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How a “Homeless” Man’s Legacy Gift Changed My Life

By The Rev. Chris Harris

Back in the mid-2000s, I was a practicing lawyer and a newly-minted Christian. I had stumbled upon The Episcopal Church in a gay pride parade one afternoon and after giving it a try, discovered a church where I was not just welcomed but affirmed and celebrated as a beloved child of God – no conditions, no exceptions. This was truly good news to me, and it kept me coming back each week. Before long, I decided to be baptized and got involved in a few ministries, wanting to give back to a church that had given me so much.

Little did I know that about that time, the Cathedral I had been attending had received an unexpected, anonymous bequest which they had decided to use as seed money for a new staff position: Director of Congregational Development. And even less known to me, they had me in mind for the position! But after some serious prayer and discernment, I took the plunge, gave away my law practice to an associate, and joined the staff.

When I asked about the person who had made the bequest, I was told it was a “homeless” man who was a regular at our weekly evensong. As with many homeless folks who came into the downtown Cathedral, he was welcomed like anyone else and always treated with the dignity he rarely received on the street. The ushers told me how he would sit in the back of the church, barely saying a word to anyone. They would invite him to stay for a glass of sherry or a finger sandwich at the receptions that often followed, and he’d sometimes come, but he never filled out a welcome card or gave anyone his name. He just came each week to enjoy the sacred music and warm welcome of God’s people.

Until one day, he stopped coming.

A few months later, as I was settling into my new job, I received a phone call from a financial planner who had called to complain that his client, a Mr. JJ Dubois, had left the Cathedral a significant estate gift the prior year, but the family had never received any kind of acknowledgment or thank you note. Although I couldn’t find any record of the name in our database, I nevertheless apologized for the oversight and immediately called the family.

I ended up connecting with the daughter of the deceased, and she was eager to share her father’s story. When I asked why Mr. Dubois had left such a generous gift to a church in which he was never a member, she said she wasn’t sure herself. Her father had experienced a kind of nervous breakdown in the 1990s and “fell off the grid” — completely losing contact with his family on the east coast. It wasn’t until the police had found him after having died in his sleep that they discovered what had become of him. She explained that he had been a college professor and was quite successful, but because of his mental breakdown, he would have appeared pretty disheveled or even mistaken for a homeless person.

“Wait. Did you just say homeless?”

And then it hit me.

THIS was the same “homeless” man whose generous bequest had led to my hiring onto the church staff.

I was speechless for a moment, and when I finally spoke up, my voice cracked as I shared the other side of her father’s story with her. How her father was a regular at our evening services and how the ushers grew fond of him. I shared how her father had found a kind of spiritual home here where he was welcomed and cared for. And I shared how he must be smiling in heaven, knowing his gift had been used to hire someone whose very job was to help ensure that everyone who came through our doors would receive the same welcome as he did. Finally, I told her how his gift had changed my life and how his legacy would live on in my ministry.

That ministry would eventually lead to my ordination and later an invitation to the board of directors of the national evangelism ministry, Invite Welcome Connect, where we work to teach congregations around the country to offer that same unconditional welcome.

Oh and the disgruntled financial planner you ask?  We became friends and he eventually joined the Cathedral himself, becoming the head of…you guessed it — our planned giving committee!  (No kidding!)

And on it goes. This endless ripple effect of that one welcome, which led to that one gift, which led to one ministry, which contributed to an evangelism movement, helping to ensure that everyone who comes through the doors of the Episcopal Church, whoever they are, wherever they find themselves on the journey of life, would be not only welcomed but affirmed and celebrated as the beloved child of God we all are — no conditions, no exceptions.

I share this as it is just one of the countless ways that God uses our generosity and the legacy that we leave. Regardless of the size of your gift, God will use it to add to the ripple effect of the various ministries of God’s church to impact lives and spread God’s love in ways that we could never imagine, much less count. If you would like more information about how you can leave a lasting and possibly life-altering legacy gift to Christ Church Cranbrook, email me anytime. I would love to help you get started!

The Booth Legacy Society of Christ Church Cranbrook was established to recognize and celebrate those members who have named the church as a beneficiary of a planned gift of any kind (such as in a will, living trust, life insurance, pay on death account, annuity, charitable remainder trust, etc.). For more information or help getting started, please contact Rev. Chris Harris at charris@christchurchcranbrook.org or call 248-644-5210 x15

 


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