Our H2O Production Team arrived at 7AM this morning to set up for today’s worship gathering in Bowman Hall. Shortly after starting, they encountered an elderly man in the lobby, just outside the room where we meet. He had long hair and a long beard. He wore shabby clothes. And he smelled as though he hadn’t bathed for quite some time. He couldn’t or wouldn’t tell us much of his backstory. But he appreciated a cup of coffee and friendly conversation. Eventually, he said that his name was Colbert, and that he was trying to get back to East Akron. And since I didn’t have any other, specific, roles in the worship gathering, my church leadership role for the day became driving Colbert to East Akron.
Colbert was confused. Still, I hoped that something might snap into place once we got to East Akron, as this sometimes works with my Dad’s dementia. I drove several miles on Canton Road and East Market Street, but nothing clicked for Colbert. So I sized up my options. I could drop him off at the public library or a different church… I could take him to a shelter or to the hospital… But none of these options seemed exactly right. Ultimately, I decided to take him to the Haven of Rest. When we walked into the front desk, however, Colbert couldn’t or wouldn’t tell them any of his most basic personal information. I told the desk worker that he seemed pretty confused, “like his brain is having a hard time coordinating with his mouth” (which was a phrase with which Colbert had seemed to resonate in the car).
As soon as these vaguely-medical words came out of my mouth, we were told that they wouldn’t be able to help Colbert at the Haven of Rest. I would need to take him to the hospital instead. So we went to the Emergency Department at Summa Health. The hospital staff were remarkably kind to Colbert. And they were quick to see us, too. After a few minutes, they took down my name and phone number and said they’d get back with me if they had any further questions. So, I said good-bye to Colbert and returned to the H2O worship gathering in Kent.
On my way back, I thought about the way that I learned a lot of my best church leadership lessons from similar circumstances back in Amsterdam. I got lots of experience with mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. I cleaned up baby diapers, vomit, and raw sewage at different times. Believe it or not, I even got a few death threats during our years in the Netherlands. It was intense on-the-job training! Still, it taught me a lot. And I’m the leader I am today because of all those experiences I had in Amsterdam. That’s why we moved there, twenty years ago this week. To be a church for young people in the city, through good times and bad times.
So, in keeping with the string of recent posts about this twenty-year anniversary, I’ve adapted the following story from a post I wrote in September of 2008. Unlike most of the other flashbacks I’ve posted this week, I’ve edited this one for concision and clarity. But feel free to read the full, original version, if you’d prefer. I hope it provides an entertaining glimpse into Amsterdam ministry life.
Handcuffs in Church
I should have expected trouble was brewing when I shook hands with the scruffy foursome of Eastern Europeans. They were extra-enthusiastic, pumping my hands as I introduced myself. They told me spirited trivialities about their native Poland, Latvia, and Russia. But then again, we’re in Amsterdam. Our church has always been home to people from a wide variety of cultural, socio-economic, and spiritual backgrounds. So I really thought nothing of their antics…
Until they started dancing, as if in a street rave, during the opening set of worship music.
Periodically, they would shout out something unintelligible (but distracting nonetheless). At one point, I made my way over to their section of the room. I addressed them by name, asking them politely to keep it a bit quieter. Unfortunately, they did not comply.
After the music ended and my co-pastor, Todd, started teaching, our guests’ raucous behavior became even more disruptive. Again I asked them to quiet down and listen respectfully. Again they ignored me.
At one point, one of the men started hacking loudly and seemed to start weeping. Eventually, he vomited a bit of red pulp onto the floor. It looked like blood. One of the guys from our church helped him get up and exit the room. They went outside to get some fresh air. I helped to clean up the mess from the floor. And then I sat down at the table, available in case the situation escalated.
This whole time — though he had stopped briefly during the vomiting incident — Todd continued to press onward with his teaching.
A short time later, another guy from our church motioned for me to join him in the kitchen. He told me he had witnessed the loudest and most belligerent of our guests pouring generously from a concealed bottle into the coffee cups of his companions.
Duh… of course.
They were drunk. The red substance was, in fact, not blood from an ulcerating stomach. It was bile tainted by a cheap bottle of port wine. At that point, our noisiest guest turned up the volume of his commentary yet again. So Marco and I decided together that we needed to go and ask the offending party to leave. Again, Todd paused the sermon while we discussed the situation in the middle of the room.
We told him that he’d had too much to drink and needed to leave.
He said he didn’t want to leave. He said he wanted to stay and listen to the fabulous things that Todd had to say.
I reinforced our request for him to leave immediately.
He said, “F*** you, I’m staying.”
I said that if he would not leave voluntarily, then I would have to call the police.
He said, “F*** you, I’m staying.”
I called the police.
I walked into the kitchen and pulled out my phone to dial the police. However, the adrenaline coursing through my veins confused me. I momentarily forgot the emergency number for the Netherlands. So I dialed 1-2-3-3, only to hear the greeting to my voicemail on the other end of the line! Then, after another flustered moment, I remembered and dialed 1-1-2.
The situation continued to escalate while I was waiting on the line for the police. My friend Marco came and told me that the belligerent man had said that he had a knife. He said that he was not going anywhere, and that anyone who thought otherwise could f*** off. So I told the police very simply that there was a man with a knife in the middle of our church service who was defiantly refusing our requests for him to leave the building. After giving my name, number, and address, the dispatcher said that someone would be along right away.
It felt like it took an eternity for the police to arrive (in reality, it was probably 10 or 15 minutes). I waited by the front door. I paced back to the main room. A couple of the more street-smart members of our church had stationed themselves in the immediate vicinity of the drunken knife-wielder, and he had quieted down a little bit. Still, I paced back to the street again and waited, my heart in my throat, for the police to arrive.
Eventually, I heard the sirens. I saw the blue lights of a police cruiser speeding up the Herengracht. I flagged the police down, and quickly escorted them into the facilities. On our way in, I briefed them as best I could. The officers walked into the room, and I pointed out the problem guest. He was hunched over his bag (where, allegedly, his knife was hidden). His muscles were tensed for a fight.
The worship gathering, as you might suspect, stopped completely.
One of the police officers addressed him, and asked him if he would come out with them.
He said he would not.
They asked if everyone else in the room would clear out to the sides of the room, giving them a wide berth to confront the man. And then, when the area cleared out, the police moved in and wrested an arm behind his back. The man resisted, and was then knocked to the floor. There was a brief scuffle, as the police officers forcefully hand-cuffed the man and subdued him.
The officer asked him to put his feet under him, as they were going to pick him up and escort him from the premises.
He said, “F*** you.”
The officer said, “F*** you, too,” and then they forcefully pulled him to his feet and out of the room.
In the hallway, one of the police officers held the angry drunken man against a wall. The other police officer asked the other disruptive guests to come out with him. The man in handcuffs vomited against the wall (another lovely red jobber) and continued to curse the police. At that point, an armored motorcycle cop showed up. And he helped to drag the man all the way out to the street, into the patrol vehicle. Eventually, the scene was cleared entirely. Todd finished his message while a few of us mopped up (both figuratively and literally!) outside with the police.
The whole experience was, of course, a little bit scary. But it was also neat to see the way that the church responded in such a situation. Fons and Alex played the role of security guards. Marco and Daniel helped to keep an overview of the situation. Todd stayed the course and kept the rest of the church from obsessing over the situation. And when I came back in from the initial conversation with the police out in the hallway, our whole church was praying for the guys who had been escorted from the room.
All in all, we responded well. And in a city like Amsterdam, it’s good to know that we can respond well in such circumstances. It may not have been the most worshipful experience for everyone — but then again, maybe it was…
Sometimes, we have to teach each other. Sometimes, we have to counsel each other. And sometimes, we have to get each others’ backs when belligerent, drunken Eastern Europeans get rowdy on us.