The Sofge Files
Chance discovery surfaces sermons
If desks could talk, mine would have a Brooklyn accent. It’s a steel-and-oak number — a midcentury behemoth — and someone carved the word, “chump” across the center drawer. On one side of the desk, the red paint has flaked away in the shape of a perfect speech bubble. The whole thing reminds me of old Superman comics in which editor Perry White shouts at reporter Clark Kent in the Daily Planet newsroom.
It isn’t just my made-in-Metropolis desk that’s vintage. On top of it sits a large glass jar that is filled with all sorts of odds and ends: old-fashioned clothespins, enameled pillboxes, assorted arrowheads. It’s a smorgasbord, to be sure, but each item is there for the same reason I allow a battered, ridiculously large desk to take up one corner of my living room: The moment I saw it, it told me a story.
Take the miniature brass notebook, engraved with “Chicago, Ill.,” that somehow makes its way to the bottom of my jar no matter how frequently I write in it. I don’t know anything about its original owner, but I like to think he was a bookie named Bernie who wore a bowler hat, suspenders and sock garters. The downward migration of the tiny notebook leads me to believe he was never very fond of sharing.
My jar is full of stories. Actually, it’s my belief that everything has a story, even if it’s unknown or made up. And stories are remarkable things. The best ones make me laugh or cry — preferably both. They teach me to notice the little details in life. They help me to make sense of a world I sometimes have trouble understanding, and they encourage me to empathize with other people.
Because I love stories and seek them out, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I decided I needed to do some organizing, I headed to the thrift store to buy some used file drawers.
“X” Marks the Spot
Aaron’s Attic, on North Monroe, is a maze of treasures, and their inventory constantly changes. It’s the perfect place to browse for an hour or two, especially if you’re not sure what you’re looking for. But I was a woman on a mission. For once, I knew precisely what I wanted.
Feathered hats, more glassware than you could shake a crystal candlestick at, empty picture frames — Aaron’s Attic had everything I didn’t need. After half an hour of searching, I began to despair of ever finding any file boxes, let alone the right ones.
But, then, there they were: two vintage, metal, library-card-catalog file drawers resting on top of a bookshelf that was surrounded by plastic lawn ornaments, rose-patterned armchairs and, oddly enough, the remnants of an old carpet loom. It was as if a battle had been fought in someone’s great-grandmother’s attic, and the file boxes had dragged themselves through the carnage to safety on high ground.
I charged through the rubble, knocking aside a pair of pink plastic flamingos whose necks crossed to make an x-shape, and, with trembling fingers, raised the file boxes heavenward. “Huzzah!” I cried. Then I set out to find Rodney, who runs the store most days. At the time, I didn’t think much of the fact that the file boxes were full of used index cards. I may have even told Rodney, “There’s all kinds of garbage in these,” hoping he’d knock a few bucks off the price.
It was the file boxes I was after, not their contents.
As a lover of all things vintage, I am also a lover of Clorox wipes. Scarcely 20 minutes passed from the time I left Aaron’s to the time when, thanks to the miracle of lemon-scented sodium hypochlorite, the file boxes sat gleaming on my kitchen table. That is, their exteriors gleamed. It was time to tackle the boxes’ innards.
I’m no fool. I’ve opened my share of drawers — “chump”-embellished and otherwise — to find dead cockroaches, dirty socks and mysterious pools of dried liquid. Knowing there could be anything inside the boxes I had just purchased, I had cleaned them on the outside. In doing so, I had ensured that regardless of what garbage I found inside of the boxes, I wouldn’t be any less attracted to them. I believe there’s a metaphor in there that can be applied to my college dating experiences.
Wearing a brave face and a pair of latex gloves, I opened the drawers. And that’s when I made a remarkable discovery: What I had referred to as “garbage” when haggling with Rodney was actually a collection of index cards that were covered in … prayers. The prayers were sorted by occasion and were, as far as I could discern, representative of numerous religions. Behind the prayers were more index cards — again, meticulously organized — which proved to be sermon notes. The file boxes also contained several letters.
As I sorted through everything, I came across a card that was a brighter white than the others, which had aged to a yellowed cream. I blew the dust from it and saw that the spiky, slightly-off-the-vertical handwriting that covered it was the same as that which could be found on most of the other index cards in the boxes. This card, however, listed the names, addresses and phone numbers of several people, some of whom shared the same surname. I recognized the full name of one individual; I had seen it several times while perusing the files.
I was sure, at this point, that I had found the previous owner of the file boxes — a man named Robert Sofge.
Once I had sorted through all the piles, I opened an envelope that contained a letter that was addressed to “Robert Sofge, Chaplain, Florida State Hospital,” and began to read. I quickly saw that this letter was of a private nature and contained the kinds of things you’d tell someone you trust very deeply. I put it back in its envelope, moved it and the other letters aside and turned my attention once more to the newer index card. Unlike the letters, which listed Chattahoochee as Sofge’s place of residence, this card said he lived in Tallahassee.
Because most of the letters were postmarked from the 1970s, I did not expect to be able to locate Sofge — if he were even still alive. But, as luck would have it, the index card that bore his contact information had been created recently enough that the phone number was still in service.
I left a brief message on Sofge’s voicemail, explaining who I was and how I had come across his phone number, and then I waited. And waited. And waited. A week passed, so I called again. Then a second week passed. I still didn’t hear from Sofge. I began to wonder if he had died and no one had gotten around to disconnecting his phone.
“This is Me!”
Oddly enough, the more time that passed, the more I thought about Sofge. You see, I had discovered, among his notes, a lecture entitled “This is Me!” that he had given to a youth group. Through this lecture, part of which was an autobiographical account of Sofge’s life and how he had entered the ministry, I began to develop a mental picture of the old gentleman. The image was very much like that of my grandpa Harris — a good-natured, spiritual man who had farmed the same rolling hills in Idaho that had been homesteaded by his pioneer ancestors. Grandpa Harris died when I was a senior in high school, but given the information about Sofge that I gleaned through his lecture, I figured he and my grandpa would’ve been about the same age.
The second of two sons born to parents who believed in hard work and discipline, young Robert Sofge followed his older brother into the army during World War II. The elder of the Sofge boys became a bomber pilot who saw the Orient from the skies; Robert became an army infantry bandsman who marched through Europe with a saxophone.
He wrote, “The people I saw at the end of the fighting struck hard at my heart. I was trained to hate them, but their poverty, their hopelessness, their total lack of direction … struck me so hard that I slowly began studying for some way I could be worth something to them or someone.” Robert set his sights on the ministry.
While in college, he served a church in Lake Butler. The opportunity allowed him to spend one full day each week working at the correctional facility in nearby Raiford. Of his experiences there, he wrote, “I liked the work with the men and at times could be of help to them even in the limited time I had there.”
The ministry took Robert, then a young husband and father, to Pennsylvania, and afterward, to Ocala, Florida for a few years. He wrote, “The church’s ministry to the unchurched — the need of loving the unloved and the unlovable — I could not dismiss from my mind. I now came to the only conclusion possible for me and that was to find a place to serve those who might be passed by for one reason or another, or who might be served by one who cared less than I care.”
At that point in the lecture, Sofge left off from telling the story of his past and began to talk about what he was doing currently. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just read, even after I put the lecture notes aside and two weeks elapsed. I felt certain that the people he had spoken of — the ones who were “passed by” — were those who had gathered to hear him speak. But who were they?
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.”