Thursday, June 30, 2005

A sacred trust

It isn't every day that somebody I've never met calls me to say that they have thirty minutes until the bank forecloses on their house, and they need over three thousand dollars to save it.

OK, I admit, today is the first time that ever happened to me.

The call came totally out of the blue. Before I even had time to say hello, there was a seventy-year old woman pleading with me to help her, that she was about to lose her home of forty-six years that she and her husband built with their own hands. She was a member of my church years ago, though I've never met her.

So I told her I'd see what could be done. The first thing I did was to call her bank, hoping that things weren't as dire as she was claiming. Unfortunately, they were. I got on with the vice president of the bank, who told me that, yes, indeed, they were foreclosing on her house in twenty minutes.

"Sir, I am pleading with you to give me twenty-four hours to see if our church can get together the funds to make this payment, so we don't have to put a seventy year old woman on the street."

"I can't do that."

That is so fucked up. How do you live with yourself? How do you sleep at night?

"Sir, isn't there anything you can do? You are, after all, the vice president. You must have some authority."


"I'll give you till five o'clock."

So I started making phone calls. I called the church, and some people I know, and a couple of church organizations. I got some resistance. I didn't know this woman, but some other people did, and the whole story started tumbling out.

"...son is a doctor, but he's a drug addict and out of work..."

"...daughter isn't working, can't hold down a job..."

"...we've been through this before with her..."

But after I talked to people for a minute, I noticed something interesting. They told me "No. No, I don't think so. No, I don't think this is a good idea. No. OK, how much?" It really didn't take all that much persuading. People had reservations, but ultimately, nobody thought a seventy year old woman on the street was a good solution to this problem. Everybody knew this wasn't a perfect situation, but everybody wanted to get involved anyway. I was so proud of them.

By two o'clock, I had promises and pledges for most of the money.

Now came the hard part. I had promised those who agreed to donate that I would drive down and talk to this woman, and see if there was any realistic hope that, if we helped her this time, she would be able to go on making the payments. I knew the neighborhood she lived in from the address, a run-down, lousy part of town. Her house was poorly maintained, with a broken-down Jeep out front. Inside, her son's medical diplomas were hanging on the wall, an impressive collection, many with "cum laude" and other additional honors. She told me her son was in the hospital, that he had been in and out of the hospital for the past several months. She told me she had mortgaged the house to pay his medical bills. I asked her if she had a copy of the latest mortgage statement from the bank. She brought it over to me, and my jaw dropped.

The principle balance was over $450,000.

My head was spinning. I had assumed this was a $50,000 or maybe a $100,000 mortgage. I had assumed that the money she owed was payments she had missed over at least two months. Turns out it was just one month's back payment from the month of April. She has income of about $600 a month from Social Security. There is no way she can handle these payments herself. And I'm not really sure she has any more equity to squeeze out of the house. Was her son really in the hospital? Did the money really go for doctor bills? Or just a serious cocaine binge? All the blow you can snort for, say, six months?

She kept assuring me that her son would be back from the hospital tomorrow, that he would take care of everything else, if we could just help her this one time, just this one time. While she was talking, a tape was playing in my mind.


drug addict




will take care of it

I walked out of there with no idea what to do. The money people had pledged was a sacred trust. That money could be used for other people in need, other situations just as dire, just as urgent as this one, maybe more. People were counting on me to make a good decision. If I spent this money, and all it ended up buying was another month before foreclosure, then it was all a waste.

I went back to my office, and stared at my phone for half an hour. And then I picked it up and made the call.

I was 4:33 PM.

Did I do the right thing? I don't know. I honestly don't know. But there is one thing I do know.

I will be able to sleep tonight.


Mimi said...

That's a rough situation. I think you handled it beautifully, but maybe it is time for her to sell the house?

My heart hurts, all I can offer is my humble prayers.

Anonymous said...

Time for her to declare bankruptcy - yikes!