George Sutton: Along the Way
Throughout my life, I have been blessed with many teachers along the way. Most of whom have had no degrees, some with very little formal education. Some teaching lessons that could not be taught in any classroom. George Sutton, a mostly homeless man in Falls Church, Virginia, was one such teacher, who taught his lessons to me most nights among his friends outside a 7 Eleven just down the street from where I lived.
During the summer after my sophomore year at the University of Tennessee, I accepted an internship at a large, mostly affluent, mostly high income, Southern Baptist Church, working with children and youth. That world was foreign to me except for the Southern Baptist Church part, though I was brought up in a much different version of “church” than the one where I found myself working. There was a constant struggle in my mind between the life situations of those I worked with and for, and the people hanging out, drinking, and talking at the local convenient store, which was a different version of “activity” than my own.
George Sutton was kind. He was sometimes so drunk that he was unable to walk to wherever he slept. Sometimes he started fights with some of the other people perched on the wall behind the store. I first met him when he asked me for some change. For the better part of three summers, we would talk for hours on the nights I had no activities with my job. He never walked the three blocks to my house and he never came to church on Sunday. The last time we saw each other, he asked me for change, and as always, he made sure I knew it was for beer and not food. Our conversations were about everything from B.B. King to the Eucharist. We were friends. Real, honest to goodness friends, from two different worlds.
I went back to visit Falls Church, Virginia soon after my third and last summer working for that church and went down to find George at the same 7 Eleven. I had only ever had one letter from George (long before social media and cell phones). Some of the guys I recognized there said that George had died one night the year before, in his sleep, out in the elements. My young Baptist mind raced to the thoughts that I had somehow failed God and George by not getting him into church. By not asking him to accept Jesus into his heart. After some thought, however, I realized, we had church most nights, for three straight summers.
And as that thought came to mind, I imagined myself as the teacher. Naturally. I was working for a church, I was attending services regularly, and I read my Bible everyday. Wouldn’t I be the preacher? A few years later, it hit me like a ton of bricks, when I would remember things he said that helped, when I remembered how he would handle things, when I would remember his humility, that he was the preacher. And to be honest, there outside the 7 Eleven, he held “church”. And to this day, I cannot remember a service that was as good as the ones I attended with a sometimes drunk, sometimes stubborn, homeless man. Maybe it was his kindness or maybe it was because we talked about B.B. King as well.