Wednesday, March 5, 2008

AIR: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones, but Names are Completely Unexpected

There are more adventures from my Local Records Unit days. This one comes from my second job, working for the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Around 1990, the Archdiocese was faced with massive closings of churches and schools. This was a long overdue process, closing institutions that were financially unsustainable due to changing demographics. It was a very difficult process, both for the people still attached to those institutions, and for those of us who had to help close them down. We had many adventures. You'll read about many of them.

This adventure found me in a small suburban parish. Generally, when we showed up, the parish had to come to grips with the inevitable. We were hauling out all of the old records and generally leaving a few current records for the last months. The only people to follow us were the movers.

Unfortunately, because so many of these closings were taking place, there was very little interaction between the parishes and "Downtown". The led to some significant hard feelings and those of us "from Downtown" who showed up on the premises often caught the brunt of emotions.

I don't recall what records we were moving, but this parish found me with the inventory sheets, rather than the boxes that day. I was tagging boxes and writing down the contents while one of the guys loaded the van.

At some point, I came nose to nose with a parishioner. The guy must have been at least 80. Very heavy Eastern European accent, fire in his eyes and a finger in my face. The man proceeded to curse me in several languages and accuse me of personally closing *his* church. He wanted answers and I'm pretty sure he wanted to kick some butts. I took a step back, drew up to full height and width, set my stance at shoulder width and waited to see what he was going to do. I knew that somewhere in the Pastoral Center Handbook there was probably a prohibition against decking a parishioner. I wondered if my clipboard would deflect a punch. He ranted on for a while and seemed to start to lose some steam. I stood there listening. He finally took a breath, looked me in the eye and said, "I survived Stalin. I know Stalin. You are worse than Stalin." He turned and walked away. There are some things in life that you simply can't answer.

That one shook me for a while. While I had been working in records management for most of my young career, I was still hanging out with archivists. They tend not to be confrontational sorts for the most part (ok, I know some exceptions). I was still a pretty green kid, barely five years out of the seminary myself. And I often found that size tended to deflect confrontations. But the personal nature of the confrontation really shook me that day.

We were loading up boxes of records, but we were killing this man's spiritual home. Whether you ever know it or not, whether you ever experience it or not, some records have very personal values to people. They are not always "obsolete", or "non current", or "inactive". They can represent life, and freedom, and the health of an organization and its people. They contain the life and the spirit of an organization. Sometimes other people see that much more clearly than we do. This man did.

It would be a long while before anyone else ever threw words at me that stuck. That story, in a future post.

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