Dealing with Brother H.

December 21, 2004 | 23 comments
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I cannot remember when Brother H. came to our branch for the first time. Somewhere in the late seventies or early eighties. A middle-aged man, single, not too tall, graying hair, with lips drawn between an angelic and an ironic smile. Was he brought in by the missionaries or did he find us? I am not sure anymore. I tend to think the latter.

At first he was the perfect investigator. Listening intently to the Sacrament meeting talks, even the most boring. Taking notes in the Sunday School class for investigators. Mingling with the members and shaking their hands enthusiastically. Attending each and every event, from district conference to Relief Society bazaar. He would have attended primary and seminary if we had let him.

“When will you be baptized?” the missionaries asked.
– But I have been baptized. As a child in the Catholic Church. I do not need to be baptized again.
– Well, remember what we told you about the authority of the priesthood?…
Arguments were to no avail. Brother H. would display his smile and ask questions about another topic.

After a year or so, things got knotty when he decided to use the free pulpit of our testimony meetings. He would thank the members profusely for their love and profess his love to them. He would express his immeasurable gratitude to God, Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Especially the Virgin Mary. She was his anchor, crutch, refuge, rock. Behind him the inexperienced branch presidency sat transfixed. Was this allowed or not? Brother H. did not really say anything wrong. And a few of the older sisters nodded wholeheartedly to his words.

In the Sunday School class for investigators, where he was going through the lesson cycle for the nth time, things also got unmanageable. The good brother who taught the lesson had hardly announced the topic before a defiant hand went up:
– Why don’t Mormons pray to the Virgin Mary?
– Well, Brother H., that’s an interesting question, but the topic today is on the plan of salvation.
– Oh, good. Do Mormons believe we can gain salvation through the intercession of Mary?

To protect the investigators, we decided to move Brother H. to the Gospel doctrine class. We trusted that the handful of longtime members there would endure the hassle. Every lesson Brother H. had his battery of questions and remarks. The teacher tried her best in handling him, but he found ways to become more and more provocative.

The branch president took him in his office.
– Brother H., we appreciate that you come to Church, but there are some things that I would like…
– You want to get rid of me?
– No no, of course not. But you see, for example, a testimony meeting is for members to bear their testimony.
– But I feel like a member. My Catholic baptism is valid.
– Well, yes, but…

In the next testimony meeting Brother H. gave a moving account of his version of the interview. He apologized for anything he had done wrong, expressed his hope he would be allowed to continue his investigation of Mormonism, confirmed his love to us and ours to him, and called upon the Virgin Mary as his witness, anchor, crutch, refuge, rock.

He did even more. In the hallway he started exhibiting the most charming behavior towards the sisters, both old and young. In true Belgian manner, three kisses on the cheeks to each upon arriving, three kisses to each upon leaving. After hearing a conference talk about the importance of welcoming new investigators and making friends with them, he put it into practice with conspicuous devotion. He would answer the investigators’ questions with the authority of a scribe-historian and the fantasy of Lord of the Rings. If they didn’t have a question, he would ask one in their behalf:
– Did you know the Mormon Church abolished polygamy in 1890? But there are still thousands doing that. Would you like to know more?
We had to place guards next to him and flesh out handy techniques to steer the investigators the other way.

Another interview followed, somewhat sterner. The following Sunday his kisses to the sisters were supplemented with a whisper:
– I am so happy you still make me feel welcome here. The leaders want me expelled.
A delegation of sisters went to see the branch president. Explanations, rebuttals, more explanations.

Over the next few years, the branch presidency and the teachers managed to monitor a pattern of controlled disruptive behavior. As we got used to Brother H.’s Sunday Show, it became somewhat viable. And when we heard he spent his Saturdays with the Seventh-day Adventists, for a repeat performance there, we couldn’t help feeling pleased they got their share too.

But then Brother H. moved to a next level of strategies. He brought a portable audiorecorder to Church to make a tape of every talk and lesson.
– I do not hear very well. And I want to study and ponder all the things I can learn.
Counterstrategy of the branch presidency: let’s ignore it.
Counterstrategy of Brother H. a few weeks later: a much larger audiorecorder, with a mike placed in front of the speaker or the teacher.
Counterstrategy of the branch presidency: let’s ignore it.
Counterstrategy of Brother H. a few weeks later: a large videorecorder connected to a camera on a tripod.
This time the Sunday School teacher snapped.
– I will not teach any more with that man in my class!

Yelling in the hallway. Yelling in the office. And in between the soft voice of Brother H.:
– But I love you. I only need this video to enjoy your interesting lesson at home. I love you in the name of our Holy Mother the Virgin Mary.

The branch presidency was despairing. Over the years a sizeable part of many leadership meetings was devoted to this case.
– He is a lonesome man. Not married, no children. He just likes to come and get attention.
– We also have a duty to protect the sheep. We cannot allow one man to ruin almost every Sunday meeting.
– We’re losing members and investigators because of him.
– He’s part of the Refiner’s fire.
– What’s the limit of our tolerance?
– He’s playing a game. He wants us to ban him so he can tell all over how unchristian and intolerant Mormons are.
– No, he wants to keep coming. But he’ll defy our patience.
– There is also the practical issue. We just can’t put a few men every Sunday at the door to keep him from entering.
– What can we do?

Not much could be done. Brother H. kept coming. For some fifteen years. More than once his behavior ruined yet another meeting, and he left the building kissing the sisters.

One Sunday, he did not show up. On vacation? No, he would have told us. Probably the flu. He’ll be here next week. No Brother H. the next week. What happened? No one really felt enticed to go and find out. Perhaps he finally lost interest in us! And then we heard from someone. Heart attack. Dead and buried.

We all paused a moment. No one expressed relief. No one spoke a eulogy either.

But still, somewhere, somehow, in the meanders of memory and morals, we felt we had lost a brother.

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23 Responses to Dealing with Brother H.

  1. Brian G. on December 21, 2004 at 3:24 am

    I love this post. I found it moving. There’s been a Brother H. to one degree or another in nearly every ward I’ve ever been in. Here in L.A., there’s often more than one Brother H. in a ward. The answers aren’t easy and maybe that’s why I love this post so much, it doesn’t offer any easy answers, possibly because there are no easy answers. I think the branch handled the situation beautifully, as best they could, and in what sounds like a Christ-like fashion.

  2. Glen Henshaw on December 21, 2004 at 9:05 am

    We had an old southern Baptist sister in our branch in Virignia when I was growing up. During testimony meeting she would stand up, say a few words, and then start singing old negro spirituals. This went on for years. No one ever said anything to her, as far as I know, and I believe she too has now passed on.

  3. danithew on December 21, 2004 at 9:45 am

    This post reminds me of a certain evangelical brother who recently showed up, expressed love often and yet used odd (and aggressive) tactics to make his arguments seem like they were coming from more than one person.

    What’s difficult and real about this post is that it plainly chronicles the mixed feelings (of relief and regret) Christian people have after a constant pest and nuisance suddenly departs or passes on.

  4. Ian R on December 21, 2004 at 10:02 am

    It gets especially dicey when Bro. H has displayed violent behavior.

    For example, we had a brother who was dealing with mental illness and severe depression. He would bring flowers to married women, call them at 2 am, and send letters expressing his eternal love, and explode in rage at Church yelling and screaming. He threatened to harm himself and “those that make me do itâ€?.

    How do you simultaneously suffer with this brother, and protect the sheep? Just what are the limits of our tolerance?

    My wife was one of those getting flowers, and I was worried for her safety. I was less than Christian in my dealings with our Bro. H and he left her alone. I am not sure I would have done it differently, but I still feel like there must have been a better way.

  5. Charles on December 21, 2004 at 11:30 am

    I prefer to be non confrontational whenever I can. But I can’t honestly say that I would have been nearly as tolerant. Perhaps that is my shortcoming and somthing that a Bro H would benefit me in some way. I know some people who do suffer from varying afflictions and challenge our ward in different ways but none I could say are to this extreme.

    Sometimes you have to be firm with different people and the greatest challenge is the discernment of when to do so.

  6. Derek on December 21, 2004 at 12:40 pm

    Does nobody ever seek professional help for these Brothers and Sisters H.?

  7. Lamonte on December 21, 2004 at 12:45 pm

    When I served as Bishop we had a ‘Sister H’ in our ward who thought that she was drawn to the ward to save all the members and bring them closer to God. During our chats in the Bishop’s office she seemed perfectly normal and coherent. But there were outbursts in Testimony Meeting and especially in Relief Society which were always met with love and understanding. She eventually stopped attending. The missionaries serving in our ward told me of a recent unpleasant encounter they had with her when they unknowingly knocked on her door. The whole experience illustrated to me the patient love of the general membership of the church.

  8. Charles on December 21, 2004 at 2:48 pm

    Jeff Lindsay has had some great things on his website and on Mormanity regarding help for those with special needs. He has expressed concern for the leadership training and how to work with Bro H and the like. This is of course assuming, with the best of assumptions, that these people have genuine problems and are not simply yanking our spiritual chain. I imagine there is a serious problem with most of these brothers and sisters. That is why the leadership from the Bishop is so important in discerning what is needed and helping the entire ward as well as specific memebers.

  9. Geoff B on December 21, 2004 at 2:58 pm

    Wilfried, we have two Brother H’s in our ward in Miami. Both of them have slight mental problems. I believe one of the reasons they are there is to test our ability to have patience with them. Not easy at all. I think we would have definitely drawn the line at the recording equipment.

  10. Geoff Johnston on December 21, 2004 at 6:58 pm

    I love this post as well.

    Not every ward has a brother or sister H., but some get multiples. My experience has been that mental illness comes into play more often than not when we do have these brothers or sisters in the congregation. But we have a lay ministry and most of us have no idea of how to respond to someone who is mentally ill. In most cases we have responded the best we knew how — with tolerance.

    But vexing questions do arise: At what point is better that one person should go than the entire congregation dwindle in unbelief?

    One mentally ill convert in that I home taught began a habit of using testimony meeting a chance to ramble/preach. Every time he headed to the pulpit on Fast Sunday there were white knuckles all around. It was both predictable and painful.

    I had made it a habit to call weekly to see if he wanted a ride to church. He and his wife (who was also mentally ill and just as likely to make a beeline for the pulpit in testimony meeting, though she was not a member) accepted my offer on a fairly regular basis. But after a while my “brother and sister H.” were only interested in coming to testimony meeting.

    My solution? I began offering a ride on all Sundays except Fast Sunday (which they occasionally accepted still). Was that wicked of me? You can decide, but I never felt the Lord disapproved of my decision…

  11. Curtis on December 22, 2004 at 10:24 am

    During my first week in our Boston Ward a few years ago, I was asked to teach Gospel Doctrine the next Sunday (which, by the by, is when you know you are going to be attending a REALLY small unit… they didn’t know me from Adam).

    I agreed, prepared a lesson, and the following week was consistently interrupted during all of my “important” points by an elderly brother in the back corner. I was mildly annoyed, but pressed on. Finally, it dawned on me that this fellow had grown up in the South, (Southern Baptist, as I later learned), and was giving me a gruff “Amen, brother… amen, amen, amen…” whenever he enjoyed a segment of the lesson. I felt like a total tool for being so put off initially.

    Our inspired bishop once offered him the podium during Sacrament Meeting to sing some of the spirituals from his childhood, a capella. He shuffled to the stand with the assistance of two elders, and sang with a wavering voice for 5 minutes, clapping his hands together. Not a dry eye, that day.

    Now, that is obviously a far cry from the disturbed individuals who disrupt meetings, of which my New England wards have had more than their fair share… but this is the experience that I thought of initially. I can’t even remember that brother’s name now, but I will never forget him.

  12. Curtis on December 22, 2004 at 10:25 am

    Oh, and Wilfried? I love your posts.

  13. Wilfried on December 22, 2004 at 11:00 am

    Thank you, all ! I do appreciate your comments. It’s heartwarming to know a post is being read and enjoyed.

    On this topic there seems to be a significant difference between a large mature ward, where cases as Brother H. can be more easily absorbed and taken care of by one of the many officers, and a small struggling branch where only a couple of overburdened but very dedicated leaders carry the load. I admire them!

  14. Geoff Matthews on December 22, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    If I could comment on Wilfried’s last comment. We have an elderly brother who shows a few aspects similar to Bro. H. He is a single, elderly man, wears a leather trenchcoat, used to have shoulder-length hair, wears an earing, used to have shoulder-length hair. At one fast-and-testimony meeting, he talked about his sinful past in a little too much detail.
    Then, at one testimony meeting, he talked about his earing. It is made from the metal of a unit badge/insignia from his military unit. He was the only survivor. He wears it in honor of his dead friends. While I wasn’t too bothered by it before he told us this, no one in the ward is bothered by it now. Since then, his testimonies have been more ‘mainstream’, if that makes sense. I feel a little bad for the initial judgements that I made, but am hopeful that this experience will help me to make wiser judgements in the future.

  15. Geoff B on December 22, 2004 at 4:58 pm

    I’d just like to point out that there are at least two other Geoffs on T&S who spell their names the correct British way (like Geoffrey Chaucer or Geoffrey the Giraffe). Geoff Johnston and Geoff Mathews, I salute you!

  16. Geoff Johnston on December 22, 2004 at 6:55 pm

    Ha! I was about to mention the same thing. It was strange enough to see there were two of us Ge-offs posting here, but now three? What are the odds?

    (I think all of the Ge-offs I’ve ever met were born between ’65 and ’75, maybe that helps with the odds here. But I don’t think I’ve ever met another Mormon Ge-off… I’m glad there are a few of us out there.)

  17. T.C. Johnston on January 2, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    I’m pretty confident that the above post (Geoff Johnston) is my younger brother. He’s a good guy … seems to be getting better as the years go by. I found this site by Googling him. I was raised in the Church but have been inactive for 25 years or so. Immediate family still active. I found the story of Brother H touching as well … simply due to the teller’s laudable desire to be tolerant and accepting. But … well, sometimes … sometimes there are limits. Sounds like a little too much tolerance. Bad behavior is still bad behavior.

    I’m actually thrilled to see this intelligent commentary on faith and reality. I found the Church unworkable for me because we were raised in an environment (Southern Oregon) that seemed to want to see everything as this nice, lovely utopian world where everybody was happy all the time. But it’s not, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a messy place with damaged people and I don’t think that faith suffers because of it.

  18. Shannon Keeley on January 5, 2005 at 4:12 pm

    I have been wanting to read this post for several days now, as my husband (Brian G. the first commenter) told me how great it was. Finally, I took a moment to read it, and I’m so glad I did.
    As Brian mentioned, we’ve got lots of Brother H’s in our wards here in LA, and it seems that within a matter of moments they always attach themselves to Brian and I as their new best friends. At first it seemed natural because Brian was the ward mission leader and I a ward missionary. But even after getting released, the phenomenon continues. We’re not sure how or why we’ve become the Brother H magnets, but it seems to be the case.
    I wish I had something insightful to add to the discussion. It sounds like your branch did the best they could with Brother H. It’s certainly a tough situation with no easy answers. I go back and forth from feeling a lot of compassion for the Brother H’s, to feeling resentful and irritated. Whenever I feel that I’ve had enough, I get this nagging guilty conscience reminding me that the whole point of the gospel is love and tolerance. . . so why would I want to ban Brother H from our community?
    A few years back Brian decided to run in the Los Angeles Marathon, and I remember standing by the sidelines as the race began and they played an old 80’s song “I Love LA” over the loudspeakers to get the runner spumped up. I was surprised when I found myself getting really emotional listening to this cheesy song. I suddenly felt such a great love for this city, and I couldn’t really figure out why, as I seem to be constantly complaining about the traffic, obnoxious people, etc. But as I thought about it more, I realized that my love for LA really came from the experiences I had as a ward missionary, working with all those slightly (or not so slightly) zany Brother H’s from all over this diverse city. I’m not saying that I’m any example of compassion in this area, but I was grateful for all these quirky people that somehow have seemed to define my experience here.
    I don’t know if that makes any sense. . . and this thread hasn’t been commented on for a while so most likely nobody will read this. . . but I wanted to add my thoughts anyway.

  19. Rosalynde Welch on January 5, 2005 at 4:18 pm

    “It seems that within a matter of moments they always attach themselves to Brian and I as their new best friends.”

    Are you saying that I’m a Brother H, Shannon? Or are you saying that I’m not your best friend?

    I have a pretty good idea why they’re attracted to you two (aside from your stunning good looks and irresistible charisma): you’re kind, you’re cool, and you’re accepting.

  20. Kaimi on January 5, 2005 at 4:22 pm

    “we’ve got lots of Brother H’s in our wards here in LA, and it seems that within a matter of moments they always attach themselves to Brian and I as their new best friends. At first it seemed natural because Brian was the ward mission leader and I a ward missionary. But even after getting released, the phenomenon continues. We’re not sure how or why we’ve become the Brother H magnets, but it seems to be the case.”

    And hasn’t Shannon previously noted that she was friends with Nate Oman and Steve Evans?

    :P

  21. Shannon Keeley on January 5, 2005 at 4:29 pm

    If you go down that line of thinking. . .
    You could speculate that BRIAN alone is the Brother H magnet which would make ME a Brother H!
    Or, I suppose I could be the magnet and Brian the Brother H. .but I doubt it.
    Thanks Rosalynde, for the compliments.
    Brian and I always joke that the Brother H’s can sense we, too, are slightly nuts, and are naturally drawn to us.
    At the very least, we’ve certainly got some wild stories to tell.

  22. William Morris on January 5, 2005 at 4:45 pm

    My wife says that it all has to do with the sign you have posted on your forehead. Everybody has one. It’s not the one you would necessarily choose, and you generally aren’t good at deciphering what it is — you need a friend or loved one to tell you.

    You (and Brian) are probably one of those who has a “Talk to me — I care” signs on your forehead.

  23. Wilfried on January 5, 2005 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks for reviving the thread, Shannon!
    Yes, diverse, multicultural, metropolitan area’s certainly have their share of Brother H’s. Go to Church in Paris, Brussels, London… And like you said, we react with a combination of irritation, compassion, and finally, gratitude. All by all, great learning experiences.