In my neck of the woods the Catholic contribution to the liberal welfare state is the Dorothy Day Center (DDC), a long, one-story brick affair skulking in the shadow of the St. Paul Cathedral. Straddling the I-94 freeway and the Greyhound Bus Depot, the DDC is a convenient location for the largest concentration of pure characters in the Twin Cities: vagrants, drunks, addicts, criminals, professional hobos, the mentally ill, and more of the same just arriving on their one way bus tickets from Chicago, and Gary Indiana.
In addition to being a hub for underground commerce (that is, drug deals), the DDC offers “three hots and a cot” – meals and a mat to sleep on in the winter – to all comers. That’s where Carlton was hanging out until he started carving tattoos into his forearms, talking about slitting people’s throats, and following female staff. Social justice Catholics help the homeless until things get ugly, then they turn people like Carlton over to people like me.
The deal was that Carlton would go voluntarily to the local psych ward if I helped him pick up his clothes first. I didn’t trust it, but I wasn’t the one who made the deal – the DDC folks rolled Carlton at me like a big, bad penny. I remember our receptionist’s grateful look when I hustled him out of our lobby onto the street. He loped along next to me, a secret smile on his face. I’d seen that look before. It happens when the voices get more real than reality.
In my car he pointed at a little statue on the dashboard – “that’s Momma Mary.” We got to his friend’s house, a weathered duplex. Carlton went inside the front door, and out through the back. After waiting a couple of minutes I knew Carlton had given me the slip, but I stayed until I’d finished praying the Rosary, for him and the others.
I knew I’d see Carlton again, and when he ended up in the psych ward I paid him a visit. I reminded him of how he scammed me. He laughed and apologized. I smiled back and told him I was arranging a vacation for him at the state hospital. Usually this bothers people, but Carlton liked the hospital. He’d stayed at worse places, like the Southern prison he never wanted to talk about.
In my line of work we are expected to fix people. Sometimes we can. Other times its like mending spokes on a broken wheel that never rolls straight. Carlton was one of the broken wheels. He came from a broken family, and it became a habit; he kept breaking every chance he had at keeping a roof over his head. Three group home placements failed because Carlton couldn’t play by the rules, at least not for long. Eventually he’d start doing drugs. Then he‘d steal from and bully his peers to get money to do more drugs.
Finally I sent him out of town to a cabin in the western Minnesota woods. Carlton didn’t like all the trees, or the way things got so quiet at night. After he was caught trying to steal a van he barricaded himself in the medication office. The local sheriff extricated him. They brought Carlton back to St. Paul, in shackles, and dropped him off at the emergency room at St. Joseph’s Hospital. I sent him back to the state hospital.
Eventually I found another group home who would take him. They got Carlton his own apartment and helped him move in. Someone came over every night to watch him take the medication that dulled the voices in his head. I’d come over once a month to buy groceries for him and tell him to quit doing drugs with the home boys. The last time I saw him alive I threatened him with another trip to the state hospital if he didn’t straighten out. Carlton got mad, then asked me for a ride home. On the way to his place Carlton warned me we were driving through a bad part of town. “There’s a lot of blacks around here,” he said nervously. It was a curious remark, since Carlton was black.
Two days later Carlton was at a friend’s apartment. The friend stuck a knife in Carlton’s chest because he didn’t like the way Carlton was whispering under his breath. Later the friend said he was surprised Carlton didn’t stab him back. According to him, Carlton pulled the knife out of his chest, told his friend he didn’t want to hurt him, and ran out the door with the knife. The police followed the blood to a nearby house. It was there that the blood, and Carlton’s life, ended.
The funeral was at a local Baptist church. It looked like it had been a Catholic church once. There were a few panes of stained glass, wings off the main church where side altars used to be, and tall dark paneling where confessionals once stood. A table replaced the altar and a choir replaced the tabernacle. Everyone who spoke at the open microphone was convinced Carlton was in heaven, although reasons for this location were not given.
A somber, dignified minister seemed to think otherwise, but limited his remarks to noting that Carlton died well, and that, no, the black community was not going to make an issue out of Carlton’s assailant being white. Violent death had changed Carlton’s appearance, and I found myself looking at a man I barely recognized. Probably the most useful thing I ever did for Carlton happened at the funeral. I prayed for his soul.
Its a bad sign when people you know end up on the front page because of the way they died. It happened with Carlton, and then with Gina. I’d worked with her for awhile in another county. She was a product of Catholic high school, but she had to ask me the words to the Hail Mary prayer. I told her, and encouraged her to visit the Blessed Sacrament at a church near our office between client appointments. Gina was sincerely religious, but she’d fallen away from the Church after her parents divorced. Fervent in everything she did, she became a fervent Protestant who occasionally attended Mass at a charismatic Catholic church. Yet she kept some Catholic instincts, and lived virtuously. Maybe I imagined it, but she seemed to be turning towards a real faith when we parted ways. She came to mind from time to time as someone to pray for.
The last time I saw her alive she was excited about her upcoming marriage. Glenn was a Protestant, she said, and they were “negotiating” their religious beliefs. More than anything else Gina wanted to get married and have a family, so she ended up negotiating away her Catholicism. She married and about a year later gave birth to a baby girl.
The baby had health problems that could not be corrected. Gina’s distress grew when the infant started having seizures medication could not control. She started talking about killing her daughter so she (the baby) wouldn’t have to suffer anymore. Apparently no one took her seriously, including perhaps Gina herself. The baby died, and two days later Gina stole a handgun and rented a hotel room. She called Glenn and confessed to smothering their daughter with a pillow, and said she was now going to kill herself. Glenn and Gina’s family called all hotels in town, but didn’t find Gina’s hotel until the end of the day. By then it was too late to do anything but arrange a double funeral.
It was held at a strip mall, in a renovated space that used to be a supermarket my mother shopped at when I was growing up. There was nothing outside the main entrance that identified it as a church, just a street number. The inside of the church was dark, and not because of the funeral. The carpet was dark, the walls were dark. There were no religious symbols, not even a cross. In front there was a large stage, and a huge black curtain. Next to the stage was a small coffin and a larger one. Both were open. The baby looked like she was sleeping. Gina just looked dead.
Glenn stood in the back, behind the dozens of perfectly rowed chairs of black plastic and gleaming metal. He stared at the front of the room where his family lay in boxes. I went over to him. I tried to explain who I was and realized it didn’t matter. I groped, and then said, “It was to your credit that she loved you.” He turned his eyes from the stage onto me. Tears streamed silently down his face. I mumbled something well meaning and stupid, and left him alone.
In the middle of the church was a large walled off square filled with sound equipment. To the left was a raised platform where an expensive looking video camera rested on a tripod. The technical crew bounced back and forth between the two stations, checking sound and lighting. A soundtrack was playing a Natalie Merchant song. The chorus repeated “Thank you, thank you, I want to thank you.” It was intended as a tribute to Gina, who had many friends. As one of her friends I had a savage impulse to destroy both the song and the equipment that played it. The clarity of the music was remarkable, however. I suspect the video of the funeral was of similar high quality.
The funeral service was declared to be a celebration of Gina’s life. A few of her friends came up to the microphone and spoke well of her. They were all convinced she was in heaven with her baby and her Lord. I finished praying the Rosary for Glenn and Gina and made to leave. Then one of the pastors got up and finally admitted that some people were angry at Gina, and worried about where she might be. I stopped at the back and listened.
You have permission to be angry, the pastor said, but he urged us to move beyond that. As for where Gina was, well, he too was convinced she was in heaven because Gina had personally accepted Jesus as her Savior. Never underestimate God’s love, he told us. Would an infinitely loving God forsake one of his beloved children on a technicality? Impossible. I had never before heard a double murder called a technicality.
It was time to go, but I stopped in the lobby to look at several easels of pictures of Glenn, Gina, and their baby. They looked happy and content, smiling right into the camera. Glenn’s eyes were mild and kind. I wondered how long it would be before he looked that way again.
Carlton and Glenn had little in common. One was a ne’er do well with no permanent address for most of his life. The other was a young lawyer with a big house, a beautiful wife and the start of a family. What they shared was broken homes. Carlton broke all of his, and Glenn’s home was broken by Gina.
In a larger sense, however, both men were broken off from their eternal home. For if God is the ultimate reality, he was absent from both funerals I attended, lacking as they did any sense of reality. Is God really just an infinite, look-the-other way pillow that embraces everyone no matter what they have done in their lives? If he is, then it really doesn’t matter how we conduct ourselves here below. Heaven is an amoral elevator repeatedly dinging its way to the top floor. All you have to do is be patient.
Most of us sense that things don’t really work that way. Consequently, a religion that shrugs off serious sin as a technicality, or ignores it altogether, just doesn’t make sense. Such a religion has no justice, no standards of conduct, and provides no real reason to consider your life, or how you live it, as having any significance. I could understand someone going to either funeral I attended and leaving with a feeling of contempt for a God who didn‘t seem to stand for anything except love and hugs.
May God rest her tortured soul, I don’t think Gina believed in a marshmallow God either. I don’t pretend to know why she did what she did, but I guess she couldn’t endure her baby’s suffering, or persevere under the strain of helplessly witnessing it. She had always wanted a family, but what we want from life is often quite different once we finally get it. Even so, murder and suicide were the last things I would have expected from an outspoken pro-lifer like Gina. Perhaps post-partum depression, or something worse, affected her thinking. That doesn’t excuse what she did, but it may be a partial explanation. After she smothered her baby she realized the enormity of her deed. If her former clarity concerning right and wrong returned, this may have caused her to despair. Or perhaps the clarity led her to pass sentence, and execute judgment upon herself.
I like to think that if Gina had returned to a real faith this would have averted the insanity of her final days. Is that too easy an answer? Perhaps, but its clear that whatever religion she was practicing dissolved when it was needed the most. Ask her widowed husband, who is left to seek solace where he can find it. Solace will be as elusive as justice, if he remains true to the platitudes of his nondenominational warehouse religion.
My old confrere Carlton had five uncles and cousins who became Baptist ministers, but he was more intent on finding solace in drugs than his family’s religion. It was a deadly mistake, but maybe he thought he already knew enough about religion to not take it seriously. Or perhaps, when he realized he couldn’t take religion seriously, he gave up.
If that’s what happened, I know a lot of guys like Carlton. When times get tough, we look for the real religion. When we only get lies or half-truths we don’t doubt only the liars; we may begin to doubt our God-given instinct to search for our Creator. Anger can result. We may decide we hate God but what we really hate is being unable to find him, and having to put up with liars.
True religion provides ultimate truth. Truth is hard like life, but the hardness of truth is another word for justice, which provides its own solace, and an eternal lifeline for Carlton, for Glenn, and for all the broken home boys.
Copyright 2019, Moina Arcee