Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Thursday, August 4, 2016


CHRIST IN WINTER: Reflections on Faith for the Years of Winter

I’m listening to the OCR of “Forever Plaid.” They’re singing the “Chain Gang” song. It makes me think of Steve Clapp.

Steve said that when he was in the federal prison at Terre Haute, IN, the chain gang was the highlight of the year. It wasn’t exactly a chain gang. But occasionally prisoners were taken out to pick up litter along the highway. Steve said it was so delightful to be out, beyond the walls of “stony lonesome,” among the weeds of the ditches.

I had known Steve a little before he went to prison. I had spent time in that prison, as a volunteer chaplain while I was the Methodist campus minister in Terre Haute, to Indiana State University and Rose Polytechnic Institute [now Rose-Hulman]. I had a slight idea of how hard it was to do time there.

Steve had been a colleague, another Methodist minister in my conference [geographical area]. He was talented and personable. Among other things he was the counselor for the Conference Youth Fellowship. Both of our daughters were vice-president of that group in their high school years. They also had Steve as a camp counselor. They thought he was great.

Steve was an entrepreneur and visionary. When computers were very new, and most church people were hoping either that they would go away or be developed slowly enough that we would die or retire before we had to learn how to use them, Steve saw great possibilities for their use in the church. He did not get much response from church officials or colleagues, though, so he formed a company to provide computers to churches himself.

He borrowed the money to start the company. It wasn’t enough. He was soon in hock. He had to borrow more money. To do so he had to show solvency and so forged the signatures of his colleagues on contracts, saying they were going to buy computers for their churches. Of course, this became known. He was tried, found guilty of fraud, and sent to prison.

He ran, went “on the lam.” He was pretty good at hiding from the police, but not good enough, of course. Off to prison. That was when I began to write to him.

It was about all I could do. I tried to send him books but could not, because I might hide files in their spines. I tried to send him postage stamps but could not because I might put LSD on the licking side. I tried to send him money, but could not because I was not family.

But he appreciated my letters, and he always wrote back. When his sentence was up, he was released to the support of Church of the Brethren friends in another state. He knew I was on chemo for cancer. He borrowed a car and came to see us. He told us stories of prison life, how his mother died while he was in prison. He prayed with me. We talked about what he would do next. He wanted to write a book about prison reform. We gave him money for a copy.

Always the entrepreneur, soon Steve had started another company, Christian Community, publishing books for churches, on everything from stewardship to youth work to ushering. They also published an excellent line of sympathy cards. Steve did consulting to churches on the same subjects as the books Christian Community published. He was a good consultant, good at helping congregations envision ways of serving that they had not even considered before.

We had moved several states away by that time, following the grandchildren. When Steve got close on a consulting trip, knowing our grandson had cancer, he added a day to his trip, rented a car, and drove 300 miles round-trip to come see us. He told us stories of business life, and he prayed with us. We talked about what he would do next. He wanted to “grow” his company to the point that it would be “acquired.”

It did not get acquired, though, so he added another line to their business, investing the funds of non-profit organizations. Steve was good at the production and marketing parts of business, but not the financial. He made risky investments that promised great returns but did not work out. He cooked the books, tried to hide the problems. It didn’t work. He was arrested. Getting ready to go to trial, knowing he would be going back to prison, May 15, 2012, he killed himself. He was 64.

He always claimed that when he first got into trouble, it was because the banker told him to forge the signatures, since it was to the banker’s advantage, having loaned Steve money in the first place, to be sure he did not go bankrupt. Given that Steve never could deal fairly with other people’s money, that sounds patently false.

Steve was smart. He was valedictorian of his high school class. He was kind and gentle and spiritual and concerned for others. He worked for good causes. Why did he keep making the same mistakes? Why was he a fraud? St. Augustine said, “There is larceny in the heart,” which is a way of saying that sin, self-concern at the expense of others, is within each of us. But not all of us actually DO larceny, the way Steve did. He knew what he did was wrong. Why did he do it?

All the money he stole, and it was a lot, there is no trace of it. He lived simply. He left no secret stash, either in the attic or a Cayman Island bank account. Sometimes there is a secret addiction, like gambling, that takes that sort of money, but there is no evidence of that, either.

I mourn my friend, Steve. I wish he had reached out to me one more time. I think what saddens me most was how lonely he must have been at the end.


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