Someone Stole George! – In memory of George Westerlin, veteran of WWII
Not all shepherding visits are by two Elders making formal calls. Many, maybe the majority, are one-on-one sessions where an Elder talks privately with an individual, often someone in the Elder’s Book Study Group, and just as often an Elder simply decides for personal reasons he wants to try and help a JW.
Sister Nancy: She was younger attractive and single sister, somewhat resembling Maria Shriver on TV news. She often lived with other sisters, usually an elderly sister. She did this in a mutually beneficial way, where she provided help and companionship in return for very low rent. Though at times Nancy seemed a little odd, she was a caring person, like the kind that Ray Franz spoke of who are Christian, not because of the organization, but in spite of it. She was in my book study group, and frequently sought my advice and help with issues.
Nancy’s Bible Study: One evening, after book study, Nancy pulled me aside to ask for some help with a Bible Study. She had encountered a man who was living in a convalescent home. She said he was "somewhat" infirm, but enjoyed studying with her, and appeared to have a sharp mind. She wanted a ‘brother’ on the study so that it would not appear inappropriate, and so that the man would not get too dependent on her. I agreed to help out and attend the Study.
Driving up to the Convalescent Home: I envisioned an older man, maybe in his late 70s early 80s who was mentally with the program, but confined with physical limitations. I figured this would be a good way to be supportive of Nancy, help an old man have some hope of a paradise earth, and maybe turn into a very positive experience. Yes, of course, time reporting occurred to me as yet another way to spend one more hour or two in productive discussion, rather than knocking on doors where no one was at home.
Final Preparation: As I arrived, Nancy was there waiting at the entrance for me. She stopped me to tell me that there are a couple of things I need to know about George. He was in his mid-60s (I think about 66 or 67), a WWII veteran, and drooled a lot. Okay, I thought, this is fine, a little drool never bothered me. She then said that he was found in San Francisco, homeless, and dying on the street. Many years of heavy drinking and street life had taken a serious toll on his body and ability to speak clearly. He had been out of touch with his family, and he could only remember his son, but had lost track of where his son lived as his memory was failing too.
Meeting George: After walking through several corridors, I stepped into an open area, like an oversized living room, with several couches, a large TV, and toy boxes for visiting children. The smell was typical of such places and reminded me of a nearby convalescent home where my dad lived. I looked over near a large picture window and saw a man drooped over in a wheel chair. Drool coming from his mouth onto a bib that extended from his collar to cover over his lap. The drool also included some colorful stuff not consistent with pure saliva.
I walked up to George, and Nancy gently touched his unshaven face to alert him that we were there. As George looked up, she asked if he was okay, and he nodded yes and slurred out something that sounded like he said he was fine. She introduced us, and he extended his shaking and gnarled twisted left hand. His right side did not function due to a stroke. We both engaged a manly grasp, and he said he was pleased to meet me.
George tells his story: He was only to eager to spend time talking first before any Bible Study, so I listened. He had been a fighter pilot in WWII. On one occasion his plane was shot down, forcing him to bail out while being shot at by enemy fighters. He had some war wounds in his side and legs to show off. He said that after the war he got married and worked in factory for a while. Eventually in the late 1950s his wife left him and took the children. He lost his job, and worked odd jobs from time to time trying to get back on his feet. But by the mid 1960s he was on the streets for good. He did not remember being found or brought to our town. He could not recall his last name, and his wallet had been stolen, so the Convalescent home was having difficulty finding his family or other public records. That night, the nurse walked in to say that they found his military record and had also found his son, and that arrangements were being made for him to travel from the east coast to visit. George was happy, but I could see he had mixed feelings, because he was ashamed of his condition.
Reflections on life: Here, I sat in front of this broken man, feeling a sense of guilt because while I had serious events happen in my life, I was doing well by comparison. Now as a JW, and in a elder-shepherding role with Nancy, I felt this obligation, this sense of duty to do something for this man. Of course, as a JW, I could not think of a finer gift than to help this man have hope that one day his life would be restored in paradise. I felt lucky that my health and circumstances were as good as they are, for any number of events could have caused me to be on the streets as he was. Life seemed so cruel, unfair, and unpredictable.
Nancy ask for more help with George: We never got into the book study that night. But Nancy asked George if he would like to attend a meeting at the Kingdom Hall. George jumped at the chance. He said that the place was a hell hole, and he was desperate to get out and see something else besides a bunch of old sick people. We all had a good laugh.
Nancy then looks at me and says that her car is too small, and she does not have the strength to help George from his wheel chair into the car. She said that since I had a van, maybe I could help George. Okay, I agreed, but I quietly felt uncomfortable.
Sunday arrives: I drive up to the front where Nancy is there with George. She had him checked out for a few hours. She wanted to take him to lunch after the meeting. I agreed to that too since my van would have to be used. We rolled George up to the front passenger side, and I lifted George up with a front hug and moved him to the seat. While this was happening, his bib slipped off, and then several colors of drool, some yellow stuff and what looked like blood came out and got onto his pants and my suit jacket. Nancy got his pants cleaned up, and I was able to clean my suit off ... but the odor lingered. George profusely apologized in almost tears. We reassured him that is was okay.
The Kingdom Hall – Mixed reviews: When helping such people, one gets a sense that this is the test of our Christian spirit, regardless of what religious affiliation we have. I was by no means a hero here, because I felt kind of cornered by Nancy ... as she was the real hero, the one with a Christian spirit who was teaching me – though I did not fully comprehend it at the time.
Several JWs passed us by as we rolled George across the lot into the Hall. But as we got to the entrance, some JW women came up to greet George, and a few brothers did too. George enjoyed meeting some people, getting some extra attention, no matter who they were. We set George up at the rear and Nancy got a folding chair to sit with him. I excused myself to go off and do Elder stuff.
The meeting went as usual as JW meetings go, the typical Public Talk and Watchtower Study. All the while Nancy holding the song book or magazine for George, or helping him find scriptures during the talk. George had several drool sessions where Nancy had to get up and get a wash cloth and clean George's face and hands.
Meeting in the back room: As things go, when something even remotely out of the ordinary happens, some Elder will get nervous and want to talk to those involved. This situation was no different, and shortly after the meeting, an Elder pulled me into the back room to discuss this ‘situation.’ I was asked what I thought I was doing bringing a ‘guy like that’ to the Kingdom Hall. I explained that he was Nancy’s study and she was trying to involve the me as a brother and get George to the Hall as sisters are supposed to do that with male Bible Studies.
I was told that we were wasting our time, and that I have to be careful because Nancy is always doing weird stuff like this. Then, the bombshell, the Elder stated that George is too infirm and will never make it into the organization ... he would be better off left at the Convalescent home to spend his last days there in constant care ... in case something goes wrong ... and he will be resurrected into the New System ... whereas we should concentrate our time out in Field Service calling on people who can one day be functional JWs.
I was stunned: I told the Elder, who I considered a good friend, “No, I did not enjoy being a part of this help for George ... but how could I say no. He was a good man who got dealt a bad set of cards in life ... and even if he cannot be a full part of the program, surely he deserved whatever help we could give ... and he deserves to have some hope in life.” I was cautioned to be careful, and think about this seriously, and be prepared to waste a lot of my time. Because I had mixed feelings, I did not make a stronger defense ... shame on me, but that is bluntly how it was.
Returning George: After loading George back into the van, Nancy told me that he was not up to lunch. I felt kind of relieved because I just wanted to go home and enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon with the family. Upon returning George to the Convalescent home, the nursing staff greeted us. They expressed a lot of appreciation for our interest in George. When we returned George to his room, and Nancy discovered his JW books missing, and the Kingdom melody tape gone. ... One nurse did not like JWs, and decided to remove any JW material, and tossed it into the trash. She was a member of a local Baptist church and we would soon discover what this would mean.
Our next Bible Study: This time we actually had as prayer and got into the book. George read very well, and he easily answered the questions, but then hammered me with more questions and speculations, and before long we went off onto tangents ... and nearly 2 hours went by. George had a good mind, even with a stroke and poor health and bad memory, but he could really talk, and engage in debate. I could see he was enjoying himself ... yet when Nancy spoke, he would listen with a sense of reverence. I suspect that he was taken with her ... and did not want to upset her with debate ... but with me, a man, he could dish it out ... it was kind of fun ... as good as any JW Bible Study can get.
The following Sunday - George is Stolen!: I arrived again to pick up George, and Nancy was waiting again at the front entrance, this time in tears. When I asked what was wrong, she said that someone stole George. “Stole George? How do you steal a man in a wheel chair?” The nurse at the check out desk said that some man came in and took George and did not sign him out. The man had showed up and left about 20 minutes before we arrived. The nurse knew nothing more. I asked about calling the police, but she referred us to another nurse who seemed to know something.
Nancy Explodes! The other Nurse was the one who had taken George’s books and tapes. She said that her pastor had taken George to Church and that we did not need to come around anymore. She said that George decided to be a Christian and did not believe in the JWs at all.
Nancy went off on her, and told the Nurse that she was rude and insensitive. Knowing all along that Nancy was standing there thinking that George was stolen and did not tell her sooner, letting her worry. She said that she did not believe her about George's intentions, and that she wanted to hear it straight from George as to what he wanted. The Nurse walked off in a huff. Nancy and I left, and agreed to some back after the meeting, and see if we could talk to George ourselves.
The Baptist Pastor: We arrived back from the meeting and still no George. So we waited for a while trying to decide what to do. We finally decided to leave when we saw a van pull up, with a handicap lift with all the trimmings ... and there was George being lowered. His head slumped, and drool coming out onto his pants. He did not have his bib.
The Pastor and a young man rolled George into the entry, and we walked up to greet George. The Pastor stopped me and said I was not to talk to George as he was going to be a Christian now, and we should leave. George looked up at Nancy and apologized, saying he had no choice, they just took him without asking. He started to look to me, when the Pastor told me to get out of the way ... but before I could move, the Pastor rolled over my shoes ... and told me I was going to hell unless I repented of my religion ... I asked him to stop a minute ... and he just shook his head as he rolled George off and refused to talk.
Nancy was so stunned she would not talk. This was unusual for her not to have something to say.
We continued our Study: Somehow, the Nurse backed off ... I think because Nancy threatened to report her for allowing George to be taken by the Pastor without properly signing him out. George enjoyed the studies which were mostly discussion, recalling the past, and debate ... but his health was clearly declining fast ... and he was not allowed out of the home again. His son came to visit, but decided to let George stay there rather than have him transferred.
The Last Day: I arrived as usual for the study with George ... but this time Nancy was at the front again in tears. I asked what was wrong. George had passed away earlier in the day. We walked into his room, and the bed was already stripped, the smell of cleaner told me they had already washed everything down. Cards and little things that Nancy had made and given to George were all in a box. There was nothing else of value. Nancy just sobbed. There would be no funeral, not even a memorial was scheduled at the Baptist Church where George had been taken for services. We could not even think about any JW memorial, because George was not baptized and not really a recognized member at the Kingdom Hall. All I could do was speak consolingly to Nancy.
In Memory of George Westerlin: Nancy had studied with George about 3 or 4 months or so. I had been involved less than a month. Yet somehow, as short an experience as this was, it left a mark on me ... recalling my earlier life as a Catholic and how we as Christians were supposed to care for those in need, especially widows, orphans, fatherless boys ... and I have to include a man whose life was shattered by terrible events, whose life would likely be forgotten, whose life was one of many who served their nation in WWII ... but who was now a man whose life brought him to the homeless streets in San Francisco, and whose life quietly ended in a Convalescent home. I can only say now, that George, your are remembered. While life did not bring you better things is unfair, yet you were always kind to us, fun to talk to, and you are loved.
The raw stuff of Christianity: As JWs, our focus and mission was on marketing a nice sounding message coupled with marketing an organization ... it calls itself Christian ... it likes to believe it is true, pure Christianity. This experience of observing Nancy, a caring JW women who tried to be, and is, Christian, says that there is so much more to life and Christianity than some unfeeling mechanical organizational system ... but that a Christian in the likeness of Christ is what a person IS in their own heart ... and goes with them everywhere and anywhere ... regardless of affiliation and association.
This experience registered as something that made me appreciate many JWs and people of other faiths for their quiet sacrifices and service to those most in need. They do not get promoted or much recognition ... and often end up forgotten themselves ... but these, like Nancy ... are the real everyday heroes whose love and attention bring some sanity to this life.