My friend who was shot in the head last year, and then beat in the head with a baseball bat a few months ago, and now is fighting lymphoma, had to go to court today. He ran a stop sign three years ago and never paid the ticket. In February, Chris, another pastor in our Joe’s Community took my friend to court to face a warrant that had been issued for this ticket. Seeing his disabled condition, and hearing that he had applied for Social Security, the judge issued an extension. Today was the date for him to return to court and pay his $439 fine.
Chris wasn’t available to take him this time, so I met with Chris Sunday night to get all the paperwork, debrief about his case and find out the details of when and where I was supposed to go. Chris told me that I should be at the courthouse before 9:00am, when the morning session would start.
I have to back up . . . we helped my friend apply for Social Security Disability. He was shot in the head. He lives disoriented, doesn’t know what day it is, has to have help finding his way to the coffee shop every day, and he is in constant pain. His condition was well documented in the application, along with multiple testimonies given. However, Social Security denied his application in a letter that stated, “We believe that you are still capable of doing certain kinds of work.” I about lost my s*&%# that day (that means my “sanctification”).
I’ve been around this block quite a few times now. This is standard procedure. The initial application is almost always denied. An attorney has to be hired to make an appeal, who will, of course, take a percentage of the first check that is awarded. Thankfully, we have a very kind and compassionate attorney who has helped several of our people over the last few years, and she has filed an appeal for my friend.
So, back to today . . . I awoke early and drove to Joe’s to find my friend. I had told him to meet me at 8:00am, and he had asked some of the other guys in camp to make sure he was up and ready. When I pulled into the Joe’s parking lot, he wasn’t there. I wasn’t surprised. I started driving around the neighborhood, and I found him. He was lying on a sidewalk. I pulled up next to him and jumped out of the car. He immediately sat up and began apologizing.
“Oh man,” he said, “I’m sorry. I even put on my ‘Sunday shirt,’ but now I got it all dirty.” This man just had his second round of chemo. Somehow, he had awakened at the right time, put on his best clothes and had started walking to Joe’s, but he was just too weak to make it. The dude is living outside. While in cancer treatment. (I know you are wondering why. Why hasn’t someone taken him into their home? I know it is hard to understand, but there are many factors that make it impossible for any of us in our Joe’s Community to take him in.)
We drove to the courthouse, parked and began the slow walk. Many times, I laughed to myself at what we must look like. My friend is a very big man. I am a small woman. As we walked, I kept my hand on his arm, supporting him and guiding him in the right direction. I wondered if he stumbled and fell, what was I expecting to do? There would be no way for me to catch him. I’d be crushed!
We finally made it to the check in counter, and I presented his paperwork. The woman said, “His appointed time for court is this afternoon at 3:30pm in Courtroom 1.” Really? Seriously, Chris? It was right there in the paperwork. I should have looked at it myself. All that effort to get here, and we’re here at the wrong time!
Then I remembered my friend has a blood work appointment in the afternoon. I asked the woman, “Is there any way he can see the judge this morning,” and explained his medical situation. She told me to go to a different courtroom downstairs, to wait our turn, explain our situation and see what they could do.
After a long, slow walk, we made it to Courtroom 2, but the door was locked. I looked around, and a lady on a bench told me that they were going to open up soon, so we sat down. We waited 45 minutes. The doors finally opened, and they let the now, small crowd enter. When they called our number, we went forward to a court clerk. I thought, “Hmmm. He looks familiar.”
The court clerk wasn’t curt or short with us. Just doing his job. I briefly explained our time problem, and he said, “So you need to ask the judge for an extension, because you can’t pay your fine today.” I started to explain more, and he just repeated, “So you need to ask the judge for an extension, because you can’t pay your fine today.” I thought again, “He looks familiar,” and I looked at his name tag. I said, “Melvin Johnson, I know you.”
He tilted his head, looked at me and said, “I don’t think I know you.”
I said, “I’m Jamie Zumwalt.”
“JAMIE ZUMWALT?! You don’t look the same at all! (which kinda hurt my feelings :-))
I had not seen this man in over twenty years. We attended the same church back then. He started loudly asking questions, “How have you been?! What’s goin’ on? Are you still running that coffee shop?” I told him, “Yes, I am. In fact this man right here is from our coffee shop community.” He opened the bannister gate and said, “Come right over here and sit down.”
We sat down with him at a desk, where after hearing our story and looking through the paperwork showing my friend’s Social Security appeal, he said, “There is no reason this man should have to pay this fine. I’m gonna help you.” He took out a piece of paper and began asking my friend detailed questions.
“Do you have any income?” No.
“Do you own a car?” No.
“Do you have any credit cards?” No.
I interrupted and reminded him that my friend lives outside, that he is homeless, has nothing. He said, “I know, but I have to be really thorough here.”
He continued with his questions.
“How much do you think your belongings are worth?” My friend looked at me. I shrugged.
Melvin Johnson said, “Okay, how ‘bout this? If you were to sell all your clothing in a yard sale, how much do you think they’d sell for?”
My friend said, “I have three pairs of clothes, and to be honest I think one of them might be moldy now from getting wet.” Melvin said, “Okay, so zero,” and he wrote it down.
He pointed at my friend’s size 14 feet and asked, “How much do you think your shoes are worth?” My friend said, “These are my buddy’s shoes. He loaned ‘em to me for court today.” Melvin asked, “So those shoes aren’t even yours?” “Nope.” “Okay, so zero,” and he wrote it down.
“How about your tent and sleeping bag?”
My friend said, “My tent got burned down and all my stuff got burned too. I sleep in the tin can.”
Melvin smiled and said, “So I’m assuming that means you don’t have any appliances either,” holding his pen over a check box on the form. My friend and I burst out laughing.
After the questions had all been asked, Melvin told us, “Now you are gonna go back upstairs to Courtroom 1, and when the judge calls your name, you just go and stand in front of him.” He looked at me and said, “You approach the judge with him. I can’t guarantee what the judge will do. He may decide that when you receive Social Security, you need to go ahead and pay this fine, so he’d give an extension. But I’m hoping when he sees all I have written here, that he will just waive the fine and dismiss your case.”
Then Melvin started talking. He caught me up on the last twenty years of his own life, told me of some current challenges he is facing and asked me to pray for him. I looked up several times at the other people in the courtroom. The whole room was waiting, while Melvin chatted with us. We thanked him again and again, and I promised to pray for him.
Upstairs in Courtroom 1, it was quiet and intimidating, as court always his. Before the judge entered, the court clerk solemnly told the rules. No cell phones. No conversations. Go out in the hall if you need to talk. Respect the judge.
By the time my friend worked his way to his feet, the judge had already said, “Be seated,” and my friend and I were the only ones now standing. I helped him sit back down, and then we waited, as the judge heard multiple cases before us.
Did I mention my friend has brain damage? Even before his injuries, he was not necessarily the nicest person, and he certainly did not have any social etiquette or charm. And now . . . my friend cannot whisper. He had opinions and comments about each person who walked past us to approach the judge. “Wow. That woman has broad shoulders.” He looked at her, and then looked right and left at his own shoulders. I nodded and put my finger to my lips, reminding him to be quiet.
A woman in front of us had a tiny, newborn baby that looked just a few days old. The baby began to fuss, and my friend said, “I love babies.” He began “cooing” and “awwing” at the baby. The woman was three rows in front of us! He said, “Your baby is so cute.” She didn’t know whether to thank him or to glare at him. I kept looking at the judge, who was speaking quietly to the person standing in front of his bench, wondering if he might at any minute scold my friend.
The next name was called. Jessica Something. The woman stood and walked to the front, and my friend said, “Oh my god. I thought that woman was a man.” I knew we were going to be thrown out of court. But the judge didn’t even look up from the papers in his hands.
Finally, the judge called my friend’s name. We went forward and stood quietly. My friend did his best to appear respectful. When the judge asked him his name, he remembered to put “Sir” on the end of his answer.
The judge looked at me and asked, “Who are you?” I told him I am this man’s pastor, and I am here just helping him to be in the right place at the right time. I also explained that when he is awarded Social Security, either I or another leader in our church community will be his payee, and we can ensure that he pays this fine.
The judge slowly turned the pages that included his Social Security appeal, evidence of his disabilities and current cancer treatment, and the document Melvin had filled out downstairs. Then he looked up at my friend and said, “I see no reason why you need to pay this fine. As of today, your balance with this court is ‘zero.’”
My friend thanked the judge and then turned to me and said loudly, “Why does this kinda stuff happen to you all the time?!”
Yesterday, my friend was contemplating suicide. He told me that he could see no reason why he should keep going. And honestly, I had no good answer for him. Today, as we drove back to Joe’s Addiction, he said, “I don’t know why God still has me here. He keeps doin’ stuff for me. Doesn’t make one bit of sense. But I beat the gunshot wound. I beat the baseball bat. And now I’m gonna beat this cancer.”