Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Friday, December 1, 2017


I saw a video on Facebook of a black bus driver named Tiffany who saw a lost little five-year-old white girl wandering on the street. [The bus had a security surveillance camera.] Tiffany stopped the bus, invited the little girl on, sat with her until the police arrived. They took her home.

I had an experience like that, in Charleston, IL. I guess it was about a mile between my house and the Wesley United Methodist Church building. I was a long-distance runner in those days, and I often ran between the two if I were just doing something like picking up the mail and it didn’t matter how I looked.

Normally Jeanne Piercy, our office secretary, went out to the rural mail box on the street to pick up the mail, as one of the last things she did each day, since the mail was delivered late. But it was Thanksgiving vacation and the church office was closed. I didn’t like to let the mail sit all night in the box. It was a busy street and there was too much danger of vandalism and theft. So I had run over to get the mail and take it to the office.

Usually I cut across the Eastern IL U athletic fields to get to the church building, but it was dark already, and they were not lighted. I did not want to step in a hole or on a badger, so I had run on the sidewalks. As I started home, on 4th Street, I came across two little black children, maybe two and three years old, holding hands, and carrying sand buckets.

I looked around for adults. There weren’t any. I approached the children slowly. A tall white man in a hoodie could be scary. I squatted down and said hello and told them that my name was John. I asked where they lived. They said, “At Mama’s.” That wasn’t helping much.

I figured the best thing to do was take them back in the direction from which they had come and hope that whoever must surely be looking for them by then would come across us. But there weren’t any houses down that way, just our church and campus ministry buildings, which took up a lot of space, and Arnold and Mary Hoffman’s house. I knew they didn’t have any little black children. [1]

I was herding the kids along the sidewalk when a car pulled up beside us. “What are you doing with those children?” A white woman I did not know, with a nasty voice. “Looking for their parents,” I said. “I’ll help,” she said, in an officious and suspicious way.

I was grateful for the help but not her attitude. Turned out she was a social worker and was quite sure I was kidnapping the children for perverted purposes. At least, that’s the way she acted.

I explained that I was the pastor of the church that was right there in front of us and that we should go into the building to call the cops. She was suspicious even when I pulled out my keys, ushered us all into the building and down the hall to my office, and got in with another key. There I used the phone to call the cops. She still eyed me with suspicion and stood between me and the children, which seemed rather frightening to them. 

Then I got an idea. Married student housing apartments were back a ways beyond our building. I left the children in the social worker’s care. I tried to give her a dirty look, like I expected the worst from her, but I don’t think I pulled it off. I went out the back of our building, onto our rather expansive parking lot. Sure enough, I heard a frantic-sounding woman shouting the names of children. I ran to her and told her I had found her children. She ran with me to the church building to get them. The social worker turned them over to her without a word but gave me the evil eye as she backed out of the building.

Yes, I was a little miffed at the social worker, but I understood her concern. I was a little less miffed at the mother for not saying a word of thanks to anyone, but I understood that even better. When you have gotten a lost child back, you don’t think about anything; you just sink deeply into joy and relief.

As the social worker drove away with her husband, I said, “You know, some day I’m going to tell this story, and I’m going to be the hero and you’re not going to look very good.” I’d like to leave it at that, but it’s not right to end a story about a family reunited with a smirk.

Even if you get more help than you need or want, it’s a good day when you can get children back to “Mama’s house.”


1] Arnold had played football at Eureka College with Ronald Reagan. When Reagan came back to Eureka while he was President, Arnold went up to the college for the celebration. He was sitting on the steps of the library when the president and his entourage went by. President Reagan looked up, saw Arnold, and said, “Hi, Hoffie.” “Hi, Dutch,” Arnold replied. That was the extent of their meeting that day, but I thought it spoke well for the president that after fifty or so years he recognized a fellow team member and automatically called him by his nickname.

May this be a happy month of Advent anticipation and Christmas gifts-given and accepted.

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