The Sofge Files
Chance discovery surfaces sermons
(page 4 of 4)
Sofge’s notes didn’t provide me with all of the answers to my questions, but I felt confident that the answers were out there, somewhere. So I waited for him to call, my mind whirring with images of Grandpa Harris and phrases that wouldn’t stay put on the index cards where they had been written. Then, one evening, during that hectic hour between supper and my kids’ bedtime, the phone rang.
It was Reverend Sofge.
Fate, Providence or Luck
The elderly man who waited for me just inside the automatic doors at the senior living center was Sofge. It had to be him. Only this particular elderly man — gentle, polite and dressed in pressed slacks, a button-down plaid shirt and freshly shined shoes — could be the author of the notecards that were in the cardboard box I carried in my arms. He didn’t look much like Grandpa Harris after all; but the moment he spoke, I decided I liked him anyway.
“I hope you found something special in there,” he said, pointing to the box.
I assured him that the entire collection was extraordinary and that I had enjoyed everything I had read — especially the diverse prayers.
“As a hospital chaplain, I had the opportunity of ministering to folks of many different faiths: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and others,” Sofge replied. “I endeavored to be properly informed about each so I could be prepared to offer the proper service when it was needed.”
We settled on a couch in a quiet room just off the lobby, and I passed Sofge his notes, which he received almost hesitantly. By the end of our conversation, I would better understand that hesitance: It came from knowing he was about to open doors that had closed — and not always softly — years before.
I told him how I had come across the notes, which, he explained, his children had accidentally donated after cleaning out his shop.
“Lucky I found them,” I said. But if it was luck, it was the most fateful, providential luck I’ve ever been a party to. You see, not being from Florida, I had thought before meeting with Sofge that the hospital where he had worked for 32 of his 50 years in the ministry was a Veteran’s Administration hospital. I hadn’t known it was a mental hospital. And the minute I came to that realization, everything about our meeting changed.
I have had clinical depression for most of my life. It hit me hard as a teenager, but at that time, I refused to even consider mental illness as the culprit, since only weak people couldn’t control how they felt.
There is still some stigma associated with mental illnesses, but people understand them better and are talking more about them than they did when I was a teenager. And they are so much better understood than they were in the 1950s, when my great-grandpa, who suffered from severe headaches and injury-related depression, was treated with electroshock therapy in a state-run mental hospital.
I haven’t always been as healthy as I am now. So Sofge’s stories of his time working at the mental hospital in Chattahoochee deeply affected me.
He had witnessed the segregation of white and black patients, but he had also been instrumental in their integration. He had helped a man who had been wrongly placed in the hospital’s maximum-security facility for 28 years be released to the general men’s ward. He had needed a pianist for his services and had been able to coax a patient to play. He had required a secretary and had found one from among the hospital’s female patients. He had comforted those whose families had sent them away out of shame because they were “slow learners.”
In short, he had stood up for those with no legs and spoke for those with no voices. He had helped people like me. And that was balm to my scarred — but healing — soul.
The notes from Sofge’s lecture about how he entered the ministry say, “No one can sit comfortably in his church and worship the living God who has not gone out to the highways, to the less fortunate neighbor, to the alcoholic, and offered to take him with him into the house of the Lord. … Our church’s ministry is to the lost, the unloved, the unlovable by the world’s standards.”
I can’t help but think that regardless of whether or not we choose to make religion the basis for our treatment of one another, we can extend kindness and dignity to each other — something Sofge has done relentlessly throughout his life. His unfailing belief in the innate worth of each patient he met at the state hospital changed those patients’ lives. In fact, he was still changing lives when he met with me in that quiet room off the lobby of the senior living center. By the time we finished chatting, I felt that this man whom I didn’t really know and who didn’t really know me actually cared about me, deeply. It was a stunning realization. I don’t think I had ever really felt the love of a stranger.
After Sofge and I said our goodbyes, I returned to my car, where I allowed my emotions to overwhelm me. I sat in the visitor parking lot and grieved for my great-grandpa and for every person who was institutionalized in mental hospitals when those places served as little more than prisons and people like Sofge were few and far between. I grieved for myself — for the fact that I’ve had depression for most of my life but didn’t know it and didn’t seek treatment for it until about five years ago.
I also cried tears of gratitude for what felt like a wonderful gift: I had met a remarkable old man, and while he would’ve been remarkable whether or not I had tried to find him, I had tried to find him. Because I’m me, a person who likes well-worn treasures and the stories they tell, I had just had a life-changing experience. I felt like I had been given a stamp of approval that said, “You’re okay, just the way you are.”