It was exactly 20 years ago that I started telling this story about my encounter with a young boy in the men’s room of a Catholic church.
If you are already nervous, I don’t blame you. The chance meeting occurred at the height of the sexual abuse scandals that endure to this day.
It is a Sunday Mass in St. Petersburg, after the communion, and I grow restless and leg-itchy. Under the pretense of having to use the restroom, I excuse myself and head for the back of the church.
From the vestibule, I walk into the men’s room. The fluorescent light is already on, and I can see that someone has occupied one stall, so I head for the other. Sitting in contemplation, I begin to hear a peculiar sound next door. It sounds as if someone is straining, but not in that way.
I exit the stall and wash my hands. The straining sound becomes more urgent, and it’s clear now that it is coming from a child. “Are you okay in there?” I ask, puzzled.
The stall door swings open and out comes a boy – maybe 8 years old – all dressed up in his Sunday suit: white shirt and tie, dark blue slacks and jacket, a right proper little lad. But he has a problem, for this young man has clearly outgrown his outfit, and his pants barely contain his lower frame. “Mister, I can’t pull up my zipper. Can you help me?”
I’m in a Catholic church, at a time when everyone is frantic about the abuse of children, in the men’s room with a boy who wants me to help him with his zipper.
What would you do?
I’ve asked that question to many friends and co-workers and have been surprised by their answers:
* Under no circumstances would I have touched him.
* I would have gone and found his parents.
* I would have passed a note so an announcement could be made from the pulpit.
And my favorite:
* I would have found a woman to help him.
In other words, men cannot be trusted with little boys.
That’s not the way I saw it. I believed with all my heart that helping him would be an act of male solidarity. I knew, in a practical and innocent way, what he was suffering. The frustration. The embarrassment. The desperate hope that a stranger could help. And didn’t Jesus prove in the story of the Good Samaritan that the stranger could be your neighbor?
Hey, I was in church.
And then the what-ifs. What if someone comes in and I’m holding this kid’s zipper? What if it’s a priest? What if it’s the kid’s brother — or his beefy father? Am I willing to take a beating to help Junior with his pants?
It is at that moment that the men’s room door swings open. It’s an old man, maybe in his 80s, maybe hard of hearing. He steps up to the urinal. I know, and am now learning more and more, that an old man at a urinal has time on his side. He is in no rush. So I move right to the boy.
“Okay, son, you want me to help you?”
“What do you want me to do?” Actually, I say it loud: WHAT DO YOU WANT ME TO DO?”
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“Pull up my zipper.”
“YOU WANT ME TO PULL UP YOUR ZIPPER?”
The old man stands facing the wall, stoic, focused on his task.
“Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to grab your belt and your zipper. Then I’m going to count to three, and you’re going to pull in your stomach. Okay? One, two, three….”
So there you have it. The boy leaves the restroom zipped up, buttoned up and smiling. He doesn’t say thank you, but he doesn’t have to, because I imagine that when he grows up he’ll one day encounter a child in distress and pass along my kindness.
As for the old man? I have a fantasy that I could return any time to that men’s room and he will still be standing at the urinal, peaceful, but determined. Maybe he was an angel.