“Do not call me Pal,” the man said, and Pal was instantly discarded as a reference.
“What would you like us to call you?”
“Mister,” he said. Mister was perfectly fine with everyone in the room.

We have a long-standing ritual in our house: John Grisham releases a new book, and my wife buys it for me for Valentine’s or our anniversary, depending on the time of year when it comes out. We’ve had this ritual for many years now; Mr. Grisham is sharing space on the bookshelf with some mountaineering books, and the pile of additional Grishams in front of the bookshelf indicates that the mountaineering books need to go elsewhere.1

Grisham made his name on thrillers: The Firm, The Client, The Pelican Brief, and so forth. When his ninth book, The Street Lawyer arrived almost twenty years ago, it looked to be more of the same.

For about six pages.

“How much did it [lunch] cost, for both of you?”
“Thirty bucks.”
“You could feed a hundred of my friends for thirty bucks, you know that?”

Readers quickly discovered this was another thing entirely. Mister was a homeless man, an angry homeless man with a shotgun and a dynamite vest, and he was asking pointed questions (at gunpoint, all questions are pointed questions) of a cadre of lawyers he had locked in a conference room with him. Lawyers thrive on questions, but only the ones they’re asking. They don’t like answering them in general, and these particular lawyers definitely didn’t like answering these particular questions.

“How much money did you make last year?”
“How much did you give away?”

Mister wanted to know about their finances. But his focus wasn’t their income, as might be expected; he wanted to know about their outgo, specifically their generosity. Not to museums and the symphony and “pretty white folks clubs”; no, he wanted to know what they were doing for people like him.

“You spend more on fancy coffee than I do on meals. Why can’t you help the poor, the sick, the homeless? You have so much.” (emphasis mine)

The roomful of D.C. lawyers cumulatively made over three million dollars.2 Mister wanted to know how much went to poor people. He was as relentless as one of the captives were in a courtroom. He went to each lawyer one by one, and asked them three questions, with his shotgun pointed at their head to ensure truthful answers.

“How much did you give to the [free medical] clinics?”
“How much to the soup kitchens?”
“How much to the homeless shelters?”

You don’t have to have read the book to know their answers.

“Three million dollars,” he said in disgust, “and not a dime for the sick and hungry. You are miserable people.”
We felt miserable.

It’s as uncomfortable a sequence as you’ll find in a “popular” novel. It’s not because of the gun — Mister’s questions are far more dangerous than the gun. It’s uncomfortable because as Mister moves down the line of lawyers asking the three questions, you’re right there with them. You have to answer the questions, truthfully. And then you have to deal with the answers.

If Grisham had written this one first, instead of The Firm3, my answers would have exactly matched those of the lawyers in that conference room, and I would have been miserable right along with them. But since it was his ninth, I had a better answer. I had Cornerstone Assistance Network.

Cornerstone started in 1992 with a guy and a cell phone, but the vision started well before that. Phil Simmons, then pastor at North Richland Hills Baptist Church and now with Jesus, wanted the church (as a whole, not just NRHBC) to be people that met the needs of people like Mister. Phil’s vision began to take shape in late 1989 when the guy with the cell phone, Mike Doyle, walked into Phil’s office distressed that an NRHBC family had gone hungry over the weekend.

They did what Baptist churches do — they formed a committee. But this one put the “commit” in committee — they came ready to do something, and they did. Over the next couple of years, several NRHBC small groups adopted a dozen families and worked with them to get them back on their feet and in homes. It became so successful that it was more than the committee could handle. The decision was made to start a separate non-profit organization.

Cornerstone Assistance Network was born. They went a few months with just volunteers, but it quickly grew to where they needed paid staff. The board’s first, and best, hire was the guy who walked into Phil’s office that day. Mike Doyle has been executive director ever since, and I’ve only met a couple of people in my life who are better equipped and suited to their job than Mike. If there’s something he doesn’t know about the disadvantaged in Ft. Worth and where and how they can get help, I have yet to hear it.

That first year, Cornerstone served fifteen people. The numbers aren’t in yet for this, their twenty-fifth year, but last year they served over ten thousand. But Cornerstone doesn’t try, or want, to do everything. They do provide direct services, but just as importantly, they act as an intermediary between those that want to do something to help but don’t know how, those that have resources to help and are looking for somewhere to use them (or maybe they aren’t; sometimes those with resources have to have their eyes opened, as the lawyers in that conference room discovered), and those that need the resources and don’t know how to get them, or have a way to get them even if they know where they are.

Cornerstone works with homeless. With jobless. With those just out of prison. With those in danger of going to prison. They understand something many of us forget — we were all made in the image of God. Nothing we do, or can do, changes that.

The Latin phrase for this is Imago Dei. At the fall, when Adam and Eve sinned that first sin, that Imago Dei was jumbled up — now it looked more like oaDImei g or ioDe gIam, and it was equally jumbled up for all of their descendants (i.e., all of us). And because we are jumbled up, we jumble up everything else, too. We’re a mess, we made a mess, and we’re continuing to make a mess.

Many of us look at the homeless, or jobless, or addicts, or those that have been in prison, and just see the jumble: em iaogID (conveniently forgetting ours is equally jumbled, just in a different way). Cornerstone sees the jumble, but they also see what Jesus came and died and was resurrected to fix — they see the Imago Dei. If the person wants to be better, is willing to work to be better, and is willing to be accountable to work to be better, then Cornerstone does everything they can to help them. And everything Cornerstone can do is considerable.

We had started helping Cornerstone just a year or so after they were formed — I still have some computer files for brochures and cards and other things that I worked on for them back then. Nevertheless, the impact on me of those first fifteen pages of The Street Lawyer far outweighed their seemingly slight presence. Our family resolved to do more.

The questions Mister asks mirror another story that is familiar to many. Instead of questions, though, Jesus just makes statements — the answers have already been given in the actions of a lifetime, and it’s too late for them to be changed. This passage is read at the beginning of every Cornerstone board meeting, as a reminder that what we do for the Misters of this world matters, and that of whom much is given, much is expected.

Why can’t you help the poor, the sick, the homeless, those in prison?
No reason. No reason at all.

"But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’
“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’
“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’
“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’
“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’
“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31–46

  1. Higher, presumably.
  2. This was twenty years ago. Today they’d make ten.
  3. Technically second. After the success of The Firm, his publisher decided to release his first book, A Time To Kill, which they had initially rejected (for good reason). It was a mediocre book and movie, the kind of movie McConaughey used to make with relentless regularity and the kind of book Grisham now writes about half the time.

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