Coping with drunks in worship services in a middle-class suburban church in North America infrequently becomes a problem, but in Colombian churches it often occurs. Our churches are commonly on the same street or around the corner from bars, night clubs, and houses of prostitution. Odds are high that sooner or later some drunk will stumble into the open door of the church for a look. A drunk is somewhat like a cat; their curiosity drives them where they would not normally go. Sometimes, they will fall in love with the quiet accepting atmosphere and decide to return with frequency.
I always felt tense when some “unknown” character swayed down the aisle. It was perplexing to await their problematic response to something holy and sacred. Sometimes, they tried to contradict my sermon or criticize some Protestant practice. Other times, they were a harmless, humorous distraction as they mimicked a church clown and then disappeared as quickly as they had come. The most pathetic cases were the winos that would attend and participate with their stunned senses and uninhibited behavior. I tended to proceed as normal as practically possible, ignoring them and praying for their quick exit.
Evangelical Christians are very respectful of the sanctity of the sanctuary—no running, no eating or drinking, and no outbursts of noise. They demand reverence from their children and all others in the temple of God. The Armenia Church was a large Gothic structure that would seat close to three hundred people, including the balcony, so one drunk could wobble in without a lot of notice as long as they were quiet. But when an intoxicated person threatened the solemnity of a service, the church leadership was quite likely to respond promptly and with force.
Mr. Jaime was our most frequent visitor to the Armenia Church. He appeared at least once a month and most of the time he just took his place in the first pew and sat quietly as if he had no idea of where he was or why he was there. I am convinced that he didn’t. He was blitzed beyond sensibility. He was a shriveled raisin of a man that didn’t weigh more than 130 pounds. He probably survived on the calories he imbibed. He was really a pathetic creature, obviously demented from his years of alcoholism. The smashed fellow, with his dilapidated shoebox, would stumble down a side aisle into the first pew and find a place among the young people of the church that also congregated in that section to assist with the music. It was quite a site to see the old fellow integrate himself into the smallest of a gap among the amused and defenseless youth.
All the people within six feet were aware of Jaime even if he entered during a prayer. There was the shuffling and flopping of his soles that had come loose from the rest of the shoes and the stifling body odor that saturated his clothes. His own odor was so penetrating that it masked the smell of the alcohol on his breath. His situation was so vile that it caused nausea for many that were seated nearby.
Poor Jaime never seemed to fully understand what was going on and we were never able to get him sober enough to know the real person that was behind the smell. (Even today as I write I can still sense the horrible odor.) His shoebox only contained one item—a copy of the Jehovah Witness “Watchtower” magazine. It always unnerved me a bit as I began to preach to see him pull out his “Watchtower” and concentrate his attention on it.
Two vivid incidents stand out in my mind in relation to Jaime: the day he attempted to replace the elders of the church and the morning he came to the altar with a personal decision.
In the Armenia church the custom for serving Holy Communion was for the pastor to hand the bread and wine to four elders who then served the rest of the believers. On one particular Sunday, I called for the elders to come forward to prepare the Lord’s Table. I was startled to see Obdullio, Primitivo, Carlos, William and Jaime! I instructed the four to go ahead and serve; I asked Jaime to stand to one side. My hope was to avoid a spectacle. But, Jaime had other plans, he loudly insisted with his normal slur he had come forward to serve. “Yo vooy a serviirr laa santaa ceena.”
That did it! Obdullio and Primitive moved quickly to bodily remove him from the premises. Again, Jaime decided that he would not be moved without a fight—a skirmish quickly developed. His cursing was much clearer than his normal conversation. The more the elders fought to move him the more he squirmed and twisted and swung his arms. I finally convinced Obdullio and Primitivo to free him. From there I was able to persuade him to take a seat in a pew with the insinuation that he could help me more from the pew. But, obviously, the dignity and spirit of the celebration of the love and sacrifice of Jesus had been lost. People didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Everyone was perplexed and mystified over how we should minister to this poor child of God. Despite that huge fracas, Jaime still made an occasional Sunday visit.
Several months later in March of 1977, we were making a presbyterial effort to recruit two young single men to leave their homes and serve as workers among the Cholo Indians in the jungles along the San Juan River. I was preaching on the missionary call at the Armenia Church and could sense that God’s spirit was moving during the service. Attention was intense and I discerned a spiritual conviction in the eyes of several. As I preached, I was certain that we would see fruit during the invitation.
As I concluded, I emphasized: “God needs two young men willing to leave their families to serve as His servants and evangelists among the Cholo Indians.” Immediately, three of our finest youth came forward, and then as I spoke with them I saw another person start forward. I cried to myself, “Oh God, don’t let this ruin this service.” I quietly approached Jaime and asked him, “Jaime, what is it that you want?” To which he whispered, “I am ready to go to the Cholos as a missionary.” My mind went into high gear. How was I to moderate this potential disaster. Instead of trying to dissuade him, I said, “Very good, Jaime. God bless you.” As I looked to the crowd and called them to prayer, I could see that slight grin on the mouths of those that had heard our conversation. I closed the service thankful that most people had no idea of the content of our conversation.
Jaime never made it to the Choco, but he did continue to return to one of his favorite pews to read the Watchtower.