not paid after the oral sex had been given. Several people later told me Evelyn was often sexually assaulted and raped, unable to resist her attackers.

The last time I saw her was on a Thursday in early November. I remember it was inordinately cold that day, with a sharp, piercing wind.. Evelyn shuffled down the sidewalk, huddled down into her jacket, oblivious to my wave, ignoring me when I called.

That night Evelyn made it into the women’s shelter. In here she could sleep, secure in the knowledge she was safe. In the night Evelyn died of complications from sleep apnea. At age 23, she was another statistic of life, and death, on the streets.

* * * *

I told Evelyn’s story in a church once, and when I was finished they prayed fervent prayers that Evelyn would be at peace in the loving arms of Jesus. They prayed that those who would injure and molest women like Evelyn would be caught and punished. They prayed for God’s kingdom to come and for shalom to rest on our city.

At the end of the talk, a lady came up to me, obviously moved by my story and asked me the question I dread most: “How could God have allowed this to happen to Evelyn? Was this all part of God’s plan?”

If you spend much time working in the inner-city, you try not to ask yourself those kind of questions–not because you don’t know what the answer is, but because you do. Because if you think about it too much you get mad and because if you tell people the answer, you will not be invited back.

What I wanted to tell that lady, but did not, was God did have a plan to take care of Evelyn; God’s plan was us. God’s plan was to put us here to be his hands and feet. We are to show mercy, to love justice. We are to show mercy, as he is merciful. We are to feed those who are hungry, with the assurance that when we do, we are doing it to, and not just for, Jesus himself.

I wanted to tell that lady God did have a plan and we screwed it up. I wanted to tell her that it is not we who are waiting on God, but rather God who is waiting on us and that what Evelyn really had needed was not this lady’s prayers but a safe place to sleep at night. What I wanted to tell that lady, but didn’t, is that it is very obvious that we have the resources to help invisible people just like Evelyn but we simply lack the will to do so.

I did not tell that church lady any of that. But often I wish I had.

Author Bio:: Hugh Hollowell is an embedded missionary to the homeless and very poor of Raleigh, North Carolina, where he lives with a temperamental cat named Felix and tries to prove that Love Wins.

Image “To Be Homeless” by PaysImaginaire




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Comments

Viewing 28 Comments

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    I thoroughly agree and that story resonates with me. I was reading Mountains Beyond Mountains, and although Paul Farmer story only shows a loose belief in Catholicism, the priests, nuns, and organizations he continually comes in contact with echo the same sentiment: we are here to do it, if we see someone who needs help or see injustices committed before our eyes, it is our call as followers of Christ to love. Love in ACTION. Saying "I love you" or "Jesus loves you" isn't unnecessary, it just does not DO anything to change current situations that are unjust, inhumane. That is why we are here, we are the body of Christ. Thanks for this story.
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    How insightful... and moving. Hugh is not only obviously a rather engaging writer, but a bit theologian and prophet as well.

    It seems obvious that we have embraced a God that will rock us to sleep; making us feel good about our lives rather overturn the tables in our temples and challenge us to sacrificial love. Love may or may not "win" -but it certainly is the obedient journey and response.

    Hugh troubles my mind and my faith. May God continue to use you to challenge my every simple and traditional view of the way of Jesus.
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    Hugh, what a sad story, it is played out before Suzanne and I as we hang out with homeless friends each week. We have the interesting shift of being with our poor friends and right afterwards going to our church community of fairly well off people. It is sometimes tough. Yes, our church does support the poor, more than most I know. But we do long for more of them to engage this Jesus who really radically challenged our comforts. I have been in places I have never thought I would have because of my faith in Jesus. May He continue to take me to places, I really don't want to go to.
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    Hard hitting stuff. I like this honest, straight-forward style. I won't try to "guess" what God's plan was for Evelyn but I do agree with Hugh that we can do so, so much more for the homeless in our communities. And, it is such an easy thing to do if we just allocate a small amount of time and a small amount of our resources. It truly is a matter of our will. Good stuff. Keep it coming.
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    • v
    Thank you, I agree. Every time we want to ask the question, "Why did God let this happen?" maybe we should start by asking "Why did we let this happen?"
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    • v
    Thanks so much for this post, having worked in the inner-cities I resonate very strongly with this story. About five or six years ago I would have been defensive about this story, but I think that this is sooooo important. Thank you.
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    I think that when you tell this story in churches, you should absolutely talk about God's plan and how we screw it up, and the problems with the all-too-common "how could God have allowed this to happen" type of thinking. I don't think you necessarily have to do it in a finger-shaking, angry way (though I can certainly understand your anger), but I do think you should make it clear that the problem here is not that God is some horrible, uncaring God, it's that we are people who, as you note, lack the will to be the people God would have us to be.

    Would this mean you don't get invited back to some churches? Maybe. I've certainly been a part of churches that would much rather spend their time praying than spend their money on poor people. But I've also been a part of churches that are trying desperately to figure out how to deal with the fact they they have so much when others have so little. If you don't ever tell them the second half of your story, how will they ever figure it out?

    I firmly believe that God put us here to be his hands and feet, and I also believe that God put some of us here to be his voice. And you, Jeremiah, may be one of those voices.
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    • v
    hmmm...very true, I've often thought the Church isn't stepping up as it should...it happens in spurts and pockets, yes, but shouldn't it be more of a lifestyle?

    Thanks for writing this Hugh.
    • ^
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    Thanks for this thought provoking article. It would be a shame to think "poor Evelyn" and stop there, and Hugh doesn't let us do that. Hugh reminds us that there are many more "Evelyn's" and those in different but equally desperate circumstances.

    We walk past them daily - sometimes on the street, sometimes in our work places, sometimes even in our own families.

    Hugh, keep challenging the church (which means you and me) to be God's hands to the Evelyn's we encounter daily.
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    Yes, yes, a thousand thousand yesses! Embedded! Yes!

    This brings back to memory the essay that first brought me to JesusManifesto: "go as poor among the poor…" written August 7, 2008 by Mark Van Steenwyk at http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/category/doxis/

    Then we can share, not give, not take, but share together as equals with Christ himself and see his glory! not spiritually, but in flesh and blood before us and there we we can and may as we care commanded to worth-ship him. God be blessed for having created Evelyn, and blessed be Evelyn for her witness in short her life, her death and life and Christ. God be blessed for having created Hugh, and his witness the Conquering Love!. And God be blessed for all who by their being who they are, as they are, manifest Christ in our world! Thanks Mark for posting Hugh's article.
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    Hugh,

    I agree with you that "God’s plan was to put us here to be his hands and feet". However, I cannot agree with the idea that action is what was necessary and not prayer. The will to do something about such problems generally comes from a heart that prayerfully considers those in need. Evelyn's problems were not merely a lack of physical provision. They started long before she ever got out on the street. Evelyn's problems needed prayer to break the spiritual bondage she was experiencing.

    I'm also not sure about the claim that we have the resources to help people like Evelyn, just not the will to do so. I am a stay-at-home mom. The resources our family has needed to raise three sons, to give them the attention and discipline they have needed, to provide them with an education and skills so that they can take care of them selves when they reach adulthood has been considerable. And I didn't do it all myself! It is much more difficult and costly to undo damage or poor training than it is to do it well the first time. Considering how many poor, disadvantage, or abused persons there are, I'm just not convinced that if the whole Church were to focus on ministering to the poor that we would really have the resources to do an adequate job. I don't mean to say we shouldn't minister to the poor, just that we should remind ourselves of the grace Jesus gave us when he said the poor will be with you always.

    Also, as much as doing unto others is doing unto Jesus, when actions become our criteria for our faith, it ceases to be faith. The Pharisees were notorious for giving alms to the poor.
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    Wow Hugh. Hard-hitting, especially "If you spend much time working in the inner-city, you try not to ask yourself those kind of questions–not because you don’t know what the answer is, but because you do."

    Wow. So very true. And convicting.
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    I hope this story haunts all of us in the way it should. Thank you for writing this. My prayer for you and our church is that we "never grow weary of doing good".

    May the Lord's will be done.
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    Thanks for painting a picture for us of the life of a modern-day story much like the events found in the parable of the Good Samaritan (which could also be called the parable of the Self-Righteous Priest or the Calloused-Heart Levite). It makes me wonder what I have done or what I could do, as part of Christ's body on earth, for the Evelyns of this world.
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    Go to any men's or women's retreat in America and you'd think the overall purpose in a Christian's life is to serve his or her spouse and his or her family (and maybe save some souls if there's still time left over). Somehow family values have become more "Christian" than biblical values according to the teachings and actions of every church I have ever been to. Maybe I'm wrong, but has anyone ever been to a men's retreat where they focused on the passage where Jesus says that "If a person comes to me, but will not leave his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, or sisters, then that person cannot be my follower"? Instead we live in a culture where most Christian's think that it's noble to "Focus On The Family". When I read the bible, I just don't see it. Until someone is ready to give up the values of our culture and take on the values of Jesus, he or she will never take on the problems of someone like Evelyn. And in turn, God will continue to allow people like Evelyn to live such horrible lives.

    I remember hearing a story about a friend who said to his wife, "Hey, remember when we used to always talk about changing the world?"
    His wife responded, "Yeah, I do remember. What happened?"
    "We got married and then we bought this house instead."

    I think Hugh is very correct in thinking that there are truths out there that most people aren't willing to listen to.
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    Hugh, You article is very well written. I could picture Evelyn and your interactions with her. I could also picture your interaction with the women at the church.

    As far as the second part, on the whole I agree with you, but I also have some questions and thoughts that if you want to get invited back you may want to consider :)

    1) Be upfront with this question and your answer. I think an honest wrestling with what this does to you, those you speak with and obviously those who have commented here is an important thing to bring to light. Its hard to look at our sinfulness square in the face, but I believe that is what following Christ allows us to do. Then, we can do something about it.

    2) Then, say folks agree with you... say we believe that we are God's plan... he is waiting on us... he is answering our prayers through equipping us to do his work... how do we decide what our part is? There are so many problems in our world that need to be addressed. There are so many times that I ask, why is this happening? I don't think everyone can do everything, but everyone can do something... if you could help people discern or start a process of discerning what their piece is in this larger body of Christ and how they can pursue that... I think it would be helpful. One of the reasons that I think we don't do anything sometimes is because it is so overwhelming. You recently helped us a Jubilee consider how we could start breaking our problem down into steps that we can take. This was really helpful. It would be helpful to do this type of thing along side of waking people us to what it means to follow Jesus with our lives as well as with our words.

    3) One of things that I noticed from your writing is kind of a condescending attitude towards "church people". I may just be reading into things, but it seems like you are a bit skeptical that people will actually listen to you if tell them the truth. When you were talking with us on Monday, you told us that one of the things that we needed to be prepared to do was to suspend judgment while we were working with people. I think this may be an area where you need to do the same thing. Can you help those you are talking with connect their heartfelt praying desire for justice and freedom to the action and call that Jesus has given us? I wonder if doing this with a positive spin will help us to operate out of the grace and freedom that Christ brings to us in ways that bring redemption and hope to the world around us?

    These are just my thoughts... take them for what they are worth.
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    @Maria: I simply do not believe in praying for what we already have. It would be much like praying that the lights stay on, when you have the money to pay the bill and do not. It was not 'spiritual bondage' that made Evelyn hungry, it was lack of food. I do think, however, that there is something spiritual causing our lack of concern for her, and others like her.

    A conversation, an hour of your afternoon, peanut butter sandwiches for two so you can share them with someone who has less than you, a ride to the grocery, an afternoon your family spends in the park with a family that has less than your family does... these cost virtually nothing, and it is a much greater lesson for your three children than many they could learn in church. I am not saying we write checks. Instead, we build relationships, we love our neighbor (funny concept, no?) and get out of our little comfortable bubbles.

    Ignoring the theology behind the statement of Jesus that 'The poor will always be among you' for a minute, I would like to point out that in many , but not all, churches, the poor are nowhere to be found. They are not 'among us' at all. I think we will have to answer for that.

    As for your last line: tell me about your faith--I will show you mine. (James 2:18)
    • ^
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    Hugh,

    I appreciate what you are trying to do. You seem to assume that somehow I haven't reached out in a tangible way to those who have less, the poor, the desperate. I get the impression that you think that writing checks is less valuable than sharing a peanut butter sandwich. There are some lessons you can learn in the field and there are others that need a class room. There is a time and a place for ministering to the poor, and there is also a time to be lavish and waste expensive perfume on someone's feet.

    Yes, faith produces actions, but faith is not measured by actions. This was one of Jesus' squabbles with the pharisees. They wanted to be faithful, so they made all these rules about their actions. We can easily criticize the pharisees and not see how we are doing the same kind of thing in different circumstances and call it faith.

    Not everyone who has mental problems or weight problems or has suffered abuse behaves the way Evelyn did. Yes, she was hungry because she lacked food, but that is a superficial problem. You could feed her today, tomorrow, and the next,... and she would still have underlying problems that make it difficult for her to take care of herself. These problems have a spiritual component for which prayer and fasting on our part are keys to helping her to overcome.

    I am not suggesting that we pray for things that we already have. But praying for others convicts us, builds in us compassion, and gives us wisdom to know what the best way to minister is. We need to know when we are being selfish, and when we are trying to play hero. We need to know how to be as gentle with ourselves as we are with others. We need to release all the hostility we have for the unfairness of it all. We need to understand when to help those in need and can't help themselves, and when to withhold from those who are lazy and need some motivation to work. Praying helps us to align our priorities to be God's priorities. Praying allows the Spirit to work in ways we cannot imagine.

    The whole point to allow God to work through us. If we aren't praying, how will we know how he wants to work? Yes, there are many times when he asks us 'what is in your hand?' But if we're not praying, it is very likely we will strike the rock twice and make it look as if it was through our power that salvation was brought. We will lead others to the promised land, but not be allowed to enter ourselves.
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    @Traci - Thank you for your comments. Perhaps the last line in my article did not make it clear, but I was regretting my not doing most of the things you mentioned in your comment. In short, the article was a criticism of me, as well as the apathy i see in the church.

    I wish (as I stated in my article) that I had told that lady the truth. I wish I had explained that it is not we who are waiting on God to come through, but he that is waiting on us. I wish I had been more vocal, cared less about my being invited back and more concerned about speaking the truth.

    As for #3, I love having conversations with church people about how to move forward and love people. I am willing (as you have seen) to rearrange my schedule, drop things at a minutes notice and move mountains, if need be, to have those conversations. Sadly, all too few (in my experience) wish to have those conversations, and fewer wish to act on those conversations after having them.

    Angry toward church people? Being told time after time that there is no budget to help these people while the same church is in the middle of a building campaign will make you bitter that way. This is something God is working on in me. I pray that one day with his help I will overcome it.

    Thank you again for your comments and the spirit in which you shared them.
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    Thanks for including me in this conversation Hugh. Its important for us all to get encouragement to face our fears and think about how to overcome them. You are a strong voice for my community and many others and I hope that you will continue to be as real with these struggles as you were in this article. This is the type of thing that we need to wrestle with.

    ps. i emailed you too!
    • ^
    • v
    people do not need pity, but mercy. they are very different and from what you say, that lady did not love herself. yes we are to love people, but people have to take responsibility for their choices. yes, we probably could have done more, but as the church, we cannot make people change...they must have the will to do so.
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    I understand that one does need the will to change, but how do you know this person didn't have it? How do you know it wasn't taking all of her resources to get through the day? If she was just heavy laden, was she not entitled to a little rest? I'm not convinced the church's role is to change people, but to love them.
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    Lisa Creech Bledsoe 1 month ago
    Thanks, Hugh, for a powerful, painful, and true story. We need to be reminded that we ARE God's plan for people like Evelyn. When we hear our failure to be the church named, it should call us to confession, but even more it should call us to change, grow, and make the effort to befriend the next Evelyn sooner and more lovingly.
    • ^
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    i'm glad that i was indirectly directed to this site to read your thoughts...i often wrestle with the question of which group of people in the world is the most important to work with and minister to...i don't know that's there's a good answer to that, but i do know that those who don't even have the basic necessities are on my heart more often than not.

    thanks and nice to meet you!
    • ^
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    a short policy comment: there is a progressive version of the flat tax that gives people income transfers that wd help them earn enough overall to afford better living quarters and to get married.

    Its been advocated at usbig for sometime.
    http://www.usbig.net/

    This'll never undo the need for us to love people like Evelyn, but it can spread the economic duty more equitably for us to value all citizens apart from their earnings ability.

    dlw
    dlw
    • ^
    • v
    I had a conversation with a friend recently about how even when we think we know what it is that God asks of us, we are still hesitant to challenge others in this life of servitude. We somehow feel that we don't have the right to ask that much of people. I think we need to remember that it is not us asking. We are simply the vessels, the mouthpiece of God, and He is the one doing the asking.
    • ^
    • v
    Hugh,
    Thanks for sharing this important message. I agree, we are the hands and feet of Christ and we must be about our Father's business... If there is failure, it is within us,,, again I say thank you for putting a face on the plight of the homeless and making us look at the reality of the poor.
    • ^
    • v
    Perhaps society needs to be completely remodeled - so that all essential health services are freely available to those that need them. Governments would have to serve the people, and not business interests. Creating free public hospitals and mental health residential units would be a start. But, that sounds like communism, or perhaps Utopia. I don't know - what is the answer? My late husband died with mental health issues. Caring for the mentally unwell, is a task that is beyond the resources of individuals – perhaps, it is a task that is even beyond the Church?
 

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